The best classical drinking songs

We discover which composers were partial to a drinking song or two...

Drinking songs, chants, and rhymes have always been popular

Various – Henry Purcell

Locked out of the house by his wife after a drunken night at the theatre, Purcell caught a chill and died at the age of 36. Or so the myth goes. Regardless of whether or not it brought him to an untimely end, there can be no doubt that Purcell liked a good tipple. Amongst his many drinking songs are excellent titles such as ‘I gave her cakes and I gave her ale’ and ‘Wine in a morning makes us frolic and gay.’

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Festival Overture – Johannes Brahms

In 1879 the University of Breslau awarded Brahms an honorary doctorate. After sending a letter of thanks, he was informed that the University expected a grander statement than a mere note. 'Compose a fine symphony for us!' wrote conductor Bernard Scholz; 'but well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick.' Rather than the honourable gesture that the University had requested, Brahms orchestrated a 'very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs', the premiere of which he conducted (gleefully) in 1881. Though university officials were less than impressed, we can safely assume that the students appreciated the effort.

‘Libiamo ne’lieti calici’ from La traviata  – Giuseppe Verdi

‘Let’s drink…and may the brief moment be inebriated with voluptuousness’ sings the young romantic Alfredo in this most famous of drinking songs. He wins Violetta and the entire chorus over, and they quickly join in this rapturous song. Well, wouldn’t you?

Drinking song from The Student Prince ­– Sigmund Romberg

This song certainly wins first prize for realism. The students of Heidelberg's cry of ‘Drink! Drink! Drink’ is the most manageable drinking song of any on this list, though its operetta (think Gilbert and Sullivan) style has nothing on Verdi.  

‘Certain rat, dans la cusine’ from The Damnation of Faust – Hector Berlioz

This is a sad tale of a rat who, after living the high life in a kitchen, is killed by a dose of poison. It makes it onto our list because it is sung, by an already inebriated student, as a prelude to more drinking. In the opera it is followed by a tale of a flea who brings his relative to infest a whole royal court. Flea 1, Rat 0.

‘Ah! Quel dîner’ from La Périchole – Jacques Offenbach

 Perhaps the best thing about this song is the wonderful performance by Dame Joan Sutherland (below), which comes with hiccups included. In true Offenbach style, Périchole (Sutherland) is about to get married to her equally drunk (and totally unaware) lover, Piquillo.

‘Finch’han dal vino’ from Don Giovanni – Mozart

Traditionally performed with a glass of bubbly in one hand, this drinking song has earned the rather classy alternative name of ‘the Champagne aria’. In it, Giovanni orders his servant Leporello to make ready for a party. There must be a great feast with enough wine for everyone to get drunk on, and dancing that will last all night long.

‘Intanto, amici, qua…Viva il vino spumeggiante’ from Cavalleria Rusticana – Pietro Mascagini

‘Hail to the bubbling wine!’ Amen. It seems at this point in Mascagini’s verismo opera that all will be well. Sadly that isn’t quite the case (due to a somewhat overdramatic bite on the ear) but it doesn’t diminish the sheer joy of this party scene.

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And an imposter…

‘Votre toast’ from Carmen – Georges Bizet

This is often called a drinking song, despite only one tiny reference to booze! Still, a more rousing ode you will not find – the perfect tune for an indulgent evening.