Brahms’s Tragic Overture can be regarded as the serious counterpart to his more joyful Academic Festival Overture; these two works were composed during his pleasant sojourn in Bad Ischl during the summer of 1880. Brahms was not accustomed to provide his works with an extra-musical significance; the carefully chosen adjective ‘tragic’ does not mean that the work contains a programme as such. The mood of the overture, despite Brahms’s splendid summer, is dark and gloomy.
The piece is in D minor, a key that was frequently associated with fate and destiny during the late 18th and 19th centuries; this is also true for Brahms’s songs for solo voice, such as his Denn es geht dem Menschen wie dem Vieh from the Vier ernste Gesänge. Bearing this in mind, the fortissimo chords that begin the Tragic Overture sound like the hammer blows of fate. The stirring theme that follows introduces a group of themes of almost symphonic cut; these precede a broad motif on the trombones and the tuba that itself announces a romantic cantabile theme in the strings. Impressive figures, although savagely dotted, now appear. The first theme returns, after which a dancelike staccato motif surfaces as the music is developed. Neither this nor the return of the melodious second theme in the violas can, however, distract this great overture from its sombre conclusion.
Translation: Peter Lockwood