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Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Academic Festival Overture

A famous riposte to the young Mahler apart, Brahms was not well-known for his sense of humour. However, his discovery that a mere thank-you note was (back in 1879) considered insufficient gratitude for an honorary doctorate, conferred in absentia by Breslau University, provoked a little jest. The citation described him as a “composer of serious music”, so Brahms notified Barnard Scholz (the conductor at Breslau) of his proposed work's title. Scholz, taking it at face value, thought it “devilish academic and boring”. It is hard to imagine (yet imagine we must!) “stuffy old” Brahms chortling with glee as he penned his now-famous medley of student songs. 

However, a “medley” it wasn't: like everything Brahms wrote it is built like a tank, and, once set in motion, twice as impressive. The joke is not over. Having a low opinion of Bruckner's symphonies (“symphonic boa-constrictors”!), he took the opportunity to lay out his undergraduate booze-up exactly like a Bruckner first movement. There are three subject groups, the first having four themes with a predominantly marching character, the second a contrasting lyrical flow, and the third (introduced on bassoons) bouncing along on an off-beat rhythm. The development section is telescoped into the recapitulation - we only become aware of the latter with the re-emergence of the second subject. The unexpected, and unexpectedly unbuttoned, appearance of Gaudeamus Igitur as a coda must have brought the house down at the premiere!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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