Johannes Brahms: Academic Festival Overture


Composed in 1880 as a thank you for an honorary degree from The University of Breslau, Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture is a tongue and cheek musical representation of student songs that celebrate drinking, rowdiness and merriment. The irony of this overture is that the honorary degree that Brahms got described him as “the foremost composer of serious music in Germany today.”

In the first instance Brahms had sent a simple handwritten letter of thanks to the university to acknowledge the degree. Brahms was a man who did not enjoy public or celebrity gatherings, so he believed that this letter would do just the trick. However, Bernard Scholz, who nominated him for the degree, convinced Brahms that the protocol would require him to compose a work as a sort of grand gesture towards the university. Scholz famously said to Brahms “compose a fine symphony for us! But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!”

Although seen as one of Brahms’ lighter works, the Academic Festival Overture is an intricately orchestrated work that offers evocative orchestral colour, whilst also being true to the classical style. The work calls for one of the largest ensembles in Brahms’ repertoire, as well as also being in four continuous movements: Allegro, Maestoso, Animato and Maestoso.

The Music

Opening with a quiet and ominous opening that’s based on Radetzky March, the music soon becomes warm and lyrical as the first of the four student songs is heard. The first song that the opening is inspired by is Wir haben gebauet ein stattliches Haus (We have built a stately house). The comedic call and response mixed with the creative use of certain instruments makes the opening section one of the most musically exciting. 

The next song to feature is Landesvater (Father of his Country), which is played majestically by the strings. Brahms’ use of brass here is also significant as their fanfares add to the sheer drama of this next section. This is an ideal section to show the dichotomy between Brahms having fun with the student songs, but also playing into his “serious composer” profile he’d been given by the university.

Was kommt dort von der Hohe? (What comes from there on high?) is the next student song to feature in the overture. This lively section is full of twists and turns within the orchestra. From swirling strings to muted brass interludes and pizzicato sections, this part of the overture is the most musically interesting.

A reprise of the main melodies happens, with Brahms bringing all powers together for the finale climax based on Gaudeamus Igitur (Therefore, let us be merry). The rousing music builds over time until the full forces bring this sparkling overture to an exciting finish.

Final Thoughts

Although not one of Brahms’ most complicated works, his incredible orchestrations make the Academic Festival Overture one his most celebratory and exciting works. Full of merriment and exciting new prospects for undergrads, this work certainly gave The University of Breslau a surprise when premiered in 1881!

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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