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Joachim Raff: A 198th Birthday Celebration

Pete Godomski

"Cherish no prejudice against unknown names." — Robert Schumann

It's all Schumann's fault. As a teenager I read and reread my fragile paperback copy of Schumann's On Music and Musicians until it began to fall apart. It was there that I first saw this bit of sage advice. I took it to heart and eagerly began listening to the work of forgotten composers from Franz Berwald and Andre Gretry to Irving Fine and Serge Taneyev. Then one day my local classical music station (WQRS in Detroit) played a new LP of the Third Symphony by someone named Joachim Raff. Instantly, I recognized a neglected genius and a symphonist of uncommon gifts. 

Back then Raff's music was not easy to find. For many years I had to be content with just two other LPs: Raff's 5th Symphony (conducted by film composer Bernard Herrmann of all people!) and the sparkling Piano Concerto. Both were masterworks that only made me crave more Raff. What of the other nine symphonies, the two cello concertos and his huge catalog of chamber music? It wasn't until well after the advent of the CD and the smaller labels' obsession with uncovering obscure music that I was finally able to hear all this and more. And what a treasure trove of melody, color, and joy it turned out to be!

Joseph Joachim Raff was born on May 27, 1822 in the tiny, scenic Swiss village of Lachen. But he was of German stock, and spent most of his life there. In his youth, music was a mere hobby for Raff, and he began his career as a school teacher. His musical gifts could not be ignored for long. At age 21 he sent a few of his pieces to Mendelssohn who quickly wrote to his publisher saying, "The composition is elegant and faultless throughout and in the most modern style." Raff's ambition to study with Mendelssohn was never realized due to the composer's untimely death. 

In 1845 Raff walked some 50 miles to Basle to attend a recital by Franz Liszt. In his book Composers of Yesterday, David Ewen writes, "Liszt, who always had a keen scent for true talent, was strongly impressed by Raff's gifts—so much so that he urged Raff to accompany him on a tour through Switzerland." Raff soon became Liszt's pupil and assistant. Among other things, he helped his master with the orchestration of several of his symphonic poems. By way of returning the favor, Liszt arranged a performance in Weimar of Raff's opera King Alfred.

For much of his early life, Raff lived in near poverty. His friend and fellow Liszt pupil William Mason reported that Raff was once arrested for debt and that "there were times when he seemed hardly able to keep body and soul together." Undaunted, Raff continued to compose remarkable quantities of music. At about this time he met Doris Genast, whom he married in 1859—the same year he began his massive First Symphony, a sprawling 70 minute celebration of the German spirit in five movements subtitled To the Fatherland. The Vienna Philharmonic Society bestowed an award on the composer for this symphony in 1863.

Even greater triumphs were yet to come for Herr Raff. On Raff.org, Mark Thomas explains that the premiere of his 3rd Symphony In the Forest in Weimar was a tremendous success. Thomas goes on to say: "The acclaim for it continued throughout the rest of his life: an American critic described it as 'the best Symphony of modern times, one of the very few which are worthy to go down in posterity in company with the works of Beethoven and Schumann'. After one performance at which Raff was present 'a complete hurricane went through the house' and Raff mounted the podium 'amidst barbaric jubilation from the audience.'"

Raff did not have to wait long for his next international triumph: his 5th Symphony. While his first and third symphonies had some programmatic elements, this new work told a very detailed story based on Gottfried Buerger's epic ballad, Lenore. It's an eerie tale of love, war, death, and blasphemy culminating in Lenore's wild ride on horseback through the German countryside with her spectral lover. Once again, audiences around the globe ate it up.

In 1877 Raff became director of the fledgling Frankfurt Conservatory, where he proved to be as progressive an educator as he was a composer. He quickly persuaded Clara Schumann to teach piano, the only woman on the faculty that first year. Soon Raff found others to join her, and he even oversaw the creation of a class for women composers—the first of its kind in Germany.

It was at this same time that Raff embarked on his most ambitious project: a cycle of four symphonies, one for each season. Unfortunately, Raff did not live to complete the last of these, his "Winter" Symphony, which was prepared for performance and publication by his friend, conductor Max Erdmannsdörfer. Raff died of a heart attack in his sleep in Frankfurt on June 24, 1882.

Credit Raff.org

At the time of his death, few composers enjoyed a reputation that could match Raff's. Undoubtedly many music lovers of the era would have agreed enthusiastically with the assessment of British critic 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." 

Yet within a few short years, Raff's music lapsed into obscurity. For most of the first half of the 20th century, Raff was considered, at best, a one hit wonder for his insignificant and frankly bland Cavatina for piano. Only a few loyalists kept the flame alive, most notably Bernard Herrmann, who occasionally performed Raff's music during his CBS Symphony radio broadcasts. Herrmann undoubtedly appreciated the 'cinematic' qualities of Raff's music, and he eventually made a remarkable recording of the Lenore Symphony for the Unicorn label in 1970. Incidentally, Unicorn only agreed to undertake this risky project after Herrmann consented to cover most of the cost of the recording sessions.

According to Raff.org, there are now over forty available CDs of Raff's music, covering most of the genres in which he wrote, including two complete cycles of the eleven symphonies. Unfortunately, Raff's  music is still rarely performed in concert though we can hope that—like Mahler—Raff's time will yet come.

To help foster your appreciation of this neglected, little-known master we will hear all of Raff 's symphonies during May 2020 on the Essential Classics. His two most popular and enduring symphonic scores will be presented in new digital transfers of their earliest LP incarnations. From Candide Records, Richard Kapp's performs Symphony 3, In The Forest and Bernard Herrmann will lead the London Philharmonic in Symphony 5, Lenore from a Nonesuch LP.

Tom Godell has been the General Manager of WUKY since April 2004. Earlier in his career he served as Senior Producer with WBHM in Birmingham AL, Program Director of WLRH in Huntsville AL, and Associate Director of Broadcasting for Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He is a dog lover, cycling enthusiast, second baseman (willing to play anytime, anywhere), and music fanatic. His writings on music have appeared in the American Record Guide, Fanfare magazine, the All Music Guide, and RCA Records.