Most of Raff's 90 surviving solo songs are individual pieces, often grouped for publication into sets of from two to eight unconnected songs. Two more sets are more consciously "themed": the 30-strong Sanges-Frühling (Spring Songs) and the six numbers in Blumensprache (Language of Flowers) of 1874. Only two sets are deliberately called Song Cycles: the very late Blondel de Nesle of 1880 and Maria Stuart op.172. The defining characteristic of both sets is that the sequence of songs represents a narrative, in Maria Stuart's case it tells the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Helene Raff, in her biography of her father, makes no mention of the work and so his motivation for writing Maria Stuart is unknown, but it is unlikely to have been a mercenary one. Although he undoubtedly wrote many of his individual songs as brotarbeit (work for bread), the songs of the Maria Stuart cycle have a delicacy of feeling, sensitivity to narrative context and unity of atmosphere which make it clear that they were intended to be performed as one work, lasting around 30 minutes.
Raff drew his texts from Rose und Distel, an 1853 collection of historic poetry from Britain, translated into German by Gisbert, Freiherr von Vincke (1813-92). Prominent amongst them are the poems of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) and three men associated with her: David Riccio (1533-66), Lord Darnley (1545-67) and Chidiock Tichborne (1558-86). Sometime after Vincke's collection was published it was established that some of the poems were wrongly attributed, but together they make a touching commentary on Mary's tragic story.
Dedicated to Raff's sister-in-law, the singer Emilie Merian-Genast, the cycle was written in Wiesbaden in 1872. Raff was at the height of his powers, and that year also saw the completion of the Lenore Symphony, the String Octet and the String Sextet. Maria Stuart was published by Siegel in 1873, but this gem of a work does not seem to have attracted the attention or praise that they did.
Klage (Lament) is the title which Vincke gave to the eleven stanza poem describing the 17-year old Mary's feelings on the death of her first husband, King Francis II of France. Mary herself was not the author, although Vincke was unaware of this when his book was published. Raff splits the poem across the first four songs and they comprise a mini-cycle of their own lasting just over 11 minutes. They are unified musically by the device of the final song being based upon material from the first three. The first song, Klage I, sets the first three stanzas, is in C minor and is basically strophic but with subtle modifications to each succeeding stanza. The vocal line carries the simple, weary melody, underpinned by rocking piano accompaniment.
Klage II is in A flat major and continues with the second trio of stanzas. It starts joyfully as Mary recalls happier times with Francis. There's a hollowness to the music, however, which breaks through in the anguished third stanza, musically quite different from the first two, before the piano alone recalls the more carefree opening melody. In Klage III Raff gives the piano a more prominent part, perhaps personifying Francis, to whom Mary responds with a soaring vocal line, rich in lyrical melody and growing in force as the song progresses. It strikes a more positive note than its predecessors as Mary remembers Francis with fondness. It's in E major and, like Klage I, is a modified strophic structure.
Klage IV concludes the quartet and binds it together in a through composed setting of the last two stanzas using motifs from the first three songs. Starting in E minor it opens like the first song, bleak and empty, but then for the second stanza the mood brightens as song two is recalled and it closes in C major with the radiance of song three.
The fifth song is Maria Stuart's Abschied von Frankreich (Mary Stuart's farewell to France), based on a poem now known to have been written around 200 years after her departure for Scotland. The bittersweet mood of the vocal line is complemented by the rise and fall of the accompaniment, which evokes the sea. In F minor, the song's strophic structure is so heavily modified as to almost make it through composed.
The sixth and seventh songs set a poem An die Dame (To the lady) written by Mary's second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. An die Dame I is in A minor and sets the first two stanzas in a jaunty style, portraying the young Darnley's impetuosity. Once again Raff's structure is a modified strophic one, which makes the poem seem to be in four verses, and the piano writing is especially vigorous, complementing the confident vocal line. This and the second Darnley song would suit a baritone voice very well.
An die Dame II, which sets the poem's three concluding stanzas, is amongst the longest song in the cycle and is the fastest. In this through composed piece in C minor, Raff wrote an impassioned declaration of love which has great rhythmic vitality. It comes to an abrupt end with the final line "Mehr sag' ich nicht" ("I say no more"), to which the piano adds a brief postlude.
David Riccio's letztes Lied (David Riccio's Last Song) is the eighth song in the set and is an impassioned declaration of love for Mary by Riccio, her secretary who was eventually murdered with Darnley's connivance. This long song in A flat major is one of the most dramatic and romantic songs in the cycle. It has a rondo structure, in which an identical refrain separates musically unique verses and the piano provides a prelude, intermezzo and postlude. Riccio's cry of "Maria! Maria!" at the climax of this ardent song is especially dramatic, as it is the only mention of her name in the cycle. Although the voice is not specified by Raff, this song would be most effective sung by a tenor.
The longest song in the cycle Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes (On the birth of her son), is an exceedingly tender and unusual setting in A minor of another poem mistakenly attributed by Vincke to Mary, Queen of Scots. The first three quarters of the song consist of a gentle piano prelude which contrasts with the impassioned character of the previous song. The texture thickens into a chorale-like melody which builds to a climax and then subsides on the entrance of the singer, who has a tender and simple melody. The repeated "Amen" at the end is especially heartfelt.
The final "male" song of Maria Stuart is Vor dem Gang zum Schaffot (On the way to the scaffold), the famous poem written by the young Chidiock Tichborne on the eve of his gruesome execution for treason. The strophic setting in G major is simple and restrained, fitting the elegiac nature of the words. For all its simplicity, Raff's musical language is uncomfortable, with some mild dissonances adding a note of bitterness to Tichborne's resigned tone.
The final pair of songs, Abshied von der Welt (Farewell to the World) and Gebet (Prayer) belong to Mary. Condemned to death after the plot for which Tichborne was executed, she awaits her own end with apparent equanimity. Abshied is in A minor and has a plaintive air. The same melody is used for each of the first two verses and another spans the second pair, but the song, which is uninterrupted by piano interludes, has the quality of a single utterance because both the key and the piano accompaniment remain unchanged throughout it. The final song returns to C minor, where the cycle began. Although the vocal line is initially calm and steady, the piano is more mercurial, perhaps echoing Mary's thoughts as she awaits execution. Eventually, the singer's anxieties break through in passionate climax, before both piano and singer end the song in calm resignation.
Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle on the reluctant orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. She had been imprisoned for 19 years.
[See Molly Johnson's fine monograph "'Maria Stuart', opus 172: A song cycle by Joseph Joachim Raff based on the poetry of Mary Queen of Scots" for a full discussion of this work]