Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: November 6, 1925, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Shakespeare famously asked, “what’s in a name?” In relation to Brahms’ Tragic Overture, one could answer that a tragic piece without that name in the title would sound just as taut and elemental. Inasmuch as Brahms’ motive for writing this work was nothing more imperative than wanting to follow his relatively jolly Academic Festival Overture with an emotional antithesis, there is no reason nor need to read more into the sinewy music – something like a grim personal experience or perhaps a literary program – than meets the ear. It has been suggested, though not verified, that the Tragic was planned as a prelude to a new production of Goethe’s Faust. A tantalizing idea, if out of character for Brahms, but one that probably arose because of Brahms’ having written to his friend Simrock that “I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture to a tragedy.” In describing the two overtures to another friend, he said, “One of them weeps, the other laughs.”
In 1880, the year of the two near-twin overtures, Brahms, with his first two symphonies behind him, was basking in an accumulating celebrity. In fact the Academic Festival Overture represents the composer’s musical appreciation to the University of Breslau for having conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Having duly conveyed his ebullient thanks by tossing a student cap into the air, Dr. Brahms donned his Philosopher’s hat, furrowed his brow, and set a steely gaze on musical matters of deep seriousness.
The Tragic Overture opens with full orchestra presenting two chordal exclamations, following which, with timpani vibrating ominously, unison strings intone the austere main theme. A simple, pathetic march idea beginning with a dotted figure immediately answers the strings, and this material, plus an onward rushing triplet figure and finally a comforting major-key melody, constitute the Overture’s materials. The magnificent energy that presses through the outer portions of the piece has a defiant strength whose force is heightened by a superb section in which the poignant little march idea, now at a slower tempo, defines the “Tragic” of the Overture even more potently than all the muscular thrust before and after it.
The Tragic Overture may not weep, but it does have an emotional resonance that is powerfully affecting.
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.