Academic Festival Overture, op. 80
piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings
Composed 1880. First performance: 4 January 1881. University of Breslau (modern Wrocław, Poland). Johannes Brahms, conductor.
This year, performers and audiences around the world are debating the legacy of Beethoven and deciding how they want to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth. Many orchestras have followed the usual pattern of such anniversary years by programming a cycle of his symphonies. Others have suggested that placing his music on pause—making space instead for new voices—would be a more fitting tribute. Combining the music of Brahms, who was one of the first composers to stand in Beethoven’s long shadow, with a performance from a young artist could be heard as a meaningful response to the call of Beethoven's music. All musicians must both make their peace with tradition, learn from it, and yet also move beyond.
In the wake of Beethoven’s nine transformative symphonies, Brahms was wary of engaging with the genre, despite his early successes as a composer. Schumann had called his sonatas for piano “veiled symphonies” and encouraged the young Brahms to “direct his magic wand where the powers of the masses in chorus and orchestra may lend him their forces... may the highest genius strengthen him to this end.” This exhortation must have been as intimidating as it was encouraging, for Brahms later declared himself to conductor Hermann Levi: “I will never compose a symphony! You have no idea how disheartening it is for us when he constantly hears such a great giant marking behind.”
After fourteen years of writing and rewriting, Brahms eventually did finish his First Symphony, which was branded “Beethoven's Tenth” shortly after its 1876 premiere. Having secured his place as a composer of great renown, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau, for which he wrote the customary commemorative work. However, instead of a treating the piece as a solemn obligation, he produced an almost comic medley of student songs.
In the Academic Festival Overture, we hear an unbothered Brahms. Although the piece begins with a brooding quick march in C minor, Brahms rotates rapidly through several moods before settling the opening tune into a more jubilant major mode. The dotted figures that start out as an urgent mutter from the horn and bassoon become a noble proclamation, with a hymn-like passage from the strings by way of transition. All of this material is cribbed from drinking songs and other tunes, the most important of which is “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (“We Have Built a Stately House”). This anthem, first heard in a trumpet chorale, was associated with the movement toward German unification and still banned in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time of the overture’s Viennese premiere. The student has indeed become the master, but the impetuousness is still there to be heard.