Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Tragic Overture Op. 81 (1880)

The tragic overture was composed in the summer of 1880, possibly as a contrasting companion piece to the rumbustious Academic Festival Overture which Brahms had written for the University of Breslau in gratitude for the honorary doctorate they had awarded him. He said of the two concert overtures "One laughs and one weeps". However the Tragic Overture is in character dramatic and turbulent rather than sorrowful. It was written at a time when Brahms had earned great acclaim for his first two symphonies and clearly illustrates his mastery of symphonic form and orchestration. The first performance took place on 26 December 1880 in Vienna.

In outline it loosely follows the classical sonata form, but with the musical material re-ordered in the recapitulation. The opening is stark and threatening with dramatic fortes and a march like dotted rhythm. This is contrasted by a quieter lyrical section. Out of these two ideas the rest of the music is composed through a process of motivic development characteristic of Brahms. Although there are some moments of lyrical beauty, the drama is never far away.

Brahms' Tragic Overture was performed by the Portobello Orchestra on the 13th July 2013, conducted by Michael Robson-Kiernan.