Joachim Raff (1822-1882)

There is perhaps no other composer so admired, enjoyed, honored, and  respected, whose music fell victim to such profound neglect and even derision within a short period after his death, than Joseph Joachim Raff (27 May 1822 - 24 June 1882).

From 1860 to 1900 the name of Joachim Raff  was mentioned in the same breath as Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Johannes Brahms as a leading master in German music. 

Recognized internationally as one of the truly great composers, every concert guide existing at the turn of the  century exalted him to a level of post-Beethovenian symphonic achievement otherwise reserved only for Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms , and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky not only openly admired Raff but used him as a model as  well, imitating Raff to the point of subconscious quotes, so deep was the influence.

By 1920, after the First World War, even Raff's most celebrated works had faded from the repertoire, his name synonymous with the  silly and the sentimental - a periwinkle tunesmith engendering teardrops at tea time in the salon. The derision was often laced with malice - a biographer of Edward McDowell claimed that the noted American composer has  "ruined his talent by studying with Raff". Generations of musicians grew up reacting to his name with a smirk or a joke, smugly complacent in their judgements and secure in the self-assurance of ignorance.

 It is impossible to single out any one reason for Raff's fall from fame. Born in Lachen, Switzerland, of a family from German Swabia, Raff was basically auto-didactic in his musical education. As a young man he was  drawn back to the land of his forebears, by encouragement first from Felix Mendelssohn and later by Franz Liszt. Liszt took him on as amanuensis and musical confidante at Weimar in the early 1850s, establishing Raff's  association with the avant-garde of the time, the so-called New German School. From 1855 to 1878 Raff worked independently in Wiesbaden, writing most of his successful compositions. In 1978 he was named the first  director of the recently founded Dr. Hoch's Conservatory of Music in Frankfurt-am-Main, where he remained until his death four years later. Although notes for his care and generosity both professionally and personally,  he could erupt fits of irascibility, abandoning all tact and restraint, at times literally biting the hand that fed him (Liszt comes immediately to mind). Allied early in his career with Liszt and the New German School,  Raff dared to question Wagner's ideas polemically. Unwanted by the conservatives, and himself rejecting the circle with which he was most often associated, he isolated himself between the two most important poles of  musical politics during his life. An impeccable craftsman for whom all matters of music were second nature, he could be totally uncritical of the material he used in his compositions, placing movements of soaring  inspiration and incredible invention next to ones of embarrassing dross, pairing the simpleminded with the sublime. Yet, despite the harshest criticisms leveled at him, no one can deny that the man was touched by genius  and it does not take a sophisticated music lover to respond to the best in Raff's works. What those works are, though, is still a matter of debate. A fair assessment of Raff's compositions has really only recently  begun, focussing with good reason on his orchestral music. However, that is only part of Raff's rich lode which also includes an extensive catalog of chamber music.

 (abbreviated version of an article written by Dr. Alan Krueck)