The Academic Festival Overture - Brahms's Musical Booze-Up

Brahms Academic Festival Overture is a fun medley of rowdy student drinking songs, written as a tongue-in-cheek "thanks" for an honorary degree.

It's one of Brahms's most popular pieces (alongside the Brahms lullaby), and shows the composer's lighter side.

The story of the Overture begins in 1879...

The University of Breslau (now Wroclaw) decided to give Brahms a lofty honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree.

The degree came with a pompous Latin sentence describing Brahms as "the foremost composer of serious music in Germany today."

Brahms had already been offered an honorary degree years earlier from the University of Cambridge.

But he didn't accept it, since he hated sea travel and was sickened by the news that the English were going to throw lavish celebrations for him.

But there was no sea to cross this time. Brahms was rather flattered by the University of Breslau's offer, and sent them a little "thank-you" postcard. He said he would come to Breslau next year, and hoped that he could enjoy "doctoral beer and skittles" with them. (Very amusing!)

Apparently this wasn't really enough though for them though. a friend told Brahms that the University actually expected him to return the gesture by writing a piece of music for them!

Perhaps some kind of grand, spectacular symphony, or a painfully complicated choral work. You know, something that fitted the Latin quote on his degree...

So Brahms, perhaps a bit annoyed at this, went ahead and wrote an overture in the summer of 1880 (I see it as his doctoral thesis!).

The result was probably the opposite of what the University faculty expected: a straightforward tongue-in-cheek medley of student songs celebrating drinking and general rowdiness, overflowing with merriment!

The University of Breslau, the scene for the premiere of the Academic Festival Overture
Brahms himself conducted the premiere in Breslau (January 1881). All the top brass from the university sat in the front row - and they weren't very impressed!

It's actually difficult to know exactly how ironic Brahms was being. Was he lightly mocking the academics, or attacking their pretentious Latin citation?

Or maybe he thought that he may as well have some fun writing the piece, since he was obliged to compose it!

The Overture's Music

The Academic Festival Overture is a collection of student drinking songs The Academic Festival Overture, despite being a fun-filled booze-up, is actually extremely well-written. Brahms uses a very solid structure for the piece, and his massive orchestral forces bring the jolly student songs to dazzling life.

It opens with a quiet but slightly dark melody, based on the Radezsky march (which Brahms loved). After the opening, we hear the first of the four student songs, Wir haben gebauet ein stattliches Haus (We have built a stately house) in the trumpets...

This song then blends with the opening melody in a triumphant blast of sound. Soon afterwards we hear the tune Landesvater (Father of his country) played majestically by the strings...

Afterwards comes my favorite tune in the Overture, Was kommt dort von der Hohe? (What comes from there on high?). It's a lively song which was sung while new undergraduates were undergoing their initiation ritual!

Brahms repeats all these melodies, merging and colliding them in a powerful build up to the glorious last student song in the Overture: Gaudeamus Igitur (Therefore, let us be merry).

This ancient song is a celebration of German student-life in general, inviting all students to enjoy their time now since they'll die eventually...

Brahms ends the Academic Festival Overture in a rousing version of this song, using the powers of the full orchestra.

It's simpler and more fun to listen to than some other pieces like the Brahms horn trio or even the Brahms requiem. These are still great pieces, but more typically complicated.

Here's a great interpretation conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who manages to get the tempo just right (not too slow, not too fast):

The Academic Festival Overture is one of Brahms's most popular pieces. I hope you've enjoyed it!

This recommended recording is form conductor Marin Alsop with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This is an energetic and colorful performance which captures the various shades of irony in the piece. I would prefer a slightly faster tempo, but everything else is solid enough that it's not really a problem. Also comes with a performance of the 1st Symphony.

Another recording I'm partial to is the delicious outing by Wolfgang Sawallisch... again with the London Philharmonic!

Sawallisch brings out the bass end of the piece more and increase the tempo slightly more than Alsop, creating a more powerful mood very suited to the faster parts of the work. The different textures are excellently crisp in this recording as well. Available on Seraphim.

Of course, you'd not want to spoil the overture by listening to it through a poor audio setup. See the home audio system section for info on getting great sound.

You might also be interested in Brahms's 1st symphony, or his exciting Hungarian Dances.

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