Memories and Opinions of Raff

Otis Boise

"Liszt admired many of Raff's compositions and said that he was a contrapuntal virtuoso, whose routine in the use of technical means was unparalleled. [...] In the autumn of 1876 we migrated to Wiesbaden and my next summer's pilgrimages to Weimar were made from that lovely town. When informed of our move, Liszt asked me whether I knew Raff. Upon my answering in the negative he said, "You must know him" and at once wrote a few lines of introduction. Had they been written by any other hand I doubt whether I should have presented them, for Raff's Wiesbaden reputation was emphatically forbidding. He was looked upon as an unsociable bear. I had heard so much, that his affable manner in receiving me was a great surprise. His fellow citizens evidently misconceived his earnest, retiring nature. Liszt's endorsement may have somewhat influenced his treatment of me, but his kindliness was too hearty to have been superficial or assumed." Otis Boise (1844-1912), American composer and pianist.

Waldemar Bargeil

Woldemar Bargeil
Woldemar Bargeil

"It has interested me very much, what you write about Raff. From this I have had the same impression as you yourself, namely a favourable one. He is clever, funny and, what is the most important thing, he gives the impression of an urbane character. He has also however a strange career behind him: he was educated with the Jesuits... Now however to his music! I am sorry that there I can no longer feel any sympathy for him. He has learned much, writes for orchestra brilliantly, has great contrapuntal skills, but everything nevertheless remains cold and hollow. The man is puzzling to me musically. He produces ideas and melodies that appear as if they should tear the soul from the body, but one is left with the conviction that their inventor felt absolutely nothing for them; and on top of that, this most modern harmonic impurity! Now you are there you may be a healing influence on him, and your presence in Frankfurt will inspire him to work which is all pure gold." Waldemar Bargeil (1828-1897), German composer, writing to his half-sister, Clara Schumann.

Ebenezer Prout

"Among living German composers there are three who by common consent, are admitted to stand in the front rank, and to be, like Saul the son of Kish, a head and shoulders taller than all their fellows. Many of my readers will anticipate me when I name as these musical chiefs - Wagner, Brahms, and Raff. Whatever views may be held as to Wagner's art-theories, or as to his music, there can be no two opinions as to the fact that his operas immeasurably transcend in importance any other dramatic music of the present day; while as a vocal writer a similar pre-eminence may be claimed for the composer of the Deutches Requiem the Triumphlied and the Schicksalslied. Brahms also excels in the department of chamber music, as witness his stringed sextets and his pianoforte quartets, though in this last province of art he is not without many rivals and some peers. Raff is so voluminous a writer, and so equally conversant with every style of composition, that it is difficult to name his speciality... For the last twenty years [1855-75] his production has been incessant. In pianoforte, chamber, and orchestral music he is equally at home; but it is in this last direction that he shows his superiority to his contemporaries. Quartets, trios, or pianoforte pieces equal to his may be easily named; but as a symphonic writer he stands at present absolutely alone. His works of this class are, taking them as a whole, unquestionably the greatest that have been written since those of Schumann. [...] No living composer possesses the various qualifications needful to the symphonist in so large a measure as Joachim Raff. I have no hesitation in saying that the [first six symphonies] are, taken as a whole, the greatest symphonies written since those of Schumann. While inferior to this composer in poetic beauty of imagination, Raff is far his superior in all that pertains to the technique of his art. [He] just (and only just) falls short in the possession of the highest genius. [...] In Raff ... it is the masterly skill of the workmanship which produces the most forcible impression; the themes which are treated are often of subsidiary importance. The composer seems deficient in self criticism; he sometimes appears to take the first series of notes which occurs to him and goes on to construct a most elaborate and extensive movement out of them, as if intent upon disproving the old saying that one 'cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.' Raff's melody is for the most part simple and very appreciable, and sometimes 'ear catching' to a degree that verges on the commonplace. He prefers diatonic to chromatic subjects, and frequently constructs themes entirely on the notes of the scale, sometimes [...] merely on the notes of a common chord. His subjects always lend themselves well to thematic development and in this branch of his art Raff may be compared even with Beethoven himself. His contrapuntal skill is at times really admirable. He has a peculiarity which I have not met with, at least to nothing like the same extent in the works of any other symphonic writer. He frequently takes two quite distinct subjects from different parts of the same symphony, and works them together in a most ingenious way. As to the other devices of fugue, canon, and imitation, his scores are full of them. Scientific writing has been called 'the salt of composition;' if it be, Raff’s music is certainly highly flavoured. It should in justice be added that his fugal writing is seldom, if ever, dull. There is, however, one serious drawback to the popularity of these symphonies which must be mentioned — they are nearly all more or less too spun out. Prolixity is Raff's easily besetting sin. Evidently gifted with the greatest fluency in composition, and able at a moment's notice to throw off any quantity of thematic development by the yard, he does not always know when he has said enough. Modern composers too often use excessive elaboration to conceal poverty of invention. This cannot be said of Raff; still he is none the less open to the charge of too great lengthiness. Raff has a decided partiality for what is known as 'programme music.' Few musicians would condemn it per se; the great point that should be borne in mind is that it should be, as Beethoven himself said of his Pastoral Symphony, 'expression of emotion, rather than painting'. In Raff's symphonies we find both; and while those movements in which 'expression of emotion' is attempted are frequently among their composer's most successful efforts, he fails when he essays the painting 'of the wild hunt of Hulda and Wotan' in the finale of the 'Im Walde,' or the ghostly ride in the 'Lenore.'" Ebenezer Prout (1835-1909), British composer, teacher and critic.

Piotr Tchaikovsky

"Raff belongs to the most outstanding contemporary composers of the German school. His music does not display striking originality, he does not astonish the listener by exuberance of the creative faculties and imagination, but he is able to capture a sensitive connoisseur by the sophistication of his technical development and by his perfection of form. It is very remarkable that Raff has been able to preserve himself from the seductive influence of Mendelssohn, whose monotonously sentimental music has produced such an abundance of feeble imitators who endlessly repeat some of his typical stylistic devices, which have long ago become rather trite commonplaces. Raff displays a very close affinity with the Beethoven school, from which he has borrowed the noble simplicity of his themes, the logical thematic development of his ideas, and in particular artistic moderation in the choice of orchestral effects. A great deal of character and artistic commitment is required to refrain from the bombastic, awkward effects which modern composers are so liberal with. [...] Ever since death, with such untimely haste, struck down Mendelssohn and Schumann ... no creative talent has appeared yet in the field of symphonic music of whom one could say that he had begun a new artistic era [...] among the now living composers there is not a single one who is not an imitator of one or the other—and often of both at the same time—of these two great symphonists of the modern age. There are only two symphonic composers in our times whom I could point to as standing out quite vividly against the greyish backcloth of modern music-making: they are Anton Rubinstein and Raff. The latter is considerably inferior to Rubinstein in terms of the strength and originality of his talent, but he does surpass him in technical craftsmanship, in the ability to achieve a wholeness of form and the working out of the constituent details. Raff has attained his high position amongst contemporary composers and secured success for his music through assiduous hard work and by vigorously fighting against his natural shortcomings, in particular the poverty of his inventive faculty. But what is there that cannot be achieved by earnest hard work?! Raff, by gradually perfecting his naturally limited gifts, has obtained brilliant results, and I am hardly mistaken in calling his latest symphony [No.3, Im Walde] the finest of all the symphonies that have been written in the past decade. It is considerably better than another symphony by the same composer, entitled An das Vaterland, which is remarkable in some of its episodes but is altogether too long and uneven in form. [...] Raff's creative gift is by no means of the first rank, but he is endowed with expertise and technical skill, which can to some extent substitute for talent and inventiveness in his case. His works are smooth, coherent, adeptly structured in terms of form, and splendidly instrumented, as a result of which one listens to them, if not with a shudder of enthusiasm, then most certainly with great pleasure.

[Writing about Brahms]: "What an ungifted swine! It angers me that this conceited mediocrity is regarded as a genius. Why, in comparison with him Raff is a giant [...] Whereas that Brahms is just some chaotic and utterly empty wasteland." Piotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - Russian composer.

William Mason

William Mason
William Mason

[On his time in Weimar in the 1850s]"Of my Weimar comrades, Joachim Raff, it is hardly necessary to say, became the most distinguished. My first impression of him was not wholly favourable. He was hard to become acquainted with and not disposed to meet one half-way. He was fond of argument, and if one side was taken he was very apt to take the other. He liked nothing better than to get one to commit himself to a proposition and then to attack him with all his resources, which were many. Upon better acquaintance, however, one found a kind heart and faithful friend whose constancy was to be relied on. He was very poor, and there were times when he seemed hardly able to keep body and soul together. Once he was arrested for debt. The room in which he was confined, however, was more comfortable, if anything, than his own. He had a piano, a table, music paper, and pen and ink sent there. How this was accomplished I do not know, but I think Liszt must have had a hand in it. Raff enjoyed himself composing and playing, and we saw to it that he had good fare. The episode made little impression on him: so long as he could compose he was happy. However, the matter was compromised, and in a short time he returned to his own lodgings. He was a hard worker and composed incessantly, with only a brief interval for dinner and a little exercise. We habitually sat together, and afterward usually took a short walk. I enjoyed his conversation exceedingly and derived much profit from it. At about five o'clock in the afternoon, looking out of my window, I would frequently see Raff coming over the path leading through the park, with a bundle of manuscript under his arm. He liked to come and play to me what he had composed. His playing was not artistic, because he paid little attention to it, and he did not attempt to elaborate or finish his style. He composed very rapidly, and many of his compositions do not amount to much. He could not get decent remuneration for good music, and he had to live; therefore he wrote many pieces that were of the jingling sort, because his publishers paid well for them. Sometimes, however, he turned out a composition which was really worthy, and among his works are symphonies, sonatas, trios, and chamber-music which gained him reputation. His symphony Im Walde is well known in the musical world, and his Cavatina for violin, although not a piece of importance, is one of the most popular and effective violin solos and exists in various arrangements. At times he was much dejected, and there was a dash of bitterness in his disposition. I think he felt that, being obliged to turn out music for a living, he would never attain the rank to which his talents entitled him. In promoting the cause of Wagner, Raff did considerable work for which Liszt got the credit. I think that at one time Raff acted as Liszt's private secretary; but he had decided ideas of his own, and knew how to express them. Being generally in close accord with Liszt, and having a ready pen, he rendered great assistance in promulgating the doctrines of the new school by means of essays, brochures, and newspaper articles. Of course much that he wrote was based upon suggestions made by Liszt. Raff was a tower of strength in himself, while at the same time acting as Liszt's mouthpiece in the Wagner propaganda. An autograph written for me by Joachim Raff is also interesting. On the night before I left Weimar, June 25, 1854, Raff and I had supper at the Erbprinz [Mason's hotel] together, and as the evening wore on we somehow got into a heated discussion about Zukunftsmusik (the music of the future), taking opposite sides. However, as a matter of course, we made up before parting. He had previously written his musical autograph in the book, but now he added a kind thought to speed me on my way, namely: 'That he may live well, work well, and soon return to Weimar music. Mitternachtscheide.'"

[On a visit to Germany in the 1870s] "He interrupted his lessons the moment that he heard I was there, came running downstairs, threw his arms around my neck, and was so overjoyed at seeing me that I felt as if we were boys once more at Weimar. Of the pupils and of the many musicians who came to Weimar to visit Liszt at that time -die goldene Zeit (the Golden Age), as it is still called at Weimar. The general public and a large majority of the musicians were not at all favourably disposed toward Wagner's music in those days, and in this connection a remark of Joachim Raff made to me in 1879-80, on the occasion of my second visit to Germany, was significant. Raff had been in earlier years, perhaps, the most ardent of all pioneers in the Wagner cause. A quarter of a century had elapsed since I had seen Raff, and naturally one of my first questions was, 'Raff, how is the Wagner cause?' 'Oh,' said he, 'the public have gone 'way over to the other extreme. You know how hard it was to force Wagner upon them twenty-five years ago, and now they go just as much too far the other way and are unreasonable in their excessive homage'. William Mason (1829-1908), American composer.

George Putnum Upton

The long catalogue of Raff's works shows his extraordinary facility in composition — a facility which in his case proved nearly fatal to his fame. [...] Much the larger part of his music is now neglected in concert programmes, although all of it is individual and distinctive. Indeed, notwithstanding his long array of compositions, for he continued writing almost until the day of his death, he never repeats himself. What then is the cause of the public forgetfulness? It may possibly be due to the fact that he wrote a great number of 'pot boilers,' owing to the pressure of poverty and the demands of publishers, for his works were among the 'best sellers' of his day, but suffered the fate of 'best sellers.' Under such circumstances it was inevitable that he should write much that was commonplace and perishable. Hence the great number of piano solo pieces. This does not or should not detract from Raff's fame, for his greater works are great indeed. He belonged to the new German school. He combined the classic and romantic and wrote most graphic programme music, as in his 'Lenore' and 'Im Walde' symphonies, without the sacrifice of form, clearly revealing Mendelssohn's influence. He had a rare gift of melody and was fertile in original melodious devices. His orchestral colour is of a delightful kind, as is shown by his vivid tone-painting of Burger's ballad in the 'Lenore' symphony. While he lacks breadth and great dramatic power and his work is not characterized by depth of thought, yet it is graceful, poetic, full of melodious charm, and reveals unusual technical skill. It is hard to believe that two such admirable works as the 'Lenore' and 'Im Walde' symphonies will ever be lost so long as marvellous accuracy of musical description, perfect symmetry of form, and melodic charm are held of any account. Even in the demoniacal finale of the 'Lenore' it is still the true symphony. And yet much has been lost for reasons already stated. If he had not written so much under compulsion, or if he had been sternly self-critical, he might have left still greater works than he has, and time would not have been such a remorseless weeder". George Putnum Upton (1834-1919), American critic and writer on music.

William Henderson

"It is probable, although we in America know far less about the music of this gifted man than the Germans do, the estimate of his abilities generally accepted on this side of the Atlantic is a wise one. He is regarded as a composer who, possessing exceptional fecundity of melodic invention and rare mastery of orchestral tone-color, sought to impose upon music a definiteness of expression somewhat beyond its power. This eagerness to delineate in detail a chain of feelings or impressions led Raff into diffuseness of style and to frequent sacrifices of those formal elaborations which are regarded as essential to the construction of artistic music. He has been generally thought to lack self-criticism and a want of restraint resulting therefrom; but it has always seemed to the present writer that Raff's errors were not in the direction of criticism, but of fundamental belief. In other words he let the beautiful vision of a genus of pictorial programme music which is to be more expressive than speech run away with his reason. Now it is neither necessary nor expedient to repeat here any of the familiar discussion as to the expressive power of music. The most serious thinkers about the art, even when they disagree in details, are generally of the opinion that music can express only the broader emotions, and requires text to make clear the cause of the feelings. We are able to get great pleasure, and at times genuine emotional exaltation from the music of Raff provided we are willing to approach it in the only fair spirit in which programme music can be approached —that of willingness to accept the composer's premises. The first movement of the ' Fatherland' symphony has strength and aspiration, and we have only to accept Raff's explanation that he is singing of Germany to enter into the heart of his composition. In the same way we are obliged to approach the 'Lenore,' the 'Im Walde' and his other symphonies. The grisly story of Burger's Lenore is told in detail in the finale of the symphony, but in order to follow the music we need the poem. Having that, we perceive the aptness and peculiar fitness of the composer's rhythmic and melodic fancies. Nothing could have a more stimulating effect upon the imagination — once the key to the secret is possessed—than the inexorable persistence of the groups of a quaver and two semi-quavers by which the infernal flight of the lovers is indicated. If perchance we find an instrumental representation of a gallop not new (it having been invented by Claudio Monteverdi in the beginning of the seventeenth century) we can at any rate get all the effect designed by Raff in his wood-wind shrieks of the night birds and his trombone hymn for the dead.

William Henderson
William Henderson

"He has achieved a greater fidelity of feeling and a subtler realism of tones, however, in his 'lm Walde,' which is generally looked upon as his masterpiece. The first movement is intended to bring to the hearer's mind the woods in the sunlit beauty of noon. The second reveals them to us in the suggestive shadow of twilight. In the third movement the composer entertains us with an airy and delicate dance of Dryads, a woodland scherzo in deed and in truth. ln the fourth and last movement we have a musical embodiment of the familiar German legend of the Wild Huntsman. A gentle fugal thought pictures the repose of the woods. Suddenly the rhythm of the galloping hunt is heard, as it were, in the distance. Nearer and nearer it comes, till the whole orchestra thunders with its riotous fury. It dies away in the distance, returns and dies away again. Then comes the glory of sunrise. This symphony makes less demands in the way of preparation than many of Raff's other works. The single suggestion that he is painting the forest and that there is a wild hunt is all that the imagination needs to give it complete enjoyment of this work. Freedom of form is a natural result of the kind of composition in which Raff excelled and his ability to write quickly and with little effort prevented his feeling the necessity of working out his compositions with the care and science of the classical school. One gets much less intellectual satisfaction, therefore, out of Raff's work than out of Schumann's, who was his precursor, and still less than out of Mozart's. But the ear and the imagination are delighted by the clear intelligibility of his melodic ideas, their unfailing poetic sentiment and musical grace. It is these qualities of his themes, together with the splendid colours in which his orchestral palette is so rich, that have given to his symphonic works their wide popularity, and have made the name of Raff recognized as that of one of the really gifted followers of the romantic school founded by Schumann and Schubert. In the general outline his symphonies follow the laws of the earlier masters, notably in the distribution of the movements. His separate movements, however, are not always built according to the old rules, his finales being notably free and irregular. It can only be said, then, in concluding this brief estimate of his symphonic writing, that his works in the large orchestral form are admirable examples of that class of modern composition in which structural skill and scientific development are sacrificed to warmth of sentiment and opulence of colour. In a word, they belong to what may be called the impressionist school of music. Raff may not deserve a seat among the Titans of music. Yet his originality, his grace of thought and his oriental gorgeousness of utterance lift him above the level of mediocrity and stamp him as a man possessed of rare and valuable gifts. His larger works show every evidence of artistic earnestness, and had he been less imbued with impressionistic ideas and more free from the burdens of poverty, he might have attained perfection of art". William Henderson (1855-1937), American writer on music.

Clara Schumann

[After participating in a concert marking Raff's death] "There was a man created, restless with talent and destiny, as well as fantasy, and what of him now? One has him celebrated, ...hear two hours of his music and with that believe that everything has been done and think no more about him! I think his gift deserves better and find it terribly sad". Clara Schumann (1819-1896), German pianist and teacher.

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