Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture: A Witty Musical “Thank You”

In 1879, the University of Breslau in Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland) awarded Johannes Brahms an honorary doctorate in philosophy.

The acclaimed composer, who never attended college, had little use for academic titles. When Cambridge University attempted to bestow a similar honor three years earlier, Brahms declined, forgoing lionization and sea travel—both of which he despised—for the quiet comfort of his home. His postcard response to the faculty in Breslau was met with a subsequent letter from the conductor, Bernhard Scholz, who insisted that the institution expected Brahms to show his gratitude in the form of a new musical work. Scholz wrote, “Compose a fine symphony for us, but well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!”

If the academic officials expected a formal and staid anthem for the occasion of their dignified convocation, they received a surprise. In Brahms’ words, Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 amounted to a “very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la Suppé.” (Franz von Suppé, the composer of popular operettas, had written an overture, Flotte Bursche, which was a medley of student songs). As if to gleefully counter Scholz’ request for restrained orchestration, the Overture requires the largest orchestra Brahms ever employed, including piccolo, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba, with triangle, bass drum, and cymbals providing a glittering, celebratory flourish.

Academic Festival Overture begins with a hushed, suspenseful allusion to the Rakoczy March. Following a timpani roll, the song, Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus (“We have built a stately house”), a Central German folk melody, emerges as a majestic chorale in the trumpets. Brahms’ quote of Der Landesvater (“The father of our country”) was not only a drinking song, but a patriotic political statement on the 1871 Unification of Germany, which followed the Franco-Prussian War. The comic voices of the bassoons introduce Fuchslied (“Fox Song”), a taunting Freshman hazing tune which resembles “The Farmer in the Dell.” The Overture concludes with a triumphant and blazing statement of the graduation song, Gaudeamus igitur (“Therefore, let us be merry”).

Lighthearted, mischievous, and rollicking, Academic Festival Overture is a formal and compositional tour de force. Its carefree drinking tunes spark thrilling contrapuntal adventures. It is the music of a composer showing off his skill with a twinkle in his eye.

Brahms conducted the premiere at the University’s convocation on January 4, 1881. This recent performance features Herbert Blomstedt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: Breslau University between 1890 and 1900

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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