Tragic Overture, op. 81


            In 1879 the University of Breslau in Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland), awarded Brahms with an honorary doctorate, and he returned the favor by writing his beloved Academic Festival Overture, a delightful potpourri of traditional songs known to all at German universities.  He evidently felt the need to balance this work with a darker, more intense one.  So, in the same year that he wrote the first (1880), he turned out the Tragic Overture—the two more or less comprising bookends of the only overtures that he wrote.   After a first performance in Vienna to a mixed reaction, the Tragic Overture was played with its companion, the Academic Festival Overture, at the latter’s première in Breslau.  The motivation for composing the former was evidently internal for there is no evidence of any other stimulation.  The composer is well known for having said, “One laughs, while the other cries.”  Brahms, of course, is the standard bearer for conservative composers of the nineteenth century who gave little credence to the need for writing music that “tells stories.”  His four monumental symphonies are eloquent testimony of that artistic position, staking out the high ground for “pure” music that needs no other rationale than itself.  So, with that in mind, it is not at all surprising that there really is nothing further than the title, itself, of this overture to go on for “explanations.”  It simply is a rather dark, stormy work that explores sober emotions within an architectural framework similar to those of our friends Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

            The overture opens with two heavy, dramatic hammer strokes, followed by several contrasting ideas in quick succession, all the possibilities of which Brahms will explore—typically and thoroughly.   The mood of this work is clear and emphatic from the outset.  Eventually, we all expect a more cheerful second theme, and of course, we get it in the form of a genial, broad, Brahmsian tune in the violin section.  It’s only a short respite, for the composer soon returns to the stormy materials that opened the overture, and works with them in an appropriately dramatic fashion.  The official development of these ideas is heralded by the return of the heavy strokes that opened our work.  But, rather than jumping into an exploration of all these ideas in the same emotional vein as that of the beginning, Brahms surprises us with a peaceful little march based upon the dotted rhythm from the beginning, starting in the woodwinds and gradually taken up by the strings.   Needless to say, though, it’s not a happy procession, but then again, it’s not necessarily funereal, either.  Throughout, Brahms takes the opportunity to show us his skills in counterpoint as the tune intertwines.

            Soon it’s time to wrap things up with the recapitulation, where one usually expects a clear return to the opening ideas.  But, a masterpiece is often—maybe usually—judged, not by how it satisfies architectonic expectations, but by how it creatively varies and redefines them—and this is now the case.  He literally “sneaks” into the recap with some especially gratifying writing; but, where’s all those stormy ideas from the beginning?  Well, the trombones and horns play a warm, luminous, slow variant of the opening idea, but it’s certainly not in the same nature, and really only functions as a transition directly to the second idea.  And there’s not much “tragic” about it, as the violins soar out in optimistic warmth.  It can’t last, and it doesn’t.  The jagged dramatic rhythms return, and the two opening hammer strokes announce the drive to the end—interrupted by a moment of tranquility in the woodwinds, who take one last shot at some of the main ideas.  But, it’s only a moment of reflection before a short, powerful evocation of the opening concludes it all, and reminds us of the nature of this short drama.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan