Saying farewell to Joseph Joachim Raff, the forgotten symphonist

Joseph Joachim Raff (1822-1882)

On my chronological journey through the history of Western Classical music, I have mostly come down on the side of the established greats. The journalist and writer Bernard Levin said, wisely, that often posterity is the best judge and, mostly, he was right. I’m not going to end this project by toppling Josquin, Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy and Stravinsky from their pinacle at the top of one of civilization’s greatest achievements, but posterity, right or wrong, has also been ungenerous to some also-rans. In the 19th Century where I have been musically for the last five or so years, contemporary audiences would have put two other composers on this list of the great: Louis Spohr (1784 -1859) and Joseph Joachim Raff. Nowadays most people would say Who They? One of the pleasures of my self-imposed project has been discovering their work, especially the symphonies (Spohr’s 9 and Raff’s 11) and realizing that 19th Century audiences weren’t entirely delusional in their enjoyment of these composers who both wrote with distinctive voices. I have entered the year 1879 and, with some sadness, I have come to the last of Raff’s symphonies (actually the 10th not the 11th) followed by the four dramatic and adventurously concise Shakespeare Overtures (The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello).

I have been listening to the complete set of CDs recorded by Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in splendid recordings by the Swiss record company Tudor. Joachim Raff was Swiss so Tudor were celebrating one of their own. Hans Stadlmair has given us some wonderful versions of most of the symphonies and his version of No. 10 is beautiful and tightly sprung when sometimes, in some of the other symphonies he tends to rush things along a bit as if he thinks Raff needs a bit of help in the slow movements. No major complaints though about this pioneering project even if I have transferred my loyalties to Bernard Hermann’s highly theatrical recording Raff’s 5th Symphony, ‘Lenore,’ a dramatically Romantic programme symphony about the ill-fated love of the highly impressionable Lenore. The recording was self-funded and conducted by the great film music composer and Raff enthusiast, Bernard Hermann with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Unicorn UKCD 2031). The march was often played on its own in Victorian concert halls and was definitely one of his greatest “hits.” Lenore is waiting for her soldier lover to return from the war but after the army marches past, she realizes that he is not there. Raff is too easily dismissed as unoriginal when often his adventurous orchestration and subtly hidden complexities led to more famous composers, such as Tchaikovsky, emulating him.

Stadlmair also lost my enthusiasm when I came to what should have been my last Raff recording, his version of the Shakespeare Overtures which tend to sag. Just as I was finishing this Raff series, happy enough with the Tudor recordings, along comes an exciting new recording of the Shakespeare Overtures  from Chandos with the Suiss Romande Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi recorded in one of my favourite concert halls, Victoria Hall, Geneva where I once sat in awe of the acoustics in a thrilling performance of Bruckner’s Third Symphony with this orchestra conducted by Gunther Wand. The new recording also has what will probably become the definitive performance of Raff’s lovely and optimistic Second Symphony. I have a feeling that if 75 year old Neeme Järvi carries on recording Raff then my CD collection will just have to grow with each new release.

If you are tempted by a different take on 19th Century music then I hope you will give Raff a chance. You could well start with getting the Chandos CD and hope that more will follow in this series but you also have to hear Bernard Hermann’s Lenore Symphony. I’m also a fan of his Alpine Symphony, No. 7, with its grand adagio evoking Lake Zurich near his childhood home at Lachen in Switzerland. I have a brother who lives by Lake Zurich so I hope to visit Lachen one day to pay my respects to Raff.

Joachim Raff came from a humble family and was largely self-taught as a composer but he always had a strong sense of his own worth and, not being backward in coming forward, he sent some of his compositions to Mendelssohn (who recommended them to his publisher) and walked cross country to visit Liszt who offered him a job as his assistant. Even though he became one of the most famous composers of his day, after his death, Raff was only remembered for one piece of music until the 21st Century revival of interest in his work. This is the Cavatina for violin and piano  (6 Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op 85) possibly written the year that he met and fell in love with the actress Doris Genast, “a lovely and extremely pale girl.” It was, he said love at first sight and, it appears, the feeling was mutual. They had a long and very happy marriage eventually settling in Frankfurt where Raff was appointed head of Frankfurt’s new music conservatoire.

Doris Raff 1826-1912)
Here is Itzhak Perlman playing the Cavatina, a piece still played at some point in their lives by most violin students to this day.


Raff was, apparently, not only sure of his worth but also inclined to intolerant bursts of bad temper which may have been one of the reasons why, after his death, very few musicians performed his work. He would have been shocked to discovered just how rapidly his fame evaporated. He died in his sleep in 1882 without making any provision in his will for his family because he was confident that the royalties from his works would keep them in luxury for the rest of their lives. His widow, in fact, was left in poverty and had to be supported by a whip-round by a few loyal friends who also raised funds for the rather grand memorial over his grave in Frankfurt.

Raff’s grave in Frankfurt

I’ll leave you and the Raff project with the third movement Elegy/Adagio from Symphony No. 10, “To Autumn Time”,  in F minor Op. 213. This replaced the original 3rd movement of 1879 because Doris found it too emotional, the replacement is Raff’s last symphonic movement written in 1881 and, if you hear any resemblance to Tchaikvosky’s 5th Symphony, if there was any plagiarism, the sin would have been with the great Russian as his symphony was written in 1888, six years after Raff’s death. Listening to Raff’s music, if for no other reason, has opened my ears to one of Tchaikovsky’s major influences. I also hear Raff’s influence with his sliding harmonies and unexpected orcheatration in the music of Richard Strauss and Sibelius. I’m happy to be moving on in my journey but I shall return to Herr Raff’s symphonies whenever I want to hear this distinctive voice again. 

2 Comments

  1. Hi, I arrived here through Unsungcomposers.com. While I enjoyed your post, I need to take some issue with the opening quote by Bernard Levin. Appreciating those 'unsung' composers, I've been struggling for years against the notion that 'posterity knows best'. The problem is that that statement is demonstrably a-historical bunk. Such a viewpoint, for instance, implies that Austrians are inherently more gifted composers than, say, Swedes or Spaniards – rather a statement.

    The fact that the German, Austrian (and perhaps French) musical infrastructure was so much more developed than that in other, more peripheral countries, meant that a work stood a proportionally greater chance of being noticed and being played a second, third, etc. time. Before the advent of recordings, if you were so unlucky to be living in Rotterdam instead of Vienna, there was only a slim chance that your work would get a second chance.

    Similarly, a city dweller stood a greater chance of getting a second hearing than someone from the countryside: the right critics would be at the performance, and he/she (though most often he) was more likely to be acquiainted to those people that mattered.

    In similar circumstances, there is something to be said for the 'judgment from posterity' – but one always needs to be aware of the many historical contingencies that determine any artist's fate – if one wishes to be pleasantly surprised by the quality of an 'unknown's work.

  2. Thanks for your comments Ilja, some interesting thought there but, as I'm sure you noted, I qualified my remarks about Bernand Levin's opinion. I would love to think that our bit of "posterity" will "discover" more unfamiliar composers of potential rank from the countries you spotlight that may well, one day, be universally regarded on the same supreme level as the composers I listed. I, for one, will now always enjoy Raff's music and have a better understanding of late 19th Century classical music as a consequence. His case is remarkable because he was seen as a major composer in his day and less so ever since. It is generally more likely that a composer falls from that throne than gets added to it . Mr Levin was not that wrong in that we still don't add any new names to that canon of supreme geniuses that sit at the pinnacle of Western classical music. I would love to hear less well-known pieces by unfamiliar composers who could change that perspective. In the meanwhile I'm grateful to discover what are for me "new voices" in this wonderful art form.

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