When the University of Breslau sought to award Johannes Brahms an honorary doctorate in 1880, they were honoring him as “the foremost composer of serious music in Germany today.” At the time, Brahms was coming into his own as a composer, and hot off the heels of his first major symphonic works.
So it raised a few eyebrows when his Academic Festival Overture, the piece he crafted for the university, drew heavily on the beer-hall revelry and drinking songs of students.
Initially Brahms — ever wary of celebrity and attention — had sent a simple hand-written thank you note to acknowledge the honor. But conductor Bernard Schloz (who had nominated him for the honorary doctorate) strongly encouraged him to send gratitude in a more musical form. “Compose a fine symphony for us!” Schloz said in a letter to Brahms. “But well-orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!”
Which Brahms apparently took to heart: While vacationing in the idyllic Bad Ischl on the Traun River during the summer of 1880, Brahms composed his “thank you” — and, suffice it to say, it was not exactly what the university brass was likely hoping for.
The Academic Festival Overture lacks the stately sense of ceremony of Pomp and Circumstance. Rather, it drew direct inspiration from what Brahms called a “very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs” he was familiar with.
Still, it’s a pretty good illustration of exactly what makes Brahms so enduring and beloved as a composer: the piece is both a lot of fun and a fine display of his musical talent. Academic Festival Overture balances jovial and light-hearted elements with intricately designed (and, yes, even academic) structure.
In addition to those shanties, Brahms also opens with “Wir hatten gebauet,” a theme from a student organization that advocated the unification of the independent German principalities. The tune had been banned for decades, though most regions had lifted the order by 1871. But in Vienna, it was still in effect, and the eventual Viennese premiere of Academic Festival Overture was delayed two weeks for fear of the students’ reaction.
Still, you can’t argue with success: while it may not have been what the university dignitaries were hoping for, it’s become one of Brahms’ most frequently played works ever since the composer himself conducted the premiere in Breslau in January 1881 (one can imagine with great glee around the cheeky celebration of drinking and rowdiness of youth). After all, how do you beat the rambunctious finale of “Gaudeamus igitur, Iuvenes dum sumus,” or “therefore let us rejoice while we’re young”?