Entertainment Music

Sunday 18 February 2018

The rise and fall of Joachim Raff

Revered: Joachim Raff
Revered: Joachim Raff

From Slane to Glastonbury, festival-goers are prepared to run the gauntlet of potentially inclement weather in pursuit of their musical pleasure. Not so, normally, those who go to concert halls.

Consider, then, the case of the unfortunate Joachim Raff. It's quite possible you've never ever heard of him, though he was once a big name.

In the years that Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Brahms were around, Raff was revered.

It was Mendelssohn's enthusiasm for his material that encouraged him to chuck a teaching career that had only just begun and devote himself to his art.

That didn't go down at all well with his family. His strict German father, who had fled to Switzerland to avoid conscription and found a niche for himself as a schoolmaster in a small town on the shore of Lake Zurich, was infuriated.

The boy, he fumed, had become nothing more than a beggar musician. Which wasn't actually that far from the truth.

The twenty-something Joachim moved to the city, but there was precious little work for him in Zurich. He ended up sleeping rough, not exactly begging, but taking whatever came his way - teaching here, playing there.

The turning point came in the strangest of circumstances. Franz Liszt, who was huge, was giving a concert in Basel. A bit like finding yourself in Cork and getting wind of a gig your idol is playing in Limerick.

Raff had no money for the coach fare, so there was nothing for it but to walk. 80-odd kilometres.

Though it was the month of June, in that part of northern Switzerland it's as likely to rain as not. The day of the concert, it was tipping it down.

Raff, soaked through, made it to the venue just in time. At the box office, they told him all the tickets were gone. The concert was a sell-out.

As luck would have it, this conversation was overheard by Liszt's manager, and he told the virtuoso about the bedraggled and dejected figure in the lobby.

Liszt - a famously generous individual - wouldn't let the young fan leave disappointed.

With the hall full, he invited Raff to join him on stage. Quite what the packed house made of it is anyone's guess, but as Liszt played, Raff sat alongside him, "dripping like a fountain" as he later recalled, but delighted to be hearing his hero play.

They talked afterwards, and Liszt was impressed. Long story short, this was the start of an association that would set Raff on his way.

The pianist became his mentor, found him work, and then, when he got the job as Kapellmeister in the Weimar of Wagner, he took Raff with him.

It lasted only seven years, and didn't end well. Though being involved with Liszt raised his profile considerably, Raff found Weimar too insular, too parochial, referring to it as "this damned village".

Things weren't helped by the fact that Liszt's mistress looked on him as a hanger-on.

By now Raff had formed a relationship with an actress, Doris Genast, who would become his wife. He followed her to Wiesbaden where she had work, and eventually they married.

This was the prelude to the most secure period of Joachim Raff's life. His career flourished. Eleven symphonies, six operas, concertos, chamber music, and songs were all highly regarded by the public.

But the establishment wasn't so sure. He wrote too much. His music lacked originality, he had no style of his own. He was no more than a hack.

This, and an argumentative personality, made him unpopular with the critics, which may explain why his music more or less vanished after his death in 1882.

Now, he's known solely for a gentle, sweet and delicate cavatina for violin and piano that carries within it just enough of a hint of melancholy to match the sad demise of the music of Joachim Raff.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

with George Hamilton

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