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Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt

Liszt and Raff

The relationship between Liszt and Raff was a complicated and fascinating one as befits two such complex and accomplished musicians.

Raff certainly had much to be grateful for in Liszt's early help in repeatedly finding him work and promoting his music. Yet his attitude towards Liszt often betrayed frustration and resentment. On the other hand, Raff's work for Liszt in the early Weimar years was tireless and tiresome, but Liszt remained equivocal towards his secretary and the young man’s compositions. When Raff first moved into Liszt's orbit in 1845 he was a penniless jobbing musician from the Swiss countryside, self educated in music and struggling to find his own musical personality. During the next turbulent four years Liszt with characteristic generosity helped Raff by employing him himself and then finding him jobs in Cologne and Hamburg (see Raff's Life). Despite this they quarreled more than once and Raff turned down Liszt's first offer of a permanent post with him. Raff's irascibility and bluntness was already in evidence and this, combined with Liszt's naive insensitivity towards him, made for a tempestuous relationship.

Once Raff finally took up Liszt's offer to work for him in Weimar and live with him at the Altenburg, there appears from the start to have been a misunderstanding about his role. Raff assumed that he was there as Liszt's musical colleague and, indeed, as his guide in orchestration. Liszt, however, regarded Raff as his protégé, a copyist and secretary who's artistic input to Liszt's orchestrations was only to write drafts against which Liszt reacted and thus clarified his own wishes. Soon, though, Raff was boasting to his friend Kunigunde Heinrich "I am determined to have a little influence….he has already perceived that this is as it should be…and he readily accepts observations which he used to repugn" - clearly implying that his was indeed a large influence on the compositional process. He made claims about the authorship of several of Liszt’s symphonic poems and piano concertos. During a performance of Prometheus he said "Listen to the instrumentation. It is by me". Perhaps he needed to say this to preserve his own self esteem because he also complained "My labours for Liszt, it is true, are endless".

Liszt's mistress, Princess Carolyne Sayn von Wittgenstein, jealous guardian of his reputation, obviously had a poor opinion of Raff and described him as "an apprentice…a hanger-on…an unfeeling man who cultivates art only as a science". Raff's opinion of the Princess was equally disparaging. Liszt's artistic circle of disciples grew and no doubt Raff's importance to Liszt diminished as new acolytes arrived, as Liszt's confidence in writing for orchestra grew, as Raff developed his own un-Lisztian musical persona and as he began to detach himself from a slavish following of all the ideals of Liszt's "New Music".

Raff stayed on in Weimar for several years after he stopped being employed by Liszt. He grew to detest the town but remained perhaps because of his ties with such friends as von Bülow (another Liszt protégé), because he still had much sympathy with the ideals of Liszt's " Neu-Weimar-Verein ", but primarily because his future wife Doris was the daughter of Eduard Genast, the Weimar Court Theatre director, and she was an actress there. When she moved to Weimar, he followed her and his years of success began once he had finally emerged both musically and physically from Liszt's shadow.

The controversial claims that he, rather than Liszt, wrote the major part of some of Liszt 's symphonic poems and also the 1st. Piano Concerto are based upon his early letters to Kunigunde Heinrich and letters and remarks reported by von Bülow - but they were only made public at the turn of the century once Liszt and Raff were long dead. Raff does not seem to have made any public claims himself and, once he had followed Doris to Weimar and was away from Liszt's stifling presence, the two seem to have got on well enough socially. The claims themselves have yet to be definitively disproved but there appears to be much more evidence supporting Liszt's final authorship than bearing out the possibility that the published scores contain substantial passages of untouched Raff. In that case, perhaps the youthful Raff can be forgiven some boastful exaggeration to a lady friend and to young colleagues, frustrated as he was to find that rather than the valued colleague and advisor of Liszt which he'd imagined he would be, he was in fact little more than a poorly paid copyist and clerk, whose artistic efforts were used by Liszt purely to throw his own ideas into sharper relief - and then discarded.

Although he had been a founder member, Raff's initial adherence to Liszt's "Neu-Weimar-Verein" in Weimar soon wavered. He formally left the group in 1855 and his membership of the wider Liszt/Wagner "New Music" movement became more and more equivocal. He had been critical of Wagner as early as 1854 in his pamphlet "Die Wagnerfrage" (The Wagner Question) which analysed "Lohengrin". Liszt disagreed with him, but wrote "Against the many charges to which he has exposed himself I even intend to shield him…".

Eventually Raff moved to a position which applauded Wagner's musical innovations but deplored his writings, libretti and philosophical tenets. Raff, however, did not join the traditionalist circle of Brahms and Hanslick in Vienna, and had even less sympathy with the Leipzig ultra-conservatives such as Reinecke. His time with Liszt had imbued in him a belief in the need to revitalise music, but his fascination with baroque forms led him to attempt to create a new direction for music by synthesising the romantic, freely constructed and overtly programmatic music of Liszt's circle with the formal structures inherited from the past in which he'd schooled himself in his early years in Switzerland.

Of all Liszt's many disciples and supporters from the Weimar days, only Raff (and arguably Peter Cornelius) managed to detach himself enough from Liszt’s musical influence fully to establish himself as a successful composer with an independent and distinct voice. Unfortunately for his posthumous reputation, he was regarded by the Liszt/Wagner school as insufficiently radical and by the conservatives as being too revolutionary. Having had only a short time as Director of the Hoch Conservatory to establish a following of his own amongst mature composers of the next generation, the hostile judgement of critics in both opposing camps prevailed despite the love of his music demonstrated by audiences and performers alike for the previous 20 years.

[For more on Raff and Liszt see the page on Professor Frederick Niecks and also Alan Walker's biography of Liszt. The use of some quotations from that volume is gratefully acknowledged.]

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