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Brahms (1833-97) - Tragic Overture

A famous 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 in 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. 

Yes, I'm 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. 

They share 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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