TRAGIC OVERTURE (D MINOR), OP. 81
Recording: Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado [DG 435
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
SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)
SCORE FROM IMSLP (from Breitkopf &
Härtel Sämtliche Werke)
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 leading 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. 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 these
string syncopations and 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 in 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 (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 remaining 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
3:54 [m. 142]--Climax of the
closing section. 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
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 countermelody 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
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
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]. Crescendo and
syncopated violin line.
10:04 [m. 320]--Closing section
(D minor). Corresponds to 3:31
[m. 126]. Forceful descending octaves in dotted rhythm, rising
arpeggios, and loud rising horn octaves. Harmonic motion through
B-flat minor and A-flat minor before the climax, and incorporation of
slower dotted rhythm.
10:26 [m. 336]--Corresponds 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
10:52 [m. 354]--Corresponds 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 various harmonies. 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.]
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