Christian Ernst Graaf grew up in a musical family. His father, Johann Graf (1684–1750), was violinist, music teacher, composer and conductor. In 1722 he was appointed concert master to the princely court of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt in Rudolstadt and in 1739 he was promoted to Kapellmeister. Johann Graf had seven sons whom he presumably taught music himself. Four of them – Johann Paul, Friedrich Willhelm, Christian Ernst and Friedrich Hartmann – followed in their father’s footsteps and became musicians too. Little is known about Christian Ernst’s life in Rudolstadt before he moved to the Netherlands. It appears that he left his hometown with instruments of the court and with debts. Christian Ernst and his brother Friedrich Hartmann, who was four years younger, possibly joined a regiment that arrived in the Netherlands halfway through April 1748. We know that Friedrich Hartmann was wounded in the siege of Bergen op Zoom and that he was made a prisoner of war.

In any case, Christian Ernst was in Middelburg in 1750, where he became the leader of the Collegium Musicum. Under Graaf’s leadership the standard of the Middelburg Collegium Musicum increased so much, that in 1754 it was allowed to use a concert hall financed by the town. Presumably the first printed opus by Christian Ernst, the Sei Sinfonie a Violino Primo, Secondo, Viola, E Basso (…), dedicated al molto illustri, eccellentissimi é stimatissimi SIGNORI, Membri Dell’ illustrissimo Collegio Musicale di Middelburg, was written at the end of his stay in Zeeland, as a farewell to the ensemble.

Most likely Graaf moved to The Hague in the second half of 1754, where he became a composer at the court of Princess Anna van Hannover (1709–1759), widow of stadtholder Willem IV (1711–1751). In the ’s Gravenhaegse Courant of 2 November 1759 Christian Ernst is mentioned as Muziek Compositeur aen het Hof van S.D.H. den Heere Prince van Oranje (Composer of Music at the Court of His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange), in other words of the then eleven-year-old Willem V (1748–1806). That same year (1759) his name appears on the bills of the royal chapel.

Around 1764 Christian Ernst changed his surname ‘Graf’ into the Dutch name ‘Graaf’. In the autumn of 1765, when the Mozart family was visiting The Hague, Leopold Mozart used the Dutch version of the name in his travel diary: Mr: Graaff. Compositeur et directeur de la Musique du Prince. Although Leopold obviously considered him Kapellmeister, it is unclear exactly when Christian Ernst got this position; concerning an official appointment not a single document has survived.

On the occasion of the inauguration as stadtholder of Willem V, who turned eighteen on 8 March 1766, Graaf composed the song Laat ons juichen Batavieren! (Let us rejoice Batavians!). It is understandable that the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart based his variations KV 24 on a song by Christian Ernst, as at that time Graaf was the most important musician at the court. As Kapellmeister it was Graaf’s task not only to compose and to choose the repertory of the orchestra of the royal chapel, but also to select the librettos and texts that were to be set to music for various occasions. In the years that Graaf worked at the court, he wrote numerous, mainly instrumental, compositions. He never tried his hand at opera.

The following characterisation has been handed down: ‘Graaf or Graf practised arts and sciences, he was an educated man, sociable, and when among his friends even talkative and cheerful; he was particularly gifted at teaching, especially youngsters, in whom he managed to instil a taste for the arts and sciences.’

In November 1790 Graf retired. On 17 July 1804 he died in The Hague and was buried in the Grote Kerk.

Graaf was not a pioneer, nevertheless he did clearly develop as a composer in his dozens of symphonies, concertos, quintets, quartets, trios, duos and solo works. While his opus 1 has stylistic resemblances to compositions from the late Baroque, he approaches the Mannheim School and Johann Sebastian Bach’s younger sons in following works. The style of the Passion cantata Der Tod Jesu (1802) on a libretto by Ramler, Graaf’s most mature composition, is more like that of the late oratorios by Joseph Haydn. The instrumentation and the form of his works are typical of their time. The harmonic set-up of most of his works is straightforward. But at times he comes up with remarkable inventions, especially as far as melody and rhythm are concerned.

© Ton Braas & Dick van Heuvel
Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
? Sinfonia No 2 in C 4.00 stars 5 CD
Dutch Radio Chamber Orchestra cond. Anthony Halstead