Johannes Brahms

Tragic Overture, in D minor, Op. 81

    Description by Roger Dettmer

    Brahms composed this work on holiday during the summer of 1880, and Hans Richter led the first performance with the Vienna Philharmonic on December 26 of that year. In two different editions of Essays in Musical Analysis, Sir Donald Francis Tovey pontificated at length about the tragedy Brahms had in mind for this companion piece to the jolly Academic Festival Overture. From Ischl in the Austrian Alps the composer wrote to his publisher, "I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for a tragedy." To his friend the conductor Carl Reinecke he said of the pair that "one of them weeps, the other one laughs," as with the comic and tragic masks in Greek and Roman theater.

    Brahms did not, however, give any further hint of a specific "tragedy," nor had he suffered any recent private loss or given any indication of uncommon sadness. He wasn't, in truth, very fond of the title Tragic, referring to the work at one point as the "Dramatic Overture" although a canvass of his friends failed to produce an alternative that anyone liked better. Interestingly, 64 measures at the end of the exposition appeared in a sketchbook from the year 1869, which was principally concerned with the working-out of his Alto Rhapsody and Liebeslieder Waltzes. By then, inward grief over his mother's death had been sublimated in A German Requiem, and he had made the pleasant decision to live permanently in Vienna.

    A melancholy streak in Brahms' personality that dated from childhood surfaced regularly in his later music, but "Melancholy Overture" wouldn't have sounded half so well as Tragic, although it more nearly fits the mood of Op. 81. In the event, this structurally traditional work (unlike the Academic Festival) opens with a pair of Beethovenian chords used thematically later on to set up the gloomy and agitated D minor main subject in 2/2 time. This is developed considerably before we hear a more lyrical second subject in F major. A third subject (the one from his 1869 sketchbook, with dotted rhythm and horn punctuation) adds a further element of contrast before the development proper begins Molto più moderato -- much slower than the exposition tempo. This development is brief, however, after which the three subjects are recapitulated in reverse order, as Beethoven's did in the Coriolan Overture, and Wagner's in the Flying Dutchman.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Menuetto Classics
    2018 Menuetto Classics
    2018 Decca / Eloquence
    2018 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 18048
    2018 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 18032
    2018 CuGate Classics CGC 036
    2018 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 17085
    2018 Warner Classics
    2018 Decca / Deutsche Grammophon 4798418
    2017 Berlin Classics 0300911BC
    2017 Oehms Classics OC 030
    2017 Decca / London
    2017 Deutsche Grammophon 4797477
    2017 ICA Classics ICAC 5145
    2016 Warner Classics 0190295975104
    2016 Decca
    2016 Warner Classics 0825646767717
    2016 RCA Red Seal 88875169792
    2016 SWR Music SWR 19022CD
    2015 Menuetto Classics
    2015 Brilliant Classics 95073BR
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon
    2015 Channel Classics CCSSA 33514
    2015 Sony Classical 88843072592
    2015 Erato 0825646154975
    2015 IDIS 6704
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon 4794306
    2014 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099999356521
    2014 Warner Classics 2564633622
    2014 Warner Classics 0825646278176
    2014 Deutsche Grammophon
    2014 Deutsche Grammophon 4792787
    2014 Decca 4787696
    2014 RCA Red Seal 88843006072
    2013 EMI Classics
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    2013 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / RPO RPOSP 038
    2013 Warner Classics 82128
    2013 LSO Live LSO 0733
    2013 Regis Records 1395
    2013 Elatus 60662
    2013 Decca
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    2012 CPO 7777202
    2012 Broken Audio BRAU 0468
    2012 Bella Musica / Zebralution
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    1996 Carlton Classics 6700982
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    1995 Orfeo 329931
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    1995 Royal Classics 6433
    1995 RCA 74321303672
    1995 Lydian 18005
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    1995 Dutton Laboratories 7009
    1995 Intersound 3820
    1994 Classical Heritage 1209
    1994 Sony Classical 64054
    1994 Erato 94817
    1994 Naxos 504001
    1994 Madacy 1019
    1994 ASV 6102
    1994 Naxos 550281
    1994 Deutsche Grammophon / Universal
    1994 Deutsche Grammophon 445 508-2GMA
    1994 Philips 442 068-2PB4
    1994 Orfeo 161871
    1994 Philips 438760
    1993 Philips / PolyGram 438320
    1993 EMI Music Distribution 54875
    1993 Kontrapunkt 32138
    1992 RCA 60843
    1992 Sony Music Distribution 48398
    1992 London 430799
    1991 Sony Classical 46330
    1991 Deutsche Grammophon
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    1990 CBS Records 37237
    1990 EMI 63537
    1990 Sony Classical 45932
    1990 CBS Records 37776
    1990 Deutsche Grammophon 410084
    1990 Deutsche Grammophon 429 765-2GH
    1988 Deutsche Grammophon 415 570-2GX4
    1988 Stradivarius 10007
    1980 Tahra 106
    Enterprise 921
    History 205226
    As Disc 621
    As Disc 313
    Historical Performers 32
    RFCM Symphony Orchestra
    RCA 60325
    Rca Red Seal 85406
    Sefel Records 5023
    Powder Classics 5099
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