On This Day (January 4)…Academic Festival Premiere

Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture premiered on this day in 1881.

This overture was written as a response to the University of Breslau’s issuance of an honorary degree to Brahms, who had in fact never attended college himself. While the composer was originally just going to write a thank-you note and leave it at that, he was convinced by a conductor friend, Bernard Scholz, to attend the ceremony. Scholz also advised him that it was expected that he would bring a show of gratitude in the form of a piece written for the occasion.

Brahms decided to give them their musical number, though perhaps not what they would expect. He conducted it himself at the premiere, where one can only imagine the reaction by the eminent academics present when they realized the content of the piece. As a salute to true collegial activities (and perhaps to have some fun with his audience), the main melodies in the Academic Festival Overture are composed mostly of popular Germanic drinking songs!

Photograph of Brahms. Retrieved from here.

There are four songs which shape the piece: “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (“We Have Built a Stately House”), “Der Landesvater” (“Father of Our Country”), “Was kommt dort von der Höh’? ” (“What Comes from Afar?”), and “Gaudeamus igitur” (“Let Us Rejoice, Therefore”).

These songs each had their own associations, the most subversive being “Wir hatten gebauet”. It had become so associated with a student organization which pushed for the unification of Germany that it had actually been banned throughout the region. Although Germany had by now become unified the ban was in fact still in effect in some places, Vienna included. This ended up delaying the piece’s later Viennese premiere.

Besides being known for its humor, the piece is notable for its lush orchestration. To this day, it is a favorite among college and professional orchestras alike.

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