Tragic Overture

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Tragic Overture, Op. 81

Johannes Brahms                                                      
Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


In the summer of 1880, when Brahms was visiting the fashionable resort of Bad Ischl (known for its medicinal springs and brine baths), he composed two concert overtures. “One weeps, the other laughs,” he commented to his biographer, Max Kalbeck. The laughing piece referred to his rollicking Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80, filled with light-hearted student songs, written to acknowledge his doctoral degree bestowed by the University of Breslau, introduced by soft trombone chords. The weeping piece was his Tragic Overture, Opus 81, and a heavy counterpoise to the first.  Brahms explained his motivation saying, “I (simply) could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for tragedy. ”

Though it was not written for any specific tragedy, speculation has suggested Tragic Overture was possibly written in contemplation of a commission to write incidental music for Goethe’s Faust. (This did not materialize.) Another possibility is that the composer had read Nietzsche’s work The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, published in 1872. This Overture is dramatic commentary on the spirit of tragedy in human life.

Tragic Overture begins with two slashing chords, which preface the solemn main theme, orchestrated within low strings and low winds in D minor. Trombones and tuba build a bridge to a contrasting F major theme, but relief is short.  A third main subject stemming earlier sketches is also introduced.  Writing in sonata form, the composer moves directly into a convulsive development. Brahms scholar Walter Niemann wrote, “The fleeting touches of thrilling, individual emotion in this overture are not to be found in conflict and storm, but in the crushing loneliness of terrifying and unearthly silences in what have been called ‘dead places.’”  Themes surge and spin in a tempest of emotion. A traditional recapitulation, introduced by two fortissimo chords, summarizes the main ideas with certain alterations.  Opus 81 premiered on December 20, 1880 in Vienna under the baton of Hans Richter.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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