Towards the end of Raff's life, in the five years when he was director of the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, the time which he had available for composition was severely curtailed and he had even less of it to arrange for his recent works to be published. Of the 28 compositions which he finished between 1877 and his death in 1882, no less than twelve were unpublished when he died and these included some major compositions: two operas (Benedetto Marcello and Die Eifersüchtigen), the set of four Shakespeare Preludes for orchestra, the Orchestral Suite Aus Thüringen and this lovely Cantata for mixed choir Die Sterne (The Stars) WoO.53, which was composed in 1880.
Because the works were not published, and many of them remained unperformed, both our major sources, Albert Schäfer's Verzeichnis of 1888 and Helene Raff's later biography of her father, give very little information about them. This is particularly true of Die Sterne, which gets scant mention in either and is completely ignored in Müller-Reuter's Lexikon. Schäfer simply notes that it was composed in the summer and autumn of 1880 in Frankfurt, that Raff made a piano reduction of the orchestral score and that the text was a poem by Helge Heldt. Helene Raff reveals that she was Heldt, writing under a pseudonym. She had a low opinion of her ability as a poet, writing "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." In her own autobiography she added "He made up his mind to use my ability, thoroughly childlike though it was, to make up rhymes – the words “write poetry” would be blasphemy here – in a formal task that he would set me. ... Even at that age I began to realise that I was no good at poetry."
The implication is that Raff chose the subject of his daughter's poems, but what attracted him to these three subjects (Helene also wrote the texts for the Concertante Die Tageszeiten and the song cycle Blondel de Nesle) is not now known. In any event, in the case of Die Sterne 15 year old Helene's verses inspired him to write a work of great delicacy and beauty. The 25 minute long Cantata is a prime example of Raff's tendency, even near the end of his career, to be almost over-generous with his melodic invention and it also demonstrates his genius for colour. The score's orchestral textures show him writing with a finesse and spareness which anticipates his final choral work, the great oratorio Welt-Ende. It is matched by choral writing which is beguilingly simple in places and uncompromisingly polyphonic in others but is always both entirely appropriate to the subject matter and sensitively scaled to avoid overpowering the orchestra, with which the choir is in equal partnership here. Despite being one of Raff's most beautiful and captivating scores, Die Sterne not only went unheard and unpublished in his lifetime, it remained unperformed until it was recorded in December 2009. Edition Nordstern now plan to publish the score.
1st. Movement: Andante, quasi Allegretto- "Vom Firmamente blinkt Sternenglanz hernieder"
The works' magical opening [2:11]
The movement, which is in F major and is the longest in the work, opens with a gentle wonder-filled evocation of the night sky, which serves as an orchestral prelude to the whole cantata. Echoing the opening mood, each of the four choral voices quietly enters in turn, intoning "The stars beam down from the firmament". The mood of awe is maintained through the first of the movement's six verses and is followed by an orchestral bridge passage into the second. Throughout this piece Raff composes in free form, the setting evolving from the previous verse's material, linking them with short orchestral passages. The third verse sees a sonorous brass entry which heralds a more forceful fugal treatment for "In their prescribed course they span eternities", which builds to a climax before relaxing to the previous mood for the lovely fourth and fifth verses. A flow of grateful melody and exquisite choral sonorities describes the Milky Way, ""A secret ribbon fixes them in the ether", and then the majestic progress of the stars through the heavens. Before the final verse Raff builds up an orchestral climax, into which the choir launches a find grand outpouring, "Then they speak", which cntinues in the final "gentle light of the stars."
2nd. Movement: Andante - "Es schaut der Lotse auf der See empor zur Höhe"
This is the second verse of the movement "The astronomer too looks up" [0:33]
This tiny movement in F minor, only 90 seconds long, sets three verses which describe the uses which mankind makes of the stars. The homophonic treatment is a telling contrast with the previous movement, being reminiscent of a folk song. Each verse is sung to the same melody and the accompaniment is spare, limited to strings and winds. "The pilot at sea looks up to the heights" is followed by the astronomer and finally those who seek solace from the heavens.
3rd. Movement: Adagio, quasi Andante- "Hell und freundlich lacht der Gestirne Pracht"
This is the the central section leading towards the movement's close [1:23]
Moving to A major, Raff here presents a further three verses in a rather longer movement of around three minutes duration. It has a straightforward A-B-A structure, mirroring the character of the verses. "The stars’ splendour laughs brightly and kindly" is happy and upbeat, whereas the central verse takes on a much more dramatic character, built around a climax in which Raff graphically illustrates the "threatening and wild" comets which "draw fiery trails across the heavens" and "means pain and torment for men". The chromatic episode quickly reverts to the bright and cheery material of the movement's opening for the third verse, although Helene Raff's poem is more ambivalent, describing how man will determine "what will bring him joy or trouble."
4th. Movement: Largo - "Ein Stern der Höhen
1. The opening horn solo [1:59] 2. The end of the choral section [2:18]
This wonderful movement in A flat is not only the gem of this work but is one of the most magical pieces in the whole of Raff's oeuvre. Ironically, the choir takes a back seat, singing for less than a quarter of the movement's seven minutes. The piece has the character of a slow barcarole with its first half consisting of a long solo from the French horn set against the gentle accompaniment of violins, violas, cellos and latterly clarinets. The long melody is amongst Raff's most inspired creations, punctuated by several brief instances of divided violins conjuring up shooting stars. At the choir's entry, "A star high up falls", the music modulates to E major and Raff introduces a new and equally felicitous barcarole melody, this time taken rather more quickly as it sings about shooting stars falling to earth and the thoughts of those who witness the phenomena. After a little over a minute and a half the choral section ends, the music returns to A flat and the opening material is now heard in the full orchestra, quickly building to a grand heart-easing swell of melody, before the movement gradually winds down to a gentle close.
5th. Movement: Allegro - "Wenn das Aug' in nächt'ger Stille"
This is the end of the finale, from midway through the fugue [2:10]
The finale is no more extended that most of Die Sterne's movements, lasting only five minutes, but it does give Raff the opportunity for a fugue, something which, apart from a brief episode in the first movement, has been uncharacteristically absent from the cantata. First the orchestra briefly states a noble chorale melody, before the choir enters with a different tune full of anticipation to which they sing the first two verses beginning with "When the eye in night-time silence", but the grand chorale returns for a majestic swell on the last line, "Frommer Glaube trüget nicht" ("True faith does not deceive"). A lively new melody, a relative of that employed for the first two verses, is used for the third verse's lines about stars as messengers of hope, before Raff prepares for his fugal treatment of the final verse with a blazing orchestral chord. This impressive passage, which takes up about a third of movement, is the joyful climax of the whole work and it leads, after a second sustained chord, into a last restatement of the grand chorale, the prelude to some typically Raffian final pages in which an exciting stretto dash closes on the words "whether by sun, moon or stars, a higher power rules."
All audio excerpts from Sterling CDS-1089 [review]. Grateful thanks to Alan Howe for the translations of Helene Raff's autobiography and of the text of Die Sterne. Translation of Helene Raff's biography of Joachim Raff by the late Dr. Alan Krueck.