Johannes Brahms(1833 – 1897)
Academic Festival Overture (1880)
On March 11, 1879, the University of Breslau awarded Brahms an honorary doctorate. Not one to herald his success, Brahms opted to write a humble handwritten note to the university as an expression of gratitude and was content to let the matter rest. Bernard Scholz, conductor of the Breslau symphony at the time, and the one who had nominated Brahms for the degree, replied that a letter was simply not enough. The university expected a much grander gesture; a musical gift.
The citation that accompanied the doctorate from Breslau declared Brahms “the foremost composer of serious music in Germany today.” In his sardonic sense of humour, Brahms resolved to compose a piece of music that utterly defied the university’s expectations.
Nineteen months later, he presented them what he called a “very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la Suppé” in reference to Franz von Suppé, a fashionable composer known for his light, merry classics, of which Poet and Peasant was one. The Overture is alive with the exuberant assortment of tunes well-know by the students, faculty and administration of Breslau, such as Wir haben gebauet ein stattliches Haus (We have built a stately house) in the trumpets, followed by the noble Landesvater (Father of his country) melody in the strings. Later in the piece appears the ebullient freshman-initiation Fuchslied (fox-song) Was kommt dort von der Höhe? (What comes from there on high?) in the bassoon and oboe, and finally the piece surges to glorious conclusion with the oldest, most famous of German student songs, Gaudeamus igitur (Let us rejoice while we are still young; after a jolly youth and a burdensome old age, the earth will claim us.)
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Academic Festival Overture premiered on January 4, 1881 at the University of Breslau, with Brahms himself as the conductor. The piece calls for one of the largest orchestral ensembles in Brahms oeuvre: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (both doubling on B-flat and C clarinets), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns (two in C and two in E), three C trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings. Its debut was met with mixed reception: while Brahms’ wit went over the heads of the majority of the faculty and administration and they frowned at his apparent arrogance, the student body received the performance with rambunctious enthusiasm. The Overture remains today one of Brahms’ most beloved classics.