'Artis musicae severioris in Germania nunc princeps’ (‘The most famous living German composer of serious music’). That is the citation which accompanied the honorary doctoral degree awarded to Johannes Brahms by the University of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) at a ceremony in the city on 4 January 1881 – a form of words which, incidentally, seriously irritated Brahms’s great contemporary rival, Richard Wagner.


Brahms was 47 at the time, and had two symphonies, two concertos and a large quantity of chamber music already behind him. He had never been to university himself, and that possibly explains his rather gauche response in 1879, on first hearing the doctorate had been awarded – a simple postcard was all he sent, asking his friend and Breslau resident Bernhard Scholz to thank the university authorities.

There followed a diplomatic intervention, restoring a modicum of decorum to the situation. ‘Would you not like to write a “doctoral symphony” for us here in Breslau?,’ Scholz, the conductor of the city’s orchestra, wrote. ‘We’re expecting at least a ceremonial song.’ Teasingly addressing Brahms as ‘Dear Doctor’, Scholz promised him a slap-up graduation meal and a convivial evening of skittle-playing to nudge him in the right direction.

Brahms took the hint, but not by composing the symphony or song suggested. ‘I have written an “Academic Festival Overture” for January 4th so that you aren’t too embarrassed by your guest,’ he wrote to Scholtz. ‘I don’t really like the title – maybe you can think of a better one?’ Scholz agreed the title was ‘damned academic and boring’, but Brahms found his alternative – the ‘Viadrina Overture’, after an old name for Breslau’s River Oder – even worse.

So the Academic Festival Overture was what a distinguished audience of academics and students heard when the new work was played at the beginning of the degree ceremony in 1881. They were probably expecting a fairly solemn, dutiful piece, appropriate to an academic gathering. Instead they got ‘a very boisterous potpourri of student songs à la Suppé’ (Brahms’s own description), a rare excursion into japery by a composer not generally associated with a lively sense of humour.

Four particular songs were used by Brahms in the 11-minute piece, variously referencing the role of students in forging national unity (the Imperial State of Germany had been created just a decade earlier), and the age-old tradition of undergraduate alcohol consumption.

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But where had Brahms got his ideas for this rowdy portrayal of academic life? Was he simply aping what he had heard about the irreverent high-spiritedness of a student population he had never personally been part of? Apparently not. In 1853, when he had just turned 20, Brahms spent a few weeks sampling university life in Göttingen, where his friend the violinist Joseph Joachim was taking summer courses. There, Brahms apparently partook enthusiastically of student activities – reading, drinking beer and debating – without having to complete
a single academic assignment.

These carefree experiences no doubt informed the Academic Festival Overture, especially in the freshman initiation song announced in buffo style by bassoons halfway through, and the rambunctious student singalong ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ – ‘Let us rejoice, therefore, while we are young’, its text runs – which brings the overture to a noisy conclusion.

There is no record of how the Academic Festival Overture’s first audience in Breslau reacted. But its joie de vivre, or ‘Lebenslust’, as Brahms himself might have put it, is unquestionably one of the reasons why to this day it is one of his most enduringly popular composition


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