Written by Ken Meltzer

Tragic Overture, Opus 81 (1880, rev. 1881)

  • Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833 and died in Vienna, Austria, on April 3, 1897. 

  • The first performance of the Tragic Overture took place in Vienna on December 26, 1880, with Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. 

  • Approximate performance time is thirteen minutes.

In 1880, in response to receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Breslau, Johannes Brahms composed his Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80.  This spirited work that incorporates student melodies also proved to be the inspiration for another, and quite different composition.  In a letter dated September 4, 1880, Brahms informed his publisher, Simrock: “I have promised for Jan. 6th in Breslau and have had to write a very lively Academic Festival Overture which contains Gaudeamus and all sorts of other things.  On this occasion I could not deny my melancholy turn of mind and have also composed an Overture to a Tragedy.”  As Brahms told his friend, Carl Reinecke: “One of them weeps, the other laughs.”

Some believe that Brahms may have first intended the Tragic Overture to serve as incidental music for a Vienna production of Goethe’s Faust.  Brahms, however, insisted that when he composed this stunning work, he did not contemplate a “particular drama as a subject.”

The Tragic Overture begins with two jarring orchestral chords and a sustained roll of the timpani.  The strings offer a sotto voce statement of the ascending and descending principal theme, soon developing tremendous energy.  The violins introduce a more relaxed, espressivo theme, but it is soon overcome by potent orchestral proclamations.  Finally, the violence subsides, and a mysterious transitional passage leads to the Overture’s development section, cast in the form of a plaintive march.  The recapitulation offers fragments of the opening theme, while the second melody receives a more extended treatment.  The final coda generates considerable tension, leading to the blazing, fortissimo conclusion.

La Mort de Cléopâtre (1829)

  • Hector Berlioz was born in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France, on December 11, 1803, and died in Paris, France, on March 8, 1869. 

  • Approximate performance time is twenty-two minutes.

Over a period of four years (1827-1830), Hector Berlioz attempted to win the Prix de Rome, a competition given by the Institut de France that, as part of the award, required a period of study in Rome.  Berlioz hoped to win the monetary award in order to establish his financial independence.  Berlioz placed second in the 1828 competition.  As tradition had it that the second-place finisher won the following year, Berlioz was confident about his prospects.  Therefore, Berlioz felt he could abandon the conservative musical approach he took in 1828.  As Berlioz recalled in his Memoirs: “I resolved to let myself go, and write something perfectly original, after my own heart. ‘I will be a true artist,’ I said, ‘and write a real cantata.’”

As part of the competition, the contestants were required to write a work for voice and accompaniment, a setting of a text chosen by the judges:

The subject was Cleopatra after the Battle of Actium. The Queen of Egypt poisons herself by means of an asp, and dies in convulsions.  But before committing the fatal act she invokes the shades of the Pharaohs, and questions them in dread awe as to what hope there is that so dissolute and wicked a woman shall obtain admission to the giant tombs in which lie buried the sovereigns distinguished for their valour and virtue.

The text inspired Berlioz to compose a work “large in treatment, with rhythm of striking originality, with enharmonic harmony of a solemn sonority, and a melody dramatically developed in a long-drawn crescendo.”

Berlioz’s bold approach did not meet with the approval of the judges:

The jury, however, decided not to award any first prize that year rather than encourage a young composer who manifested such tendencies.  The day following this decision I met (French composer and Prix de Rome judge François-Adrien) Boïeldieu on the boulevard.  I give this conversation just as it took place, for it was so curious that I remember every word. When he saw me he cried out:

“My dear boy, what have you done?  You had the prize in your hand, and have deliberately thrown it away.”

“I assure you sir, I did my best.”

“That is just it.  You ought not to have done your best; your best is too good.  How could I approve of such music, when soothing music is, above all others, the music I like?”

“It seems to me rather difficult to wrote soothing music for an Egyptian queen who has poisoned herself and is dying a most painful death in the agonies of remorse.”

Berlioz did win the Prix de Rome in 1830.  And over time, the same qualities that so troubled the Prix de Rome jury became recognized as the expression of a unique genius.  Though an early work, Berlioz’s The Death of Cleopatra looks forward to such masterpieces as La Damnation de Faust (1846) and Les Troyens (1863).  It is also a marvelous musical and dramatic vehicle for soprano (or mezzo-soprano) and orchestra.

Mass in C Major, Opus 86 (1807)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827. 

  • The first performance of the Mass in C took place in Eisenstadt, Austria, on September 13, 1807, with the composer conducting. 

  • Approximate performance time is forty-three minutes.

In the spring of 1807, Ludwig van Beethoven received a request from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy.  The Esterházy royal family, who lived in Eisenstadt, had long employed Beethoven’s former teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).  During the period of 1796-1802, Haydn composed six choral masses, each written to celebrate the name day of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s wife.  These choral masses are considered among Haydn’s greatest achievements.  After Haydn retired from service to the Esterházy family, Prince Nikolaus hired other prominent composers to write the mass.  The Prince commissioned Beethoven to compose the mass for the Princess’s September 1807 name day celebration.

Beethoven accepted the Prince’s commission, but progress on the work proved to be slow.  Toward the end of July, Beethoven responded to Prince Nikolaus’s request for an update on the status of the piece by complaining that he was overextended with other obligations. and suffering from ill health.  As corroboration, Beethoven sent the Prince a letter from his treating physician.

It should be noted that during the time Beethoven was at work on the Esterházy Mass, he was also composing the great Fifth Symphony.  That, too, was a work that caused Beethoven a considerable amount of toil and anguish.  As Leonard Bernstein described in a superb 1956 lecture on the Fifth Symphony: “The man rejected, rewrote, scratched out, tore up, and sometimes altered a passage as many as twenty times.  Beethoven’s manuscript looks like a bloody record of a tremendous inner battle.”

Beethoven did complete the Mass in time for performance on September 13, 1807.  Beethoven traveled to Eisenstadt to conduct the premiere.  Beethoven was never the most technically accomplished conductor.  The deterioration of Beethoven’s hearing, already a severe problem by this time, made rehearsals a trial for everyone.  The performance fared little better.

After the premiere, Beethoven met with Prince Nikolaus, who chided the composer: “But, my dear Beethoven, what is this that you have done again?”  Beethoven canceled another scheduled Eisenstadt concert, and returned to Vienna that same day.  Beethoven originally dedicated the Mass in C to Prince Nikolaus.  However, Beethoven never gave the score to the Prince, and later rededicated the work to a Vienna patron, Prince Ferdinand Kinsky, when the score was published in 1812.

Despite the work’s difficult birth, and the subsequent composition of the towering Missa solemnis, Opus 123 (1823), the Mass in C remained one of the Beethoven’s favored works.  It is a beautiful, moving, and inspired composition that deserves to be heard far more frequently on concert programs.

The Beethoven Mass in C is scored for a quartet of vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), mixed chorus, and orchestra.  The work is in five movements.