Only a minority of Raff's works are prefaced with dedications but those that are are spattered with the names of members of the various royal, princely and ducal houses of pre-Imperial Germany. It is particularly noticeable that the composer dedicated several of his comparatively few occasional works celebrating notable events to eminent people associated with them. As Helene Raff makes little mention of these works in her biography these dedications can give some clue as to the reasons for the piece's existence. In the case of this rather superior overture, Raff's reasons for writing it are clear.
The Festival Overture in A for large orchestra op.117 seems to have been written in response to the accession in 1864 of King Karl I (1823-1891) to the throne of the south German kingdom of Württemberg. Certainly Schäfer, in his Catalogue of Raff's works, records that it was composed in that year and the piece is dedicated (with atypical humility for Raff) to "His majesty King Karl of Württemberg in humble reverence". It does not appear to have been written with a specific "festival" in mind, however, and was published in November 1865 by Kistner of Leipzig just a month before its premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Karl Reinecke's baton.
The Württemberg premiere was in March the following year at a concert in the Royal High Chapel in Stuttgart, held to benefit widows and orphans. It is not recorded whether Raff or the new king attended the concert, but the monarch soon had other things to occupy his mind. In June war broke out between Prussia and Austria. His country took Austria's side and shared in her defeat seven weeks later, after which northern Württemberg was occupied for a time by Prussian troops. It was the first stage of Bismarck's ultimately successful scheme to establish a German empire under Prussian hegemony; an entity about which Raff the patriot had very mixed feelings.
The work's bland, all-purpose title might lead one to expect a hollow piece full of fanfares and shallow rodomontade. In fact it is a finely wrought work, sensitively scored and expertly paced, featuring one of those memorable Raffian melodies for which his music is loved.
The extended slow opening, marked Larghetto, quasi Andante, starts with a solemnly sonorous passage which leads into a gloriously sinuous melody heard first on the horns and then from the full orchestra. This introductory passage lasts for more than four minutes before the arrival of more celebratory material (Allegro moderato), almost an anticipation of Sullivan's D'Oyle Carte style.
Raff goes on to blend these new vigourous dancing motifs with a faster version of the stately melody before relaxing into woodwind passages conveying a more pastoral atmosphere (poco più Allegro, ma non tranquillo). After a return of the festive material a brass fanfare motto is introduced and developed before the expansive opening melody reappears on the oboe and is melded into a general development section featuring all the material.
A generally genial atmosphere is maintained on to the end of the piece as Raff speeds up the pace with the dance themes predominating, although he cannot resist a reprise of the opening melody at a faster speed in the full orchestra in the work's final minute before a closing stretta finishes the celebration off.
At over 16 minutes duration, it is amongst Raff's longest free-standing orchestral works. As was his common practice, Raff also made a piano four hands arrangement of the work.