The Tragic Overture (German: Tragische Ouvertüre), Op. 81, is a concert overture for orchestra written by Johannes Brahms during the summer of 1880. It premiered on 26 December 1880 in Vienna. Most performances last between twelve and fifteen minutes.
Brahms chose the title "Tragic" to emphasize the turbulent, tormented character of the piece, in essence a free-standing symphonic movement, in contrast to the mirthful ebullience of a companion piece he wrote the same year, the Academic Festival Overture. Despite its name, the Tragic Overture does not follow any specific dramatic program. Brahms was not very interested in musical storytelling and was more concerned with conveying and eliciting emotional impressions. He summed up the effective difference between the two overtures when he declared "one laughs while the other cries." Brahms quotes some material from the last movement of the Second Symphony in this overture.
The Tragic Overture comprises three main sections, all in the key of D minor.
Allegro ma non troppo
Molto più moderato
Tempo primo ma tranquillo.
Theorists have disagreed in analyzing the form of the piece: Jackson finds Webster's multifarious description rather obscurist and prefers to label the work's form as a "reversed sonata design" in which the second group is recapitulated before the first, with Beethoven's Coriolan Overture as a possible formal model.