piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, basses
First performance: December 26, 1880, Vienna.
Brahms frequently sketched and completed major works in pairs. For example, the first two symphonies were written at virtually the same time, as were the last two, the Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto No. 2, and the Clarinet Trio and Quintet. Also in this category are the two overtures, the light-hearted and popular Academic Festival Overture, op. 80, and the dark, moody, and less popular Tragic Overture, op. 81. Although both appear to have been sketched in the summer of 1880, the Tragic, despite its higher opus number, was probably the first to be completed. There are even indications that several themes may have been composed as early as 1860.
Its uncompromising seriousness has led some to assume that the Tragic Overture may have been intended as a prelude to a stage production, perhaps Faust. This seems unlikely, since Brahms rarely showed interest in writing incidental music for anyone else’s work. Although the desire to achieve a sense of balance with the Academic Festival Overture may have played a role in its creation, the Tragic Overture was probably no more than an abstract exercise in the tradition of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture or Liszt’s Hamlet. It can be said with a degree of certainty that the work does not mirror a tragic event in Brahms’ rather uneventful personal life. It might even be said that he more successfully portrays tragedy in works which are not overtly labeled as such.
Instead of utilizing a more typical slow introduction, Brahms begins the work with two piercing chords in D minor. From there, the work loosely follows the outlines of the traditional sonata form. There is a dependency throughout on darker sonorities, particularly those of the trombones and horns. The work was premiered in Vienna on December 26, 1880, before a less than enthusiastic audience. Eight days later, it was repeated at the University of Breslau on a program with the premiere of the Academic Festival Overture. Some critics reported that the effect of the Tragic Overture on the audience was so profound that it detracted from the gaiety of the other, eventually more popular, work. Today, it remains one of the great musical expressions of tragedy from the Romantic age.