Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (Akademische Festouvertüre), Op. 80, Premiered On This Day, 1881

Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (German: Akademische Festouvertüre), Op. 80, was one of two contrasting concert overtures, the other being the Tragic Overture, Op. 81. Brahms composed the work during the summer of 1880 as a tribute to the University of Breslau, which had notified him that it would award him an honorary doctorate in philosophy.

Brahms was initially pleased by sending a simple handwritten note of thanks to the University, as he despised the public adoration of stardom. However, the conductor Bernhard Scholz, who had recommended him for the degree, persuaded him that the procedure demanded a bigger expression of thanks. The composer was required to provide a musical contribution to the University.

On the 4th of January 1881, the composer himself conducted the debut of the overture and earned his honorary degree at a special convocation organized by the University.

There was an “ironic” contrast between the atmosphere of the student’s drinking songs and the solemnity of the ceremony, much to the dismay (or malicious delight) of many of the academics in the audience.

The composition has remained an essential part of today’s concert-hall repertoire due to its simple structure, lyrical warmth, and energy and humor. A typical performance lasts about ten minutes.

Johannes Brahms, Akademische Festouvertüre, Titelseite der Partitur 1881

Source: Partitur, Berlin (Simrock) 1881

The composition glitters with some of Brahms’ finest orchestral virtues, occasionally used for comic effect, such as the bassoons that inflate the light theme of “Fuchslied” (Was kommt dort aus der Höh?). The inventive treatment includes tunes taken 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”. Brahms achieved astonishing rapture without abandoning his devotion to classical equilibrium.

The Overture consists of four continuous sections:

Allegro (C minor)

Maestoso (C major)

Animato (G major)

Maestoso (C major)

Interesting facts:

Cary Grant in his role as Dr. Noah Praetorius conducts the Overture at the beginning and end of the 1951 Joseph L. Mankiewicz/Darryl F. Zanuck film People Will Talk.

The song “Catch a Falling Star”, made famous by Perry Como, was based on the third melody in the final movement, just before the “Gaudeamus igitur”.

Photo credit:

An article cover photography of Johannes Brahms

Source: World History Encyclopedia: Unknown Artist, Public Domain