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Raff, Joseph Joachim

1822-1882

 

Follower of the romantic school of music and a prolific composer, who rose from poverty through his untiring energy and fortitude and made himself a leader of the Nineteenth Century musical world. He was born in the town of Lachen on Lake Zurich. His father, an organist and teacher, came from the Black Forest region of Germany. He studied at the Jesuit Lyceum at Schwyz, where he showed musical ability. At an early age he learned to play the organ and sang in the choir, but he was given no musical instruction. When he left the Lyceum he became a Latin tutor at St. Gallen, and later went to Rapperswyl. He studied piano and violin by himself and also started to compose. In 1843 he sent one of his compositions to Mendelssohn, who became interested in him and used his influence in getting some of the young musician's work published. Raff next met Liszt, who took him on a concert tour. While on this journey, he met Mendelssohn at Cologne. Mendelssohn persuaded him to leave Liszt and become his pupil at Leipsic; but the great master's death prevented the plan from materializing, and Raff remained at Cologne. There he wrote criticisms for Siegfried Dehn's Cacilia, and also published a pamphlet on "The Wagner Question." He was still in straightened financial circumstances, so Liszt succeeded in interesting Mechetti, a publisher in Vienna, in the young composer; but while Raff was on the way to Vienna, the death of the publisher put an end to his hopes in that direction. Raff then divided his time between Weisenstelen and Stuttgart. He composed an opera, King Alfred, which was accepted by the Court Theatre, but was never performed. At Stuttgart in 1848 he met von Bulow, at that time a law student though devoted to music. He brought Raff before the public by performing his Concertstück for piano and orchestra. In 1850 he met Liszt at Hamburg and went with him to Weimar, where he became identified with the new German school of music. His opera, King Alfred, in revised form, was produced at the Court Theatre there. It still holds a place there but was never performed outside of Weimar, and was not as well received as the composer had hoped it might be. Partly for this reason he turned his attention to instrumental music, bringing out his Messenger of Spring, a collection of piano-pieces; a string quartet and a grand sonata. About this time he ecame engaged to an actress, Doris Genast, granddaughter of Goethe's favorite actor, and in 1856 he accompanied her to Wiesbaden, where he became a successful piano teacher. In 1858 he published his second violin sonata and music to William Genast's drama, Bernhard von Weismar. In 1859 he was married. His first symphony, In the Fatherland, took the first prize of the Society of the Friends of Music of the Austrian Empire, in a trial of thirty-two competitors. Another symphony In the Forest, is considered his masterpiece. His Dame Kobold, a comic opera, was given at Weimar. He composed another opera, Samson, of which he wrote both libretto and music, but it was never performed. In 1877 he became director of the New Conservatory at Frankfort, which he conducted with great success until his sudden death by heart disease in 1882. Raff composed an enormous amount of music, two hundred and thirty pieces in all. Much of it is drawing-room music of a rather trivial character, which he was forced to write from financial need. His nine symphonies, his concertos, and his chamber-music are his noblest efforts. Other works are thirty songs; two symphonies, In The Forest, and Lenore; a piano concerto and a suite for violin and orchestra. In general his musical style is impressionistic. He sacrificed technique and science to vivid impression and sentiment constantly, and had a strange fault of overestimating the power of music to give definite sensations or ideas. W. J. Henderson says of him, " 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."