Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). Academic Festival Overture (1880)

Listen on SoundCloud Listen on Spotify

Brahms had already turned down one honorary doctorate, but when another one was proffered, a good friend talked him into accepting—but he had to write a concert piece to get it. Brahms was hoping a thank-you note would’ve sufficed, but he nevertheless composed this thrilling piece, music in which he pokes fun at the university, at the administration, at the students, and maybe, even, at himself.

Johannes Brahms, with a wink in his eye

Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.

In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; just search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.

It’s the 100th anniversary of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta The Student Prince, the longest-running Broadway show of the 1920s, running longer even than Show Boat. As it happens, it’s also the 70th anniversary of the film based on the operetta, which famously used Mario Lanza’s voice on the soundtrack, although not his person on the screen.

We won’t hear any Romberg today, but I mention The Student Prince because if we have any picture in our heads of 19th-century German university life, we’re probably imagining rows of students at long tables holding beer glasses high and singing the big hit from this Prohibition-era show, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” The 1924 operetta and the 1954 movie are set in the fictional kingdom of Karlsberg, but also in the very real German city of Heidelberg and in its university. The students—all male—have only three things on their minds: drinking, singing about drinking, and falling in love with the barmaid.

Well, we don’t look to operettas for historical integrity—some student in Germany, somewhere, must have cracked open a book—but one flavor that The Student Prince got right is that phenomenon of the student song. In old Germany as well as in many other countries before smartphones, before television, and before radio, taverns and pubs were places not only to drink together, but also to sing together. So, in these places, songs can become drinking songs.

In addition to the folk songs you might hear in any tavern in most any country, university students added their own material. You didn’t have to go to college to know this. Johannes Brahms, who didn’t go to college, knew this, and it is from this pocket of repertoire that he drew four tunes that he would craft into the Academic Festival Overture.

In English, the title isn’t exactly right. There was no “festival,” academic or otherwise, for which this was the overture. It would more properly be a “festive overture” written in an academic style, that is, an overture—a happy or celebratory overture—that followed academic rules. He was both setting himself in opposition to a dramatically driven concert overture by, say, a Franz Lizst, or even to an operatic overture. At the same time, he was setting up his hearers for a huge joke.

And who was this audience to be? None other than the respected professors and students of one of the grand seats of academe itself, the University of Breslau, which was to grant Brahms an honorary doctorate. Brahms tried to get away with writing a thank-you note, but his friend on the faculty, Bernhold Scholz, told him that he needed to do a little better than that: he needed to write them a concert piece.

Cambridge University had tried to give Brahms and his friend, the violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim, honorary doctorates four years before, but Brahms didn’t want to write a whole new piece and anyway, could not be dragged onto an ocean-going vessel. It’s surprising, since Brahms was from the port of Hamburg, or maybe that explains it. Anyway, Joachim got his doctorate and Brahms didn’t.

But riding to Breslau by land wasn’t a problem, and by 1880 Brahms had warmed to the idea of an honorary doctorate, so he took his friend Scholz’s advice to write a new piece. Brahms and Scholz went back at least 20 years, when they were involved in one of those sins-of-my-youth situations they probably wished had never happened. Liszt and Wagner were two composers associated with the so-called “Music of the Future,” the music that was going to turn stuffy tradition on its head. Trouble was, a crop of musicians from the generation after Liszt and Wagner, including Brahms and Scholz, thought that tradition was just fine, thank you, and that these “Music of the Future” composers were all wet. Dozens of musicians were prepared to sign a proclamation saying so in no uncertain terms, but it was published prematurely with only four signatures. Three of them were Brahms, Scholz, and Joachim.

It embarrassed them after being razzed in the press as stick-in-the-mud youngsters taking on giants like Wagner and Liszt, but there was no permanent damage to this band of brothers and they all went on to excellent careers. Brahms, of course, by 1880 had become the leading composer of Germany. Two of his four symphonies had premiered, as had his first Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the Hungarian Dances, the Variations on a Theme of Haydn, sonatas, string quartets, songs, and on and on. So it was no surprise that an honorary degree was coming his way.

But with all his acclaim and with all his performances, official recognition, such as a degree from the academy, was a sore subject with Johannes Brahms. He had, after all, never gone to university, and those professors and conductors had their own circle. It had irked him tremendously that the top conducting position in Hamburg, his own hometown, had never been offered to him. True, he had moved away and was a longtime fixture in Vienna, and true, other positions had been offered to him, which he turned down. But he looked on the withholding of that hometown plum with bitterness. He seemed eventually to have found peace with it however, or the romance of it had finally evaporated, because when the Hamburg offer did come much later, well, he was used to Vienna, he was used to traveling, he was used to seeing his friends, he was used to his life, and, well, he turned them down.

So with all that percolating in the background of Brahms’s psyche, the Breslau doctorate manifested itself in this marvel of a work, this mixture of gratitude and chain-pulling that is the Academic Festival Overture. The joke, of course, are the tunes he employs, these student songs woven so expertly, so carefully, and orchestrated so finely. The waste of such expertise, we can imagine some of the faculty thinking, on such low material!

The first melody he teases us with is Wir haben gebauet ein stattliches Haus (“We Have Built a Stately House”). It’s a folk song from Thuringia in East Germany—two states to the west of Breslau—but took on political implications in 1819. A student organization using it as their theme song, you might say, had been disbanded. The song’s message was the unification of Germany, which was seen as revolutionary to local leaders. It was banned throughout the German kingdoms and provinces. Germany was united by Bismarck in 1871, of course, but the song in 1880 was still, at the very least, sassy, and it was still banned in Vienna, where Brahms lived! His use of this song right out of the gate is startling, a poke in the eye, really, to the authorities. Here’s what it sounds like:


But Brahms quickly lets them know that he’s only joking by next quoting Der Landesvater (“The Father of our Country”). It has a long history of devotion to one’s love and to one’s country, but in the university it was used ceremonially as a demonstration of fealty by the students to that institution.


Brahms doesn’t let the students off the hook, either. He makes fun of them, or of some of them, in a song called Die Füchse (“The Foxes”) or Was komm dort von der Höh? (“What Comes from on High?” or “From Afar?”). Now, a fox is the freshman, and he must undergo mockery from the upperclassmen as they size him up.


So Brahms has his laughs at everyone, but for the finale he brings everyone together to sing the most famous of all student songs, Gaudeamus igitur (“So Let Us Rejoice”). It’s so famous that Romberg could hardly write The Student Prince without including it. It’s the official song for many colleges in Europe and in the U.S. Its many verses in Latin are a combination of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” carpe diem (“seize the day”), and “you’re only young once.” See if you recognize it as sung here:


And here’s how it sounds by way of Brahms:


This builds to a thrilling finale for this thrilling piece, music in which Brahms pokes fun at the university, at the administration, at the students, and maybe, even, at himself.

On Fleisher Discoveries, the Academic Festival Overture by Johannes Brahms. Bernard Haitink conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

[Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). Academic Festival Overture (1880)]

The Academic Festival Overture by Johannes Brahms. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was conducted by Bernard Haitink. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.

Well, I have loved this piece from the time I first became interested in classical music in my teens, and I think that for many people, it’s a favorite. Of all of Brahms’s orchestral works, most of which are performed all the time, the Academic Festival Overture may even be the most played.

For the teenage me, who wanted to be a composer but who didn’t know how, this piece held a special attraction. Brahms’s Requiem was the bolt of lightning that began my journey into writing music, but as much as I was transfixed by it, it seemed to me so unapproachable. There was no way I could write anything like that. But the Academic? Well, I thought, that I might be able to do. The thoughts of a child these were, but I think they were necessary steps to draw me further into the journey to composing. And so Brahms and his Academic Festival Overture hold a special place in my heart.

I’m taking this ramble down memory’s lane because I’ve been putting off telling you that I’ll be stepping away from the Fleisher Discoveries podcast. I’ll do one more after this, and then I’m turning more of my time over to composing. I’ve been more or less a full-time composer for years now, but things have gotten so busy and there are so many composing deadlines, that I’m afraid I need to let the podcast go.

Fleisher Curator Gary Galván encouraged me to get as personal as I’d like in these last few shows, so I cast my attention on two of the most meaningful works to me, personally and as a composer. Last month was Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a desert-island work for me, and this month, Brahms’s Academic. Next month, my last show, will be a surprise I hope you’ll enjoy.

The Fleisher Collection is on Facebook, and I’m on Facebook, so you can like us there. I’m also on Twitter, @KileSmithMusic, and on Instagram I’m kilesmithmusic. Drop me a line at

Phil wrote in to say that he has a long history with that Symphony of Psalms, singing it in high school and at the University of Pennsylvania, and very generously comments that our podcast was “the best summary of the piece I have heard or read.” I’m indebted to you, Phil, for that. Sharon wrote that the show “compels me to listen to this music!” That’s high praise and exactly what I want to happen! To soften all this praise I need to say that I made a mistake in that last one. I was mentioning Stravinsky’s return to the church, and in my research came across many other artists from that time, the 1920s, who did the same. My mistake was including Diaghilev in that group. Somehow I mixed him in there but I now can find no evidence that he ever did. I’ve fixed the written record, but the podcast is still out there with that mistake.

Thanks for all of your comments, Phil, Sharon, Kevin, and many others by email and on Facebook and in person. I do appreciate it. And remember that all of our podcasts are available all of the time, so do check us out anytime for what we hope are the enlightening stories and wonderful pieces we uncover for every show. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.

And thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.