Brahms (1833-97) - Tragic Overture
riposte to the young Mahler apart, Brahms was not well-known for his sense
of humour. However, his discovery that a mere thankyou note was (back in
1879) considered insufficient gratitude for an honorary doctorate, conferred
absentia by Breslau University, provoked a little jest. The citation
described him as a “composer of serious music”, so Brahms notified Barnard
Scholz (the conductor at Breslau) of his proposed work's title. Scholz,
taking it at face value, thought it “devilish academic and boring”. It
is hard to imagine (yet imagine we must!) “stuffy old” Brahms chortling
with glee as he penned his now-famous medley of student songs.
talking about the Academic Festival Overture (quoting my own programme
note). Why? The answer is simple: it was written during the same summer
vacation, at Ischl in 1880, as the Tragic Overture. Whether through
a sense of irony, or simply a need for a balanced diet, Brahms seems to
have felt obliged to even out the score. Having composed the joyful former,
he reworked some sketches he had lying around into the sombre latter. The
two overtures are like the faces of the famous thespian mask: Comedy facing
one way and Tragedy the other. Brahms even commented, wrily, “One weeps,
the other laughs”. Evidently, he intended only this, because he did not
allude to any particular tragedy. Considering their genesis, and the composer's
obvious intention that they complement one another, it's odd (and sad)
that they are never programmed together in concerts.
that uncommonly high “build quality” that seemed instinctive to Brahms:
the Tragic Overture in particular would not have been out of place
as the first movement of a symphony. Like its comical counterpart, its
basic sonata form is expanded to include not two, but three main subjects.
The first is vigorous and muscular, full of punchy dotted phrases, much
of its strength coming from the active involvement of all levels of the
orchestra. This gets a fair old working out before the second subject arrives,
announced by a plaintive oboe, and stalking squarely in even beats on trombones.
Scarcely moments later, rising horn calls preface the third subject, which
flows in on violins over a busy bass line, and at whose climax the development,
dominated by the virile first subject, squeezes seamlessly in. Quite soon,
there is another climax, powerful tympani drawing a false dawn: “false”
because the recapitulation is still well below the distant horizon. There
is much dark musing and mystery to traverse before the second subject returns
to take centre stage, preceding the reprise of the first. The third, it
seems, gets lost in the wash! With consummate skill, Brahms telescopes
this reprise into a turbulent coda, pensive woodwind only briefly interrupting
its headlong progress. But is this, as Peter Latham says in his note for
Klemperer's magisterial recording, really a “final disaster”? Admittedly
it's dramatic, sombre, even grim music, but for all that I don't get any
feeling of defeat. It's more like a victory in which, conquering a noble
enemy, the victor can take no pleasure. That is, for me, what makes
this such an extraordinary piece of music.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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