Raff's arrival in Stuttgart early in 1848 seems to have coincided with a decision to write more ambitious works. Apart from a few songs, which were quickly destroyed after showing them to Liszt, he had composed only piano music before making his home in the Württemberg capital. As soon as he arrived Raff started writing songs again, and in spring 1848 he began work on a three movement setting for choir and orchestra of Psalm 121, following it with a four movement piano trio. However, neither was on the scale of his next project, an opera.
Raff began work on his "Grand Heroic Opera in Four Acts" König Alfred (King Alfred) WoO.14 in September 1848 and finished the piece in April the next year. His librettist was Henrik Glogau (1821-1877), a Norwegian who published under the pseudonym Gotthold Logau. Well before the work was finished Raff began lobbying to have it staged in Stuttgart. The kapellmeister, Lindpaintner, not unreasonably made it clear that there was no chance of the authorities committing to staging an unknown and unfinished work by an unknown composer. Failing to take the hint, Raff continued to nag away, and only made matters worse. Eventually giving up on Stuttgart, he tried to interest the composer Carl Reissiger, Dresden's kapellmeister, in König Alfred. Reissiger was well disposed towards Raff and thought highly of the opera but, calling it "daring and difficult", he felt that it would be a bold management who would be prepared to put it on.
When Raff moved to Weimar as part of Liszt's household at the beginning of 1850, getting König Alfred performed was back on his agenda. Liszt was impressed by the piece and, as the city's music director, he agreed to stage it, even mounting a surprise performance of an excerpt from the piece with himself playing the piano. In preparation for its premiere Raff revised the work in the second half of 1850, and spent the early weeks of the next year planning the performance and in rehearsals. Liszt assembled a fine cast, including perhaps the foremost baritone of the day, Fedor von Milde, as King Alfred. Although he had intended to conduct the premiere himself, Liszt was unable to do so because of the serious illness of his partner, Princess Caroline Sayn von Wittgenstein. So, with his mentor's parting shot of "get on with it, and good luck Raff!" ringing in his ears, the composer took up the baton at the premiere of his first opera at the Weimar Court Theatre on 9 March 1851.
König Alfred was a great success with audiences, was extensively reviewed and received several more performances. The Rheinische Musikzeitung concluded its generally approving review by describing the piece as "an important work, which seems to guarantee a future for the under 30 years old composer." But, despite being so well received, it had only a few more performances in Wiesbaden in 1856 before being quickly forgotten and never revived.
Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons (baritone)
Editha, his sister (soprano)
Sigbert & Edmund, Anglo-Saxon chieftains (tenors)
Osrik, Count of Lincoln (bass)
Guthrun, King of the Normans (bass)
Gunilde, his daughter (soprano)
Osburga, Editha’s confidante (soprano)
England in 878.
Sunset. In the Anglo-Saxon Camp in the woods on the Isle of Athelney, in the River Tone in Somerset. The fugitive King Alfred is despondent because of the suffering which his subjects are enduring at the hands of the invading Normans, but Sigbert and Edmund urge him to fight on. Edmund declares his love for Editha, but Alfred reveals that he long ago promised her to his old friend, Count Osrik. Edmund regards Osrik as a coward, hiding from the fighting, but then the Count arrives to claim his bride. Editha, appalled at the prospect, persuades Alfred to allow her to defer her agreement and, whilst she and Edmund bemoan their fate, Osrik recognises that he must use guile to secure Editha's hand. Arthur gives Sigbert command of the camp's defences but soon afterwards Osrik, who is a traitor, approaches Sigbert with an offer from the Normans to betray Alfred. Edmund overhears the plotters as Sigbert agrees to Osrik's plan.
Inside the royal tent, the next day. Alfred decides to attack the Normans and, needing information about their army, he asks Osrik to spy on them. When the Count leaves the council, Edmund urgently begs the king to take back command of the army and tells him of Osrik and Sigbert's treachery, but Alfred accuses him of jealousy. Osrik returns and Alfred, uncertain who to believe, tells him of Edmund's accusation. A guard is called and Edmund is lead away in chains. Alfred then agrees to Osrik's request that Sigbert accompany him on his spying mission. Left alone, Alfred is joined by Editha who urges him to believe Edmund, reminding him of her lover's past loyalty. As Alfred wavers, they both appeal to God for help and guidance.
At a banquet in the hall in Chippenham Castle, Alfred's former residence, which has been captured by the Normans. Alfred enters, disguised as an old harp player and is dismayed to see Osrik and Sigbert amongst his enemies. Guthrun commands him to entertain them all and he sings a patriotic song. Osrik, irritated at being thus reminded of his treason, commands Alfred to stop and goes on to ask Guthrun for Gunilde's hand as a reward for his treachery, to which the Norman king agrees. They leave. Gunilde is as appalled by this as she is at her father's dishonourable reliance on traitors. She decides to send Alfred a warning and, looking around for someone to take it, sees the harpist. Alfred agrees to be her messenger and in thanks she gives him a ring. Overcome by his feelings for her, he is about to reveal his true identity when Guthrun and the traitors return and demand that the harpist predict their futures. He tells Guthrun that his depends upon his wisdom, but that bad fates await Osrik and Sigbert. This provokes such anger that Alfred fears for his life, but Gunilde says that the harpist is only the mouthpiece of the gods and that she will protect him with her own life. Hiding behind her, Alfred escapes the hall.
The camp on Athelney. Editha and the women are awaiting news of the battle. The victorious Anglo-Saxons appear, leading Guthrun, Osrik and the Normans in chains. Alfred declares England to be free and apologises to Edmund, who has killed Sigbert in the fighting, for doubting him. He leads Edmund to Edith and they embrace. As the price of his freedom, Alfred asks Guthrun for Gunilde's hand and shows her the ring she gave him. Recognising him as the harpist, she agrees to be his queen. The Normans are relieved of their chains. Osrik, sickened by the turn of events, wishes for death but Alfred exiles him abroad. The opera closes to the Anglo-Saxons singing the patriotic song sung by Alfred whilst in his harpist disguise.