Symphonic Poems (Liszt) - Raff's Role

Raff's Role

When Liszt started writing symphonic poems, "he had very little experience in handling an orchestra ... his knowledge of the technique of instrumentation was defective and he had as yet composed hardly anything for the orchestra." For these reasons he relied first on his assistants August Conradi and Joachim Raff to fill the gaps in his knowledge and find his "orchestral voice". Raff, "a gifted composer with an imaginative grasp of the orchestra", offered close assistance to Liszt. Also helpful were the virtuosi present at that time in the Weimarian Court orchestra, such as trombonist Moritz Nabich, harpist Jeanne Pohl and violinists Joseph Joachim and Edmund Singer. " mixed daily with these musicians, and their discussions must have been filled with 'shop talk.'" Both Singer and cellist Bernhard Cossmann were widely experienced orchestral players who probably knew the different instrumental effects a string section could produce—knowledge that Liszt would have found invaluable, and about which he might have had many discussions with the two men. With such a range of talent from which to learn, Liszt may have actually mastered orchestration reasonably quickly. By 1853, he felt he no longer needed Raff's assistance and their professional association ended in 1856. Also, in 1854 Liszt received a specially designed instrument called a "piano-organ" from the firm of Alexandre and fils in Paris. This huge instrument, a combination of piano and organ, was basically a one-piece orchestra that contained three keyboards, eight registers, a pedal board and a set of pipes that reproduced the sounds of all the wind instruments. With it, Liszt could try out various instrumental combinations at his leisure as a further aid for his orchestration.

While Raff was able to offer "practical suggestions which were of great value to Liszt", there may have been "a basic misunderstanding" of the nature of their collaboration. Liszt wanted to learn more about instrumentation and acknowledged Raff's greater expertise in this area. Hence, he gave Raff piano sketches to orchestrate, just as he had done earlier with Conradi—"so that he might rehearse them, reflect on them, and then, as his confidence in the orchestra grew, change them." Raff disagreed, having the impression that Liszt wanted him on equal terms as a full collaborator. While attending an 1850 rehearsal of Prometheus, he told Bernhard Cossmann, who sat next to him, "Listen to the instrumentation. It is by me."

Raff continued making such claims about his role in Liszt's compositional process. Some of these accounts, published posthumously by Die Musik in 1902 and 1903, suggest that he was an equal collaborator with Liszt. Raff's assertions were supported by Joachim, who had been active in Weimar at approximately the same time as Raff. Walker writes that Joachim later recalled to Raff's widow "that he had seen Raff 'produce full orchestral scores from piano sketches.'" Joachim also told Raff's biographer Andreas Moser that "the E-flat-major Piano Concerto was orchestrated from beginning to end by Raff." Raff's and Joachim's statements effectively questioned the authorship of Liszt's orchestral music, especially the symphonic poems. This speculation was debased when composer and Liszt scholar Peter Raabe carefully compared all sketches then known of Liszt's orchestral works with the published versions of the same works. Raabe demonstrated that, regardless of the position with first drafts, or of how much assistance Liszt may have received from Raff or Conradi at that point, every note of the final versions represents Liszt's intentions.

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