Raff's legacy of vocal compositions is substantial. There are 150 lieder, 40 choral songs and three orchestral songs, together with six operas and nine further secular works involving chorus and orchestra. For four of his operas and a couple of the choral works he wrote his own text, either in his own name or under the pseudonym of Arnold Börner, but for the rest of this extensive oeuvre Raff set the words of others. Although some of his songs are settings of poems by the greatest of German writers: Goethe, Heine and Schiller for example, for the most part the authors are not so familiar now.
Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884) provided the texts for more of Raff's works than any other poet: 20 lieder, a cantata, an orchestral song and a song for male voice choir. He was the leading representative of German lyric poetry throughout the middle of the 19th. century, and was particularly valued for his love poems, several of which Raff set. The 24 years spanned by the Five Lieder from Emanuel Geibel op.51 of 1849-50 and the Six Songs from Emanuel Geibel for Three Female Voices op.183 of 1870-3 attest to the enduring attraction of his poetry for Raff. His most acclaimed collection, the 30 songs of Sanges-Frühling op.98 of 1855-63, contains seven by Geibel. One of Raff's first orchestral successes, the orchestral song Traumkönig und sein Lieb op.66 was also based on a Geibel text, as was the cantata Wachet auf!
For such a short time, Raff's stay in Stuttgart was to provide some lasting friendships. Amongst these were the poets Otto Julius Inkermann (1823-62), Johann Georg Fischer (1816-97) and Henrik Glogau (1821-1877). Published under the pseudonym C O Sternau, Inkermann became quite well known. Raff set seven of his friend's poems in his opp.50, 52 and 53, which date from 1849-50. A little later, Ständchen WoO.21 of 1859 was to prove one of his most enduring songs. The last setting of an Inkermann poem appeared in his op.173 set and was composed just after the poet's death.
Fischer, a dramatist and teacher as well as a poet, lived in and around Stuttgart all his life. He was a republican in his youth, but later became a staunch supporter of Bismarck and the emergent German Empire. As a fellow radical in 1848, Raff must have appreciated the 31 year old's poetry as his opp.47 and 49, written whilst he was living in the Württemberg capital, each consist of a trio of settings of Fischer's poems. The Norwegian Glogau, who was published as Gotthold Logau, provided the texts for the two songs of op.48, probably also written whilst Raff was in Stuttgart. More significantly, he also wrote the libretto for his first opera König Alfred.
Raff's only enduringly successful opera, the comic Dame Kobold of 1869, was based upon the famous Spanish play La dama duende by Calderon, but the libretto itself was the work of another friend of Raff's, the Basel church architect Paul Reber (1835-1908).
Amongst more obscure writers, two deserve mention because Raff devoted complete opuses to their works. The six songs of op.191, Blümensprache (Language of Flowers) are settings of poems by the writer Gustav August Christian Kastropp (1844-1925). Kastropp's poems were also used as lieder texts by the late romantic composer Georg Schumann and two of Eugen d'Albert's operas are based upon Kastropp libretti. His tragedy Agamemnon was produced in 1890. Raff used ten poems by Franz Alfred Muth (1839-1890) for his op.198, Ten songs for Mixed Choir. Raff's younger contemporaries Nessler and Rheinberger also composed lieder using his verses.
August Heinrich Hoffmann (1798-1874), who published under the name Hoffmann von Fallersleben, was one of Germany's most popular progressive poets; he wrote the words to the erstwhile German national anthem Deutschland über Alles. He lived in Weimar at the same time as Raff and was friendly with Liszt's circle there. On the occasion of a visit from Berlioz, he penned a Latin poem in his honour. Raff immediately transformed it into a four-part chorus which was sung to the delighted Frenchman the same evening. Raff used eight of Hoffmann's poems as lieder texts and set two more for male-voice choir.
After Geibel, the writer whose work was most frequently used by Raff was "Helga Heldt". Her verses were used for the concertante Die Tageszeiten (The Times of Day) op.209 of 1877, the cantata Die Sterne (The Stars) WoO.53 and also the cycle of 11 songs Blondel de Nesle op.211, both composed in 1880. The composer's daughter Helene was the reluctant author, hiding behind a pseudonym. She wrote in her biography of her father: "The father gave his teenage daughter the commission to write these poems for him; naturally his request was fulfilled, but with a bad conscience on the part of the poetess, because it was something of a sin against the Holy Ghost of poetry for her to rhyme without inner reason the thoughts commissioned from her."
Amongst the writers who provided texts for his secular works for chorus and orchestra is the magnificently named writer, journalist and physician Friedrich Konrad Müller von der Werra (1823 - 1881), whose Deutschlands Auferstehung (Germany's Resurrection) was set by Raff as his prize-winning op.100 Festival Cantata of 1862. His future brother-in-law Wilhelm Genast wrote the libretto for the greatly admired "Epic Fairy Tale" Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) WoO.19 of 1855. Genast later made a name for himself in law and government, but earlier in his career he had tried his hand as a dramatist; Raff wrote the incidental music for the 1855 production of his drama Bernhard von Weimar.
Although most of the poems used by Raff were contemporary or from the late 18th. century, he did set works penned by much earlier authors. The Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich IV (1050-1106) is the earliest of Raff's poets, followed by the 16th. century Michael Weise. Raff's most successful use of older material, however, is that imaginative and atmospheric cycle, the Maria Stuart Lieder op.172 of 1872. It consists of settings of poems by Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) and three of the men associated with her, Darnley, Riccio and Tichbourne, translated into German by Gisbert, Freiherr von Vincke (1813-1892). Five of the Queen's poems had previously been set by Robert Schumann.
In all, Raff's large vocal output sets the writings of 56 authors ranging from Goethe and Schiller to poets unheard of today. There was a huge market for lieder in the Germany of his time and his choice of texts reflects the sensibilities and preoccupations of his day. Gentle evocations of the countryside mingle with heroic verses yearning for German unification, but for the most part he chose romantic poetry speaking of frustrated love and heartbreak, blissful happiness and yearning anticipation.