Bernstein – Academic Festival Overture (Brahms)
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Academic Festival Overture (German: Akademische Festouvertüre), Op. 80, by Johannes Brahms, was one of a pair of contrasting concert overtures — the other being the Tragic Overture, Op. 81. Brahms composed the work during the summer of 1880 as a musical “thank you” to the University of Breslau, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate the previous year.
Initially, Brahms had contented himself with sending a simple handwritten note of acknowledgment to the University, since he loathed the public fanfare of celebrity. However, the conductor Bernard Scholz, who had nominated him for the degree, convinced him that protocol required him to make a grander gesture of gratitude. The University expected nothing less than a musical offering from the composer. “Compose a fine symphony for us!” he wrote to Brahms. “But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!”
Structure and instrumentation
Brahms, who was known to be a curmudgeonly joker, filled his quota by creating a “very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la Suppé“ in an intricately designed structure made to appear loose and episodic, thus drawing on the “academic” for both his sources and their treatment.
The work sparkles with some of the finest virtues of Brahms’s orchestral technique, sometimes applied for comic effect, such as the bassoons that inflate the light subject of “Fuchslied” (Was kommt dort von der Höh?). The inventive treatment includes tunes appropriated from the student ditties “Fuchslied”, “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus”, “Hört, ich sing das Lied der Lieder”, and most memorably, the broad, triumphant finale on “Gaudeamus igitur“, which succinctly engages Brahms’s sophisticated mastery of counterpoint, further fulfilling the “Academic” aspect of his program, cheekily applied to the well-worn melody. Brahms manages to evoke ravishing euphoria without sacrificing his commitment to classical balance.
The blend of orchestral colors is carefully planned and highlighted in the piece, which, in spite of Scholz’s request, calls for one of the largest ensembles for any of his compositions: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (both doubling on B-flat and C clarinets), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns (two in C and two in E), three C trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.
The Overture consists of four continuous sections:
- Allegro (C minor)
- Maestoso (C major)
- Animato (G major)
- Maestoso (C major).
The composer himself conducted the premiere at a special convocation held by the University on January 4, 1881, to the chagrin (and mischievous delight) of many of the academics in the audience. Due to its easily grasped structure, its lyrical warmth, as well as its excitement and humor, the work has remained a staple of today’s concert-hall repertoire. A typical performance lasts around ten minutes.