Raff wrote his fair share of concert overtures, but few were as successful as this work. It features prominently the great 1528 Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott - literally "a mighty fortress is our God" - from Psalm 46. Raff gave the published score the title"Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, Overture to a drama on the 30 years war" op.127 after the conflict sparked off by Luther's reforms.
It had an unusually tortuous gestation for a work of Raff's and was originally written in the summer of 1854 as the overture to a play by his future wife's brother Wilhelm Genast. Once he had left his Swiss homeland in Liszt's footsteps in 1844, Raff had little family life. For a time in Stuttgart he found a mother figure in Kunigunde Heinrich, but soon after his arrival in Weimar he met the director of the Court Theatre Eduard Genast who invited him to the his home. Raff and one of the four Genast daughters, Doris, were soon engaged. Thereafter Raff began a tradition of artistic collaboration with his family. Doris' sister Emilie was a famous singer for whom Raff wrote songs and near the end of his life he composed a song cycle and a Cantata on verses by his daughter.
Raff's incidental music to Wilhelm Genast's tragedy "Duke Bernhard of Weimar" comprised not only the Overture but also two Marches and two Fanfares. The play and music was premiered on 2 July 1855 in father Genast's Grand Ducal Theatre in Weimar and there followed a further 6 performances over the next year. The overture itself soon received four more concert performances as "Dramatic Overture on 'Ein feste Burg'".
The two Marches were eventually published but the two Fanfares remain in manuscript and none of them were given opus numbers by Raff (they are now classified WoO.17). The Overture, however, had more staying power. Raff revised it in 1865 by which time he was living in Wiesbaden and had established a growing reputation. The reworked piece, originally called a "Heroic-dramatic tone piece in the form of an overture", was premiered on Palm Sunday 1865 at a Karlsruhe concert to aid widows and orphans.
The celebrated Bohemian composer Kalliwoda, the kapellmeister, conducted. Together with Raff's piano duet arrangement, the score was published by Hofmeister in Leipzig. It is dedicated to Raff's great friend, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow.
Raff's skill in writing for orchestra is amply demonstrated by the varying aural textures of this work, as is his expertise in integrating the familiar Lutheran chorale into the musical framework so that it's use is appropriately recognisable without being either overpowering or gratuitous. Mendelssohn had managed the same in the finale to his "Reformation" Symphony, though perhaps Meyerbeer's Overture to "Les Huguenots" is a clearer model.
The extended work (roughly 20 minutes in length) begins in D major with a delicately scored Andante religioso starting in the strings and into which the woodwind introduce Luther's chorale. Some gentle variations on it follow, with the strings augmenting sonorous brass. After about five minutes an agitated section introduces the main d minor Allegro eroico (non troppo vivo, ma vigoroso) which no doubt illustrates the war which devastated Germany. It is heralded by a more martial character using Raff's own melodies and featuring his favourite skirling piccolo - after some initial drama the music subsides to a gentler passage on a hesitant theme in the woodwinds coupled with almost Tchaikovskian string writing. Raff builds to the first great climax at which "Ein feste Burg" reappears as a great brass fanfare, before returning to the earlier gentler material - but now the feeling is more brooding and filled with foreboding. The music speeds up to a very effective fugato passage in the strings which Raff whips up to a stormy climax with a restatement of the chorale in the brass. There is no triumph here, though, as it subsides to a repeat of the earlier martial section before "Ein feste Burg" returns and is combined by Raff with the hesitant theme.
After a brief working out of all the previous material and another short-lived climax a drum roll and passage for the solo cello concludes the central section and introduces the final Allegro trionfale and a return to the major key. A slow quotation of "Ein feste Burg" from the strings is a prelude to a grand restatement by the full orchestra which gradually builds to a glorious glowing climax. This subsides and then launches a strutting march theme - bringing the work to an effective and satisfying conclusion.