About this work
Brahms composed this work and the Tragic Overture in the summer of 1880 in Bad Ischl, Austria, and conducted the first Academic Festival performance in Breslau on January 3, 1881. Despite Brahms' catalogue of 122 numbered works and at least 40 more works without, he wrote only 14 for orchestra: four symphonies, two early serenades, two piano concertos, two string concertos, two concert overtures, the Haydn Variations, and transcriptions of three Hungarian Dances from the 21 composed for four-hand piano between 1868 and 1880. No opera, though, or ballet or incidental theater music. Furthermore, from 1859 to 1874, he limited his orchestral writing to seven choral pieces (which, however, included A German Requiem, his longest work in any form).
On March 11, 1879, the University of Breslau -- Wroclaw today, in Poland -- awarded him an honorary doctorate, for which he thanked them on a postcard. A friend replied that the University expected "a doctoral symphony...at the very least a solemn ode" quid pro quo. What they received 19 months later was this 10-minute Academic Festival Overture. To start the New Year, Brahms himself premiered it in the Silesian capital.
This music is arguably the crusty composer's most ebullient, scored for the largest orchestra in his oeuvre: piccolo, contrabassoon, a third trumpet, tuba, bass drum, triangle, and cymbals, in addition to the usual wind pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. For subject matter to fill a flexible sonata structure, he chose four student drinking songs. In the order of their appearance, these are "What comes therefrom on high" (staccato triads and off-center accents in C minor), "We have built a stately house" (three trumpets, solemnly in C major), "Der Landesvater" (The Sovereign; legato violins in E major), and finally, after the seriatim reprise of one, two, and three in tonic C major, the most famous song of all, the medieval student song "Gaudeamus igitur" (Let us therefore rejoice), in the coda. This may not have been what Breslau expected, but for global audiences ever since, the Academic Festival Overture ranks alongside the keyboard Waltz, Op. 39/16, as Brahms' most beloved instrumental music.
Curated by Femke Steketee, Saxophonist