Academic Festival Overture Analysis Essay

Academic Festival Overture (German: Akademische Festouvertüre),[1] Op. 80, by Johannes Brahms, was one of a pair of contrasting concert overtures — the other being the Tragic Overture, Op. 81. Brahms composed the work during the summer of 1880 as a musical "thank you" to the University of Breslau, which had notified him that it would award him an honorary doctorate in philosophy.


Initially, Brahms had contented himself with sending a simple handwritten note of acknowledgment to the University, since he loathed the public fanfare of celebrity. However, the conductorBernard Scholz, who had nominated him for the degree, convinced him that protocol required him to make a grander gesture of gratitude. The University expected nothing less than a musical offering from the composer. "Compose a fine symphony for us!" he wrote to Brahms. "But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!"[2]

Structure and instrumentation[edit]

Brahms, who was known to be a curmudgeonly joker, filled his quota by creating a "very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la Suppé"[3] in an intricately designed structure made to appear loose and episodic, thus drawing on the "academic" for both his sources and their treatment.

The work sparkles with some of the finest virtues of Brahms's orchestral technique, sometimes applied for comic effect, such as the bassoons that inflate the light subject of "Fuchslied" (Was kommt dort von der Höh?).[4] The inventive treatment includes tunes appropriated from the student ditties "Fuchslied", "Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus", "Hört, ich sing das Lied der Lieder", and most memorably, the broad, triumphant finale on "Gaudeamus igitur", which succinctly engages Brahms's sophisticated mastery of counterpoint, further fulfilling the "academic" aspect of his program, cheekily applied to the well-worn melody. Brahms manages to evoke ravishing euphoria without sacrificing his commitment to classical balance.

The blend of orchestral colors is carefully planned and highlighted in the piece, which, in spite of Scholz's request, calls for one of the largest ensembles for any of his compositions: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (both doubling in B♭ and C clarinets), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns (two in C and two in E), three C trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.

The Overture consists of four continuous sections:

  1. Allegro (C minor)
  2. Maestoso (C major)
  3. Animato (G major)
  4. Maestoso (C major)

Convocation for the premiere and awarding of the degree[edit]

The composer himself conducted the premiere of the overture, and received his honorary degree, at a special convocation held by the University on January 4, 1881. To the chagrin (or mischievous delight) of many of the academics in the audience, there was an "ironic" contrast between the mood of the student drinking songs and the seriousness of a ceremony.[5]


Because of its easily grasped structure, its lyrical warmth, and its excitement and humor, the work has remained a staple of today's concert-hall repertoire. A typical performance lasts around ten minutes.

References in Popular Culture[edit]

Cary Grant in his role as Dr. Noah Praetorius conducts the Overture at the beginning and end of the 1951 Joseph L. Mankiewicz/Darryl F. Zanuck film, People Will Talk, and part of the piece can also be heard in the opening theme of the 1978 film, National Lampoon's Animal House. In the 1967 film Bedazzled, Dudley Moore, as a pretentious pseudo-intellectual Welsh student, and Eleanor Bron lie on the floor listening to the beginning of the Overture on an LP until the record begins to skip (thanks to a scratch deliberately made in the LP by Peter Cook as the Devil earlier in the film). The song Catch a Falling Star, made famous by Perry Como was based on the third melody in just before the Gaudeamus Igitur.


External links[edit]

Johannes Brahms

Orchestral works
Vocal/Choral works with orchestra
Chamber music
Piano works
Other compositions
Named for Brahms
Related articles
  1. ^That is, Academic Festival-overture; the German word Festouvertüre connotes a festive or celebratory overture and figures in the titles of Glazunov's Festouvertüre, and Luise Adolpha Le Beau's Festouvertüre für großes Orchester, among others. Brahms' title is generally written in English as "Academic Festival" Overture, but in the German title, the adjective "akademisch" modifies Festouvertüre, not Fest. It is the overture that is festive, not an "Academic Festival" occasioning it.
  2. ^Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography(1997:462).
  3. ^In a letter to Max Kalbeck
  4. ^The comic effect is noted in Jan Swafford 1997:462.
  5. ^Oxford Companion to Music, Alison Latham, ed., Oxford University Press, 2003

I was a sophomore in college, sitting in my morning music history course on the Romantic period, and my professor was discussing the concept of program music, which Grove Music Online defines as “Music of a narrative or descriptive kind; the term is often extended to all music that attempts to represent extra-musical concepts without resort to sung words.”

The musical example my professor chose to illustrate the idea was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, which is celebrating the 131st anniversary of its premiere at the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition in 1882. The original title of the piece, which is a festival overture, is simply 1812, “The 1812 Overture,” being its accepted nickname.

It turned out that this piece of music I’d been enjoying every 4th of July for the past 18 years was trying to tell me a very specific story. That story was not, of course, the story of the War of 1812, though its title might be misinterpreted that way by American audiences. Despite its traditional performance by US orchestras on Independence Day, the work is unrelated to any British-American conflict. Tchaikovsky wrote the overture to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s army in 1812.

My professor went on to play a recording of 1812 and eloquently narrated the entire thing, never pausing, like a foreign-language interpreter. The level of detail in what the music intended to tell us was impressive; the piece was not about nationalism or war in general, but described in detail this specific conflict’s individual participants, their actions, and the conclusion of the fighting.

I went to my friend’s house the night after the lecture and told him all about it. We found a recording of the overture and I claimed I could narrate it just like my professor had done for the class. And I was doing well, for about two minutes—after that there were long stretches of the piece during which I had no idea what Tchaikovsky was trying to describe. I could fake my way through it for ten-second stretches, maybe, but each was followed by awkward pauses in my storytelling, and my poor friend had to sit for 15 minutes of me vamping between reprises of musical motifs I knew how to explain.

For today, I’ve prepared a little better. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the anniversary of the 1812’s premiere (and in apologizing to my friend) by listening to this recording and reading along with my second attempt at narrating the piece. Be forewarned that there are still some moments in the overture whose meanings elude me.

I’ve indicated the time markings for each section below, so please listen along with the same recording I used. (I picked this recording because it warns you that it uses real cannons—be sure not to listen to this with headphones on, as I did when I was preparing, or to at least keep the volume turned down. They’ll be louder than you think. Ow.)

(1) [0:00–1:30 or so]: An arrangement of the Russian hymn “Spasi, Gospodi, Iyudi Tvoya” (“O Lord, Save Thy People”) is played by soloists in the viola and cello sections, with other orchestra members entering in gradually. We, the listeners, are in Russia, our minds trained on the country’s inhabitants.

(2) [2:12– 3:45]: The suspenseful, storm’s-a-comin’ sort of music (notice any narrative water-treading already? Yeah, me too.) emerges out of the peaceful hymn, and we know that trouble is approaching Russia.

(3) [3:48– 4:45]: French soldiers are on their way! Snare drums, long a musical indicator of the military, are heard in this first appearance of what is probably the overture’s best-known theme:

Or to put it phonetically: bada-bumbum-BUMbumbumbum-BUM-bum-bummmmm….

(4) [4:46– 6:36]: Frantic, escalating passages culminate in brief snippets of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, underscored by tense ostinatos in the strings. The French are on the attack. This music then morphs into…

(5) [6:36–8:10]: …the attractive Russian countryside? Hoo boy, I’m not sure. I think of this pastoral section sort of like those side chapters in long novels where the authors take a break from the main plot to discuss an attractive landscape in great detail. Pretty, but lacking in action. Perhaps it’s just here to give us a respite from the battle scenes. Eventually transitioning into a minor key, it segues gradually into the next section.

(6) [8:10–8:54]: The traditional, dance-like Russian folk-tune “U vorot” (“At the gate”) enters the work. Perhaps Tchaikovsky’s borrowing of several different Russian tunes while providing only one musical stand-in for France says something important about the way the piece characterizes the two warring countries: one is more complex, with a great depth of culture and slant toward the serene, while the other is a single-minded aggressor.

(7) [8:54–10:25]: Suspense builds again—the battle is back on—as a variation of the earlier frantic music and the accompanying hints of the Marseillaise return in a modified form.

(8) [10:25–11:10]: The peaceful-countryside music returns again, first in a major key, then in minor.

(9) [11:10–11:31]: “U vorot” is reprised, completing the cycle of repeated sections. Note that the first time through this cycle (sections 4 through 6) took approximately four minutes and nine seconds to complete, while this second time (7 through 9) only took two minutes and 37 seconds. The plot is moving more quickly now; we’re approaching the denouement.

(10) [11:31–12:04]: The Marseillaise snippets appear alone in the horns, accompanied by more frantic playing from the strings and a rumble in the timpani that grows, and grows, and grows, until…

(11) [12:04–12:11]: THE CANNON. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. The five blasts ring out as the powerful Russian army fights back against their enemies. This, by the way, is how a cannon blast was notated in the score I looked at:

Notice the dynamic marking, ffff, or fortissississimo. This is actually from cannon blasts later on in the piece, at section 14—those in section 11 are only marked fortissimo. Apparently specific levels of loudness can be indicated for cannon fire (even if it was just for consistency within the score)—they have a bigger dynamic range than I thought. Remember to play out, you guys!

(12) [12:56–13:59]: Bells begin ringing out. To reference Grove Music Online once more, apparently Tchaikovsky originally wanted to use “all the churchbells in Moscow,” but “had to be content with the massive bells at Uspensky Cathedral where it was first performed.” I guess sometimes we just have to make do with what we’ve got.

(13) [14:01–14:08]: Goodbye, French! Their bada-bumbum-BUMbumbumbum-BUM-bum-bummmmm theme is played quickly as they retreat.

(14) [14:09–15:09]: “Bozhe, Tsarya khrani!” (“God save the Tsar!”, the Russian Empire’s national anthem during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime) overtakes the French theme, and is underscored (or overscored, depending on your speaker system) by ten more cannon blasts, the last of which, at 14:31, overlaps with a return of the bells, confirming the Russian victory.

Snippets from the score courtesy of IMSLP.

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