TRAGIC OVERTURE (D MINOR), OP. 81
Recording: Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado
[DG 435 683-2]
When Brahms decided
to compose a concert overture based
on student songs in 1880, after receiving an honorary
doctorate from the University of Breslau, he also wrote this
magnificent counterpart. His tendency to compose works
of the same genre in contrasting pairs resulted in his only
two compositions of this nature. The so-called “Tragic”
Overture was long one of his less popular orchestral works,
but in recent years its masterful adaptation of sonata form
and its inexorable dramatic trajectory, including its
shattering close, have been more widely recognized, making it
one of the more frequent opening works on symphony concert
programs. Brahms’s own quip, “one laughs and the other
weeps,” is far too simplistic to describe the two
overtures. Both reveal the hand of a seasoned composer
who had already written two symphonies and was confident in his
firm, but arduously acquired mastery of both form and
orchestration. While the “Tragic” is shorter than all
four of his symphonic
and the finale of No. 1, it uses a
larger orchestra, including both piccolo and tuba, than any of
the symphonies, although the percussion of the “Academic Festival” Overture is
avoided. The “generic” title is carefully calculated to
express mood, but no specific literary source, although such
sources have been speculated. Models from earlier
composers, such as Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture, are
easier to identify. Brahms sets
up the tragedy of his overture by using an intriguing
adaptation of sonata-allegro form. The long and diverse
first theme group is completely subverted in the
recapitulation. The development section cuts the tempo
in half and transforms the dynamic opening themes into an
austere dirge. The transition from the first theme group
to the typically warm and melodious second theme is extremely
long and mysterious. Brahms uses this music to slip into
the recapitulation and disguise the return of the opening
tempo. The coda is highly extended, compensating for the
abbreviated recapitulation. Almost a “symphony in one
movement,” the overture, with its stark and inevitable
minor-key ending after the shattering coda, embodies Brahms’s
means of transposing the archetypal tragic drama to musical
composition without any specific external references.
The finale of the Fourth Symphony
is a later example of the same idea on the canvas of a
different form. The overture can safely be ranked among
the most significant one-movement orchestral compositions of
the 19th Century.
FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)
SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition [monochrome]
from Sibley Library)
FROM IMSLP (from Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)
ma non troppo--Molto più moderato--Tempo primo
(Sonata-Allegro form). D MINOR, Cut time [2/2]--4/4--Cut
0:00 [m. 1]--Theme 1,
Part 1. Three of the primary elements of the theme are
presented in quick succession: (1) the opening “hammer blow”
chords from the full orchestra, the top of which outline a
descending fourth. This is immediately followed by a
drum roll. (2) The drum roll subsides and the opening tune, a
rising and falling arpeggio, is quietly played by the strings
with horn interjections. (3) A march like tune with dotted
(long-short) rhythm played by strings and bassoons quickly
swells to loud syncopated chords from the orchestra.
0:22 [m. 13]--Theme 1,
Part 2. The opening rising and falling melody and the
march in dotted rhythm are played by the full orchestra at
full volume. Powerful descending violin arpeggios are
added to the latter. The culminating chords are
separated by rests.
0:35 [m. 21]--Theme 1,
Part 3. Another strong rising theme beginning with a long note
in the strings, supported by wind chords. Then a passage
of triplet rhythm leads again to the
dotted march rhythm. This culminates in a passage of
syncopated chords leading to a cadence. These chords are
repeated quietly in the winds, but strings are added, swelling
to an even more powerful second cadence.
1:07 [m. 41]--Theme 1,
Part 4. The huge first theme complex is completed by an
extensive, harmonically rich development of the main opening
tune, the low strings taking the rising part while the winds
follow with elaborations on the descending patterns. The
higher strings play tremolos. The patterns
become shorter and the music swells to a huge climax as the
brass are added. After a measure of faster triplet
rhythm, the opening hammer blows (on
new pitches) arrive at the high point, followed by two
emphatic closing gestures based on the main melody.
1:46 [m. 66]--Transition.
open fifth from bassoons and horns is followed by a long,
quiet, pulsating passage of syncopated strings. The low
strings mark the main meter. Over this
string syncopation and the continuing horn/bassoon fifths, the
oboe begins to play three-note rising scale figures.
Three of these, each a level higher, are followed by longer
notes as the harmony and key move away from D minor.
2:18 [m. 84]--Shimmering
violin tremolos and pulsating low strings form a
background for atmospheric calls from the wind instruments
that are based on the opening hammer-blow chords. The
tuba makes its first entrance with the trombones in the first
of these calls in the remote key of A-flat minor. Oboe,
then horn and flute play the following calls,
moving to B-flat minor as the string tremolos
become more syncopated. Finally, as the piccolo makes
its first entrance, the wind calls lead toward F major,
relative to D minor.
2:45 [m. 100]--The
calls now seem to find their rightful place in the horn, which
plays a rising sixth, then an octave as the shimmering strings
settle gently and effortlessly into the second main theme.
2:56 [m. 106]--Theme
2. A broad violin melody that becomes syncopated, with
many notes crossing bar lines. The low strings play
undulating arpeggios. Triplet rhythm appears
at the end of the phrase (F major).
3:11 [m. 114]--The
winds play a more active version of the first part of Theme
2. The strings then take over as the music quickly
swells and turns again to minor, but remains
centered on F. Under this crescendo, the top violin line
becomes even more syncopated, avoiding all downbeats.
3:31 [m. 126]--Closing
section (F minor). It is dominated by forceful
descending octaves in dotted rhythm, powerful rising
arpeggios, and loud rising horn octaves on upbeats.
These become harmonically active, traversing C-sharp minor and
B minor before reaching their climax and incorporating a new
dotted rhythm with longer notes.
3:54 [m. 142]--Climax
of the closing section with powerful
chords in the new dotted rhythm. These are reduced to
two-note figures that are punctuated by the loud rising horn
octaves. Another set of powerful chords reaches down,
then up in two sequential waves. The passage veers again
toward F major.
4:20 [m. 160]--A
passage based on Theme 2, set in B-flat minor. It is
heard in the bass instruments, then in the violins over a
churning accompaniment. These lead to four long chords.
4:36 [m. 171]--The
final passage in the exposition uses the rising theme from
Theme 1, Part 3 at 0:35 [m. 21], heard in the bass instruments
under powerful chords on weak beats. It seems to
re-establish F minor for the end of the exposition, but the
return of the dotted-rhythm march from Theme 1 under rising
wind scales in triplets again suggests F major. It is a
passage of mode mixture, where major and minor freely
interchange. The exposition finally ends with loud
hammering chords separated by rests. These veer from F,
where the exposition technically ends, back to the home key of
4:56 [m. 185]--The
hammering chords eventually arrive at the original chords from
the opening of the overture, which begin the development
section. These again are followed by a drum roll, but
they are echoed by another statement of the chords from quiet
plucked strings. This contrast is striking. The
drum roll continues as the main opening rising and falling
melody develops into a transitional passage under ethereal
wind chords. The piccolo makes its second appearance
here. Two long descending scales and another statement
of the opening melody lead to the key of A minor.
5:39 [m. 208]--“Molto
più moderato,” 4/4. A held note in the horns assists the
bass in leading to the main portion of the development.
The meter is doubled and the tempo is twice as slow. The
key is A minor. The dotted-note march rhythm from Theme
1 is developed into a full-fledged slow dirge. Over
string tremolos, the woodwind instruments quietly
begin this steady march, which starts on an upbeat. The
flutes and bassoons add a harmonized line as the march
continues, the dotted rhythm moving to the strings.
6:18 [m. 221]--The
dotted rhythm in the strings is now plucked in all
instruments. The harmonized flutes and bassoons, now
joined by clarinets, twice attempt to reach a cadence in A
minor and are thwarted both times. The second time, a
prominent oboe entrance attempts to assert the cadence, but it
is still aborted.
6:52 [m. 232]--The
winds drop out and the strings alone, now bowed again,
continue with the slow march. They add a counter-melody
in “straight” rhythm. The dotted rhythm wins out as the
strings now make a very dramatic change of key up the circle
of fifths, to E minor.
7:20 [m. 242]--The
woodwinds join the strings in a shorter variation of the
previous passage in E minor. The same key change, over
plucked violins and bowed low strings, leads up another fifth
to B minor. The volume increases over this key change.
7:42 [m. 250]--Another
variation at a louder volume leads to another key change up a
fifth, to F-sharp minor. In that key, the last statement
of the quiet slow march is heard, played by the oboes, its
original instruments. The familiar descending harmonized
winds, over the dotted rhythm in the strings, move toward a
cadence in F-sharp minor, but it is suddenly aborted by the
unexpected entry of the recapitulation.
8:24 [m. 264]--“Tempo
primo,” Cut time [2/2].
The entire huge Theme 1 group is omitted, as is the first part
of the transition. The expected cadence in F-sharp goes
instead to D in a so-called “deceptive” motion. What
follows is a variation on the wind calls from 2:18 [m.
84]. The tempo discreetly returns to the original.
The calls first attempt to assert themselves in the violins in
D minor. They then move to the original winds over A
minor and then to B minor. The piccolo is heard for the
last time here. D minor and B minor are both related to
D major, where Theme 2 will soon emerge.
8:40 [m. 274]--Fragments
of the main opening melody are heard in the lower strings,
alternating with the call figures in the violins and timpani
rolls. These begin in B minor, but move again toward D
minor. Then shorter fragments, consisting of the opening
rising arpeggios, are heard under a horn call and long wind
notes in a descending chromatic line. Finally, the
shorter fragments are heard under one more call figure in the
violins and the descending chromatic line in a solo bassoon.
9:12 [m. 291]--In the
most glorious moment of the overture, the haze of the
preceding passage is dispelled in a solemn chorale in D major
from the horns, trombones, and tuba. The chorale is none
other than the main opening melody in a stunning
transformation. A descending violin and trombone line,
with notes held over bar lines, alternates with descending
horn chords. These lead directly into Theme 2.
9:29 [m. 300]--Theme
2. It is given a full presentation in the home major key
(D major). This corresponds to 2:56 [m. 106], but the
violas are now given the theme instead of the violins.
9:44 [m. 308]--The
winds play a more active version of Theme 2, with an added
prominence given to the oboe in a change from the
exposition. The strings then take over and turn to
minor. The passage corresponds to 3:11 [m. 114].
The crescendo and
syncopated violin line follow.
10:04 [m. 320]--Closing
section (D minor). Analogous to 3:31 [m.
126]. Forceful descending octaves in dotted rhythm,
rising arpeggios, and loud rising horn octaves. The harmonic motion is through B-flat minor
and A-flat minor before the climax, and incorporates the slower dotted rhythm.
10:26 [m. 336]--Analogous to 3:54 [m. 142]. Climax of
closing section. Powerful chords in the new dotted
rhythm, two-note figures with rising horn octaves, and two
sequential waves of more powerful chords reaching down, then
up. Brief motion back to D major.
10:52 [m. 354]--Analogous to 4:20 [m. 160]. Passage
based on Theme 2, set in G minor. Bass instruments, then
violins over churning accompaniment. Then four long
chords. In a divergence from the exposition, these
suddenly are extended and become quiet. The final
passage of the closing section is omitted, and the music moves
back to D minor for the coda.
11:11 [m. 367]--Presentation
development of the main opening theme in the bass instruments
under shimmering high winds and string tremolos.
Four statements of the opening figure move gradually upward
through harmonies in E-flat and E. Then the closing
notes of this figure are heard four more times as the music
greatly increases in volume and strength.
11:28 [m. 379]--Climactic
of the opening “hammer blow” chords on their original
pitches. The drum roll is absent, though.
Music based on the hammer blows leads powerfully into the
dotted march rhythm. This emerges into brass fanfares
alternating with string outbursts on the rhythm. The
timpani and winds join the strings, increasing the passionate
11:49 [m. 394]--A very
emphatic statement of the main opening tune in the strings is
followed by another one in doubled note values from the winds
and brass, a trombone and tuba marching down in octaves.
A second phrase is added to this slower passage, the strings
joining the brass and winds. The cadence figure is
hammered home twice.
12:04 [m. 404]--An
open horn and bassoon fifth and string tremolos are
reminiscent of the beginning of the transition from the
exposition at 1:46 [m. 66]. The music suddenly and
dramatically becomes quiet. The opening fragments of the
main melody are given in the low strings. One clarinet,
then two in harmony, respond, completing the phrases.
The music becomes even slower and quieter as the clarinets and
low strings extend this passage.
12:25 [m. 415]--Flutes,
oboes, and horns join the clarinets. A long descending
line is passed from the flutes, oboes, and horns to the
clarinets and bassoon, who extend it down as the other wind
instruments lead to an extremely satisfying, if quiet
cadence. The string tremolos drop out. All is very
12:42 [m. 423]--The
previous cadence has barely been reached when the tempo picks
back up, the strings enter with a forceful upward scale in
triplets, and the winds and brass play the march-like dotted
rhythm. The strings play the triplet rhythm under this
until the final five emphatic chords. The first four are
sharply hammered, the last one held, complete with drum roll.
13:06--END OF OVERTURE [429
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