Brahms – Academic Festival Overture

by Max Derrickson

Johannes Brahms
(Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, April 3, 1897)

Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80

Brahms wrote this witty and robust Overture in 1881 as a thank-you for the honorary Ph.D. awarded to him by the University of Breslau (Germany).  It has become one of Brahms’s most beloved works, but its premiere raised some eyebrows in that rather stuffy University setting where Brahms was being honored.  Not so surprising, given that Brahms chose student drinking songs as his themes.  In fact, Brahms seemed to have gotten a bit carried away [. . .].

Why would Brahms have made such witty mockery of academia’s highest honor?  It’s become musical lore that Brahms turned down several earlier honorary doctorates because of his disdain for the “academics” – actually, he turned down two from Cambridge University (England) because he was terrified of crossing the English Channel, but there is some truth behind this explanation.  Brahms never attended University      [. . .] mainly on his academic connections, Brahms felt the sting bitterly.  And it happened twice [. . .].

Soon before that academic snub at Hamburg, Brahms had a brief sojourn in the college halls of the University of Göttingen in 1853,[. . .].  He delighted in the drinking songs and festive atmosphere of his fellow classmates so much that they[. . .].

Brahms’s musical ruse begins with an austere opening, appropriate for the world of the Academicians, but then it quickly moves into the first drinking anthem.  Three tunes are used [. . .]  “We have built a stately house”; then, [. . .].  Here the orchestration and treatment of themes become complex and wild – at one point the horns [. . .]  “Gaudeumus igitur” (“Therefore, let us be merry, for we are still young”), dressed in majestic orchestral finery [. . .].  The Overture is, indeed, a masterpiece of unbridled exuberance where students, not professors, are the heroes.