The Tragic Overture, Opus 81, was written by Brahms in the summer of 1880, allegedly for a projected production of Goethe’s dramatic play Faust at the Vienna Burgtheater, which unfortunately never materialized. Regardless of the occasion for the overture’s origination, there are no direct connections between its content and that of the tragedy and it is pointless to seek parallels between the inherent ideas of the two works. Brahms himself had expressed resentment for the attempts to graft a programmatic explanation to his music, maintaining that in choosing the designation “tragic” he had meant it as an expression of the tumultuous, dramatic nature of this work, which is in stark contrast with the cheerful and brimming with jubilant exultation Academic Festival Overture, written a little later in the same year. The composer summarized in the following way the main difference in the character of his two overtures: “One laughs and the other weeps.”
The first performance of the Tragic Overture took place on 26 December 1880 in Vienna, under the direction of Hans Richter. Eight days later, the work was performed again at the University of Breslau.. The same concert also saw the premiere performance of another Brahms overture, the Academic Festival.
The Tragic Overture quotes an excerpt from the last movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony. Russian musicologist Ekaterina Tsareva, a researcher of the composer’s creative output, regards this overture as “one of the purest exemplars of Brahmsian classicism.” Indeed, in comparison with the tragic pages from music pieces by his Romantic contemporaries – Liszt, Wagner or Bruckner – the title of the piece is to a certain extent conditional. But on the other hand, it brings to life an entire gamut of tragic sentiments so peculiar of the high classicism and reflected in the music of Gluck, Beethoven and the figure Brahms held in such highs esteem – Cherubini. The heroic, even solemn, pathos, which however, is completely devoid of theatrical affectation; the restrained austerity of the composer’s musical idiom, seem in opposition to the overt emotionalism and irresistible passion of the New German school. The overture has its moments of genuine drama, foreshadowing one of the deepest revelations in Brahms’s music – the finale of his Fourth Symphony.
The piece is constructed in three main sections: Allegro ma non troppo; Molto più moderato; Tempo primo ma tranquillo.