Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt

Weimar: A dream realised

Raff's idyllic time in Bad Eilsen continued after his arrival in Weimar. He rented two small furnished rooms in the Posamentier Donat and wrote: "Above my desk there stands a large statue of the god of love ... beneath him there is a tiny bust of Liszt. You won't believe how homely these four walls are to me and how gladly I work within them".

After only a month of reveling in the cultural life in Weimar, city of Goethe and Schiller, he formally declined the publisher Schuberth's previous offer of employment. The lure of daily contact with Liszt and the musical notables who visited him, and artistic privileges such as free admission to theatre, were much more alluring than the prospect of a steady but mundane job in Hamburg. The completed parts of his String Quartet and Piano Trio were played for him soon after he arrived and Liszt promised performances of his Psalm 121 and his largest work, the opera König Alfred.

Raff saw Liszt daily, and referred to him in his letters as "my friend". In his first years in Weimar, the work he carried out for Liszt was prodigious: he produced an orchestration of the 2nd. Piano Concerto, and of early versions of the works which would become the symphonic poems Prometheus and Héroide Funêbre. He made fair copies of several of Liszt's works, together with mountains of secretarial and translation work. Bülow wrote: "Raff sacrifices half his existence to Liszt".

Although his own productivity was constrained by work for Liszt, in 1850 he managed to compose a few songs and a short work for violin and piano. Much of his own time was taken up with completing works begun in Stuttgart. With the prospect of a performance under Liszt's direction, he reworked König Alfred, "a gigantic undertaking". The final part of his setting for soloists, chorus & orchestra of Psalm 121 was revised and the String Quartet and Piano Trio were finished. He also started work on a Symphony, which was not to be completed until 1854, and as a result he abandoned a couple of concert overtures.Raff shared the enthusiasm of Liszt's circle for the works of Berlioz, whose Requiem and Harold in Italy he had studied intently, but a trip to Paris with his mentor, which held out the opportunity of meeting the Frenchman, came to nothing. He did make several trips to Leipzig and whilst there was impressed by Schumann's Genoveva and Meyerbeer's Le Prophète, but the new opera which most affected him was Wagner's Lohengrin. This was premiered by Liszt in Weimar in August 1850. It was Raff's first exposure to Wagner's music and it had a profound effect. For several years thereafter he felt himself under its influence, whilst at the same time being critical of many aspects of it.

Raff became great friends with the young virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim, who stayed in Weimar as one of Liszt's circle for over a year. He joined Liszt and the cello virtuoso (and lifelong friend of Raff's) Bernard Coßmann in more performances of Raff's chamber music, playing the Piano Trio "with great accomplishment". To record those ideas which couldn't immediately find expression on paper, he began keeping a musical sketchbook.

Liszt generously committed himself to performances of König Alfred in late 1850 or early 1851 at Weimar's Court Theatre and staged a surprise performance of an excerpt from the opera, with himself playing the piano. Raff reported that "the piece came off magnificently".

In spite of his heavy workload, to supplement his meagre income he began writing reviews and articles for the Leipzig Signale and other periodicals. A fulfilling, if busy, year was spoiled by the linked problems of a lack of money and his strained relations with Liszt's mistress, Princess Carolyne Sayn von Wittgenstein. He had been able to keep up his debt repayments, but it was a struggle because Liszt paid him less than he had been promised. The princess controlled Liszt's finances and Raff couldn't complain: "What am I supposed to do? I can't annoy Liszt".

From their first meeting in Bad Eilsen, the princess had been hostile towards Raff, labelling him a pedant and better suited to a career as a mathematician. She regarded his brusque directness as ill mannered and he probably didn't disguise his assessment of her as a dilettante. Their relations were hampered by her poor German and his poor French, and no doubt they were each wary of the other's influence on Liszt. "The love of this woman exhausts my friend" wrote Raff. The Princess' public hostility towards him softened in Spring 1850, however, once he had prooved his musical ability and his usefulness to Liszt, but her underlying attitude never changed.

The final months of 1850 were spent preparing for König Alfred's premiere. He worked closely with the Court Theatre's director Eduard Genast, of whom he thought highly. Genast invited the young man to spend Christmas Eve with his family, and there Raff met again a young women who had caught his eye some month's before whilst he was walking in one of the city's parks. Genast's daughter Dorothea (but called by all Doris) was 24 years old and already an accomplished actress. The couple's attraction was immediate and profound.

Raff thus ended his first year in Weimar not only with the imminent prospect of his grand opera's premiere in the most prestigious circumstances, but also deeply in love.

[The source for this article is the third chapter of Helene Raff's 1925 biography of her father]

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