Tragic Overture, op. 81

In the summer of 1880 Brahms was working on a pair of concert overtures around the same time, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture.Brahms aptly remarked about the contrasting works that ‘one laughs while the other cries’. In a letter dated September 1880 he wrote, ‘I have promised a very merry academic festival overture for 6 January in Breslau, featuring the Gaudeamus and much else. On this occasion I could not refuse my melancholy nature the pleasure of writing a tragic overture as well.’ The latter is not connected to a specific stage work, and does not have a particular plot or ‘programme’ either. The composer was out to depict the tragic as such in a sonata-form, independent movement which, going by its length and the extent of its development, would easily pass as the opening movement of a symphony. The Tragic Overture received its public premi?re in Vienna on 20 December 1880, under the baton of Hans Richter. It was not successful and wherever it was performed over the following year, it met with a gloomy reception. Today’s concertgoers will wonder why the late-19th-century audiences would not appreciate this painfully beautiful, passionate and captivating work.