Recording: Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado [DG 435 683-2]
Published 1881.

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 first movements 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.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition [monochrome] from Sibley Library)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (from Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)

Allegro ma non troppo--Molto più moderato--Tempo primo (Sonata-Allegro form).  D MINOR, Cut time [2/2]--4/4--Cut time [2/2].
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.  An 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 D minor.
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 and 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 arrival 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 energy. 
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 hushed.
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 mm.]