At around eight minutes duration, Othello WoO.52 is the most concise of Raff's four Orchestral Preludes to Shakespeare plays. It is only two-thirds the length of Macbeth and half as long as Sturm (The Tempest). Unlike its companion pieces, it does not present a detailed narrative of the play's action. Rather, it gives the listener a sort of mood-picture, encapsulating the overall atmosphere of the drama by concentrating on the tragic story of Desdemona, her obsessively jealous lover Othello and his vengeful aide Iago.
The sources are silent on Raff's motivation for writing the Shakespeare Preludes, merely recording that they were all composed in 1879. After Raff's death Brahms was typically disdainful at the apparent ease with which Raff composed them. One can indeed imagine Brahms himself worrying away at such a task for years, weighed down by the extra-musical responsibility of producing works which matched the quality of the dramas. That was not Raff's way. He did not believe that a work was only worthwhile if it was wrung, drop by drop, from its tortured creator's soul. He was an craftsman of genius in the classical tradition, capable of producing highly satisfying and technically brilliant works of illustrative art, rather than a romantic tone poet suffering agonies for his elemental muse.
The speed with which Raff seems to have written these pieces certainly supports Brahms' implied charge that he did not torture himself over their conception but one should not infer from it that the works are shoddily constructed, musically inept or inappropriate. Raff was an unusually hard worker who had a compulsion to compose. His daughter records that, as a matter of course, each composition went through at least four stages of revision. The Vielschreiber charge that a combination of easy facility and lack of self-criticism produced his 290-odd oeuvre is giving way to a recognition of just how many of those works are of a very high quality. Typical of them is Othello.
The work went unperformed and unpublished in Raff's lifetime and there is no record of any posthumous performances.
Raff provided no commentary, but it seems clear that for this Prelude he decided to concentrate on the tragedy of Othello and Desdemona, boiling the drama down to their tragedy and Iago's role in it. The work is consequently derived mainly from two strongly contrasted themes for the two principals to which is added a brief motif for Iago. As befits its subject it is a highly charged work, full of passion and nervous energy.
The Prelude begins with an furious and extremely nervous theme dominated by a recurring six-note ascending cell. Of an almost Tchaikovskian mould, we may assume it represents Othello himself. Beginning in the lower strings it gathers pace and builds to a climax as it is transferred into the higher registers before quickly subsiding. Raff now introduces a supple cantabile melody (presumably Desdemona) given over almost entirely to the strings.
Derivatives of these two motifs are intertwined (representing their love?) in a beautiful passage delicately scored for strings, woodwind and then horn before Raff introduces the third brief motif which, judging by its agressive character, probably represents their nemesis, Othello's erstwhile aide Iago. Similar in construction to the Othello theme, it is characterised by a series of triplets in an arch structure.
This fragment alternates with Desdemona's music before the Othello theme re-asserts itself in a frenzied climax at which Iago's theme is heard, spreading his poison of suspicion to feed Othello's jealousy. The passion subsides momentarily as the Desdemona music is recalled, overlaid with the Iago motif but the drama is propelled towards its end by a growing climax based upon Othello.
Desdemona is recalled for the last time (having been killed by the Moor?) before the music builds to its conclusion, the Iago and Othello themes mingling in conflict. Iago's theme achieves its last snarling climax before the Prelude ends in a final anguished outburst from Othello himself.