About this work
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.