The Kennedy Center

Tragic Overture in D minor, Op. 81

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Richard Freed

Apart from his Variations on a Theme by Haydn and his orchestrations of three of his Hungarian Dances, Brahms's two concert overtures are his only works for orchestra which are not cast in the extended form of the symphony, concerto or serenade. He composed them as a contrasting pair in the summer of 1880--the Academic Festival Overture (Op. 80), a jovial fantasy on student songs, in response to the University of Breslau's conferring an honorary doctorate upon him the previous year, and the Tragic Overture out of a more spontaneous motivation.

Brahms's interest in the tragedies of Sophocles is frequently cited in respect to this work, and to the last of his four symphonies, which he completed in 1885. It has been suggested, too, that his composing the two contrasting overtures at more or less the same time was itself a conscious gesture on the part of a knowledgeable classicist, reflecting the old Greek tradition of following a tragedy with a comedy or satyr-play. (Brahms himself conducted the two overtures together in the Breslau concert that marked the premiere of the Academic Festival , just nine days after the Tragic was introduced in Vienna.) But if there was indeed any particular literary inspiration for the Tragic Overture , it would appear to have come from a source much closer to Brahms's own time--possibly a composite source.

Goethe's Faust was a productive stimulus for several composers in the nineteenth century, and Brahms made some sketches for incidental music for the play; he did not get very far into that project, though, and eventually made use of some of those sketches in his Third Symphony. Besides Sophocles and Goethe, he enjoyed reading Shakespeare's tragedies, and there have been speculative attempts to link the Tragic Overture to King Lear or Hamlet. The various titles Brahms considered for the piece, however (he tried out Dramatic Overture and Overture to a Tragedy before settling on Tragic Overture ), all seem to confirm a more generic sort of intent on his part: a celebration of the spirit of tragedy, rather than an encapsulation of any specific drama. The general regard for such a concept was present at the time in German literature as well, as exemplified in Friedrich Nietzsche's intriguing work The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1871 with a somewhat longer title-- The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music --and with a dedication to Richard Wagner. There is, in any event, no attempt at picture-painting or delineation of any specific scenario in this music. The overture, in extended sonata form, is more austere than overtly impassioned, quite in keeping with the classical concept of tragedy. If Beethoven's Overture to Collin's Coriolan suggests itself as a musical model for the piece (the similarity of pattern is especially apparent in the consolatory material in the two works), the line of descent from Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave is perhaps even more direct, in terms of both orchestral coloring and the evocative power of the music in a general sense.