The publishing house of Breitkopf is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joachim Raff by reprinting many of his works. These include the string quartets, trios, and sonatas for cello and for violin. This remarkably prolific composer penned 18 quartets; 11 symphonies; piano, violin, and cello concertos; four operas; and much more. However, it is not the sheer quantity that impresses; it is the quality of his writing. So it is hard to understand how this once celebrated composer came to be neglected, although some of his oeuvres have recently been recorded.
Born in Lachen, Switzerland, in 1822, the 20-year-old self-taught Raff sent a few of his piano compositions to Mendelssohn, who immediately recommended them to Breitkopf & Härtel for publication. Success soon followed and he joined the elite, counting Robert and Clara Schumann, Joachim, Liszt, and von Bülow among his staunch supporters. In the last four years of his life, Raff was director of the Frankfurt Conservatory and taught many up-and-coming musicians, including Edward MacDowell. There he employed Clara Schumann and other prominent musicians as teachers and even set up a class specifically for female composers.
Only one of these six pieces, the Cavatina, is played with any regularity today.
Many young violin students will be familiar with this lovely piece, not realizing that it is the third of six equally enchanting pieces of Opus 85. August Wilhelmj performed it in England with great success, and thereafter illustrious performers such as Sarasate, Marteau, Szigeti, Kreisler, Menuhin, and Perlman played it in concert.
This Breitkopf edition comprising all six pieces contains a March, Pastorale, Scherzino, Canzone, and Tarantella, as well as the famous Cavatina. All in the Romantic vein of the time, it is said that Richard Strauss was influenced in his early works by Raff and that much of Raff’s music forecasts the early works of Jean Sibelius. Composed around 1858, a much-thumbed and performed version of the by-now dilapidated manuscript was sent by Raff to the publishers. He apologized for its appearance but proved he could “write something easy if I want to” and furthermore stated, “They are in every respect mature and worthy of being considered, offering only what is generally appealing and nothing quirky or futuristically experimental.”
His work belonging thus to the category of sophisticated salon music, Raff further defended himself in a letter: “I did not invent the genre. I just cultivate it with more luck than my colleagues.”
Because of their status in the publisher’s eyes, there was much haggling over remuneration. Since then, the evergreen Cavatina has appeared in over 50 editions and arrangements. The popular song, with its lush soaring melodies, was heard on the Titanic, and even James Last arranged it for his orchestra. Violinists, you will want to add all of these charming works to your repertoire—rediscover the music of Raff for his 200th birthday.