Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, Op 80


THIS delightful work is a combined musical thank you letter and a joke about academic stuffiness.

The career of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was something of a slow burn, and he did not find recognition until he was in his late thirties. From then on he was very successful and he is sometimes bracketed with Bach and Beethoven as the ‘Three Bs’ of music.

In 1879, fellow German conductor Bernhard Scholz nominated him for an honorary doctorate of philosophy at the University of Breslau (now the University of Wrocław, Poland). The following year the university notified him about the award, in flowery Latin prose describing him as ‘the foremost composer of serious music in Germany today’. Brahms, who disliked any show of celebrity, wrote a letter of thanks. He said he would come to Breslau next year, and hoped that he could enjoy ‘doctoral beer and skittles’ with the academics.However Scholz told him that a grander gesture was required, and that the university was expecting a composition. ‘Compose a fine symphony for us!’ he wrote to Brahms. ‘But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!’

Brahms’s response was to create, in his own words, a ‘rollicking potpourri of student songs’, deploying the largest orchestra he ever used. He wrote it in the summer of 1880, weaving together four songs which would have been well known to German college students. The first, Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus (We Have Built a Stately House), introduced by the brass section, was the theme song of a student organisation which advocated the unification of the dozens of independent German principalities. This cause was so objectionable to authorities that the song was banned for decades, though it had been lifted in the most regions, including Breslau. The second, introduced by the strings, is Der Landesvate (Father of Our Country). The bassoons take the lead in the third, Was kommt dort von der Höh? (What Comes from Afar?), a song that was associated with freshman initiation.

The work culminates in a rousing Gaudeamus Igitur (So Let Us Rejoice), which is still often sung or performed at university and high-school graduation ceremonies. It is thought to originate in a Latin manuscript from 1287 and is on the theme of carpe diem (‘seize the day’) with its exhortations to enjoy life. It made an appearance in Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince of 1924, which was turned into a film in 1954. Towards the end of this clip (3’ 05”) it is sung by a chorus of students:

Here it is sung by Mario Lanza, who was the original star. He left the production amid some acrimony before the main scenes had been filmed, but he had already recorded the songs, and his replacement Edmund Purdom mimed to them. 

Brahms conducted the premiere of the Academic Festival Overture, and received his honorary degree, at the university on January 4, 1881. His hosts were no doubt expecting a solemn work and the light-hearted overture must have been a surprise.

Here is a performance by the KBS Symphony Orchestra of Seoul, South Korea, which highlights the strong connection between musicians from the Far East and classical music of the West.

And here is the score in a performance by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Bernard Haitink.

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