There’s something in the way the human mind works that likes to see things in contrasting pairs: right and left, up and down, ying and yang, major and minor, happy and sad. That’s certainly the way the mind of the German composer Johannes Brahms worked, and there’s a number of examples in his music of works that emerged from his pen in contrasting pairs. The most famous example is his two contrasting concert overtures: the comic and upbeat “Academic Festival Overture,” and the dark, stoic pessimism of his “Tragic Overture.”
While composing the jaunty Academic Festival Overture in 1880, to acknowledge an Honorary Doctorate he had received the previous year from the University of Breslau, Brahms felt compelled to write a more serious companion piece. To his friend the publisher Simrock, he wrote: "I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for a tragedy," To another friend, Carl Reinecke, he wrote, "One weeps, the other laughs."
Hans Richter conducted the premiere of the “Tragic” Overture in Vienna on today’s date in 1880, and the following month Brahms himself led the premiere of his “Academic Festival” Overture in Breslau. And the new works soon came to the New World: On November 12, 1881, the enterprising Theodore Thomas conducted the New York Philharmonic in the American premiere of the “Tragic” Overture, and one week later, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, he conducted the “Academic Festival” Overture as well.
Music Played in Today's Program
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80New York Philharmonic; Kurt Masur, cond.Teldec 77291
Johannes BrahmsTragic Overture, Op. 81Vienna Symphony; Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond.Philips 438 760