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Composed: 1880
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 2, 1925, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

Johannes Brahms never went to college. When he was 20, however, he had the opportunity to indulge in the perks of student life for several weeks, without having to do a stitch of academic work. This serendipitous state of affairs resulted after he got “laid off” while on tour with the flamboyant 25-year-old Hungarian violinist, Eduard Reményi. Early in July of 1853, Reményi and Brahms were guests at the home of Franz Liszt during an extended stopover in Weimar. Reményi worshipped at the shrine of Liszt, but Brahms wanted nothing to do with their host’s artistic goals and the “New German School.” Incensed that his reticent accompanist wasn’t according the great master proper respect, Reményi sent Brahms on his way.

A few weeks earlier, at the end of May, Reményi had introduced Brahms to violinist-composer Joseph Joachim during a concert stop in Hanover. Foreseeing a personality clash between the ill-matched duo, Joachim had invited Brahms – if the opportunity arose – to join him at Göttingen, where he would be taking some summer courses in philosophy and history at the local university. For two glorious months that summer, Brahms hung out with Joachim and his circle, enjoying reading, debates, pleasant walks, beer-drinking sessions and song fests at the local beer-halls, and general student camaraderie. By doing a recital with Joachim, he raised enough money to finance a long-held dream to take a walking tour of the Rhineland. Thus, the young composer packed his knapsack and bid peripheral university life adieu.

Brahms’ next brush with academe occurred 23 years later, in 1876. Cambridge University offered him an honorary Doctorate in Music, which required his presence at the ceremony – but Brahms had a paralyzing distaste for sea travel. Then, he learned that Londoners were hatching lavish plans to celebrate his sojourn in England. Harboring an innate horror of fuss and lionization, and unwilling to face the Channel crossing, the composer stayed home and relinquished the honor.

It was in 1879 that the University of Breslau conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Brahms was flattered and sent a postcard of thanks to the faculty. However, a subsequent letter from his friend Bernhard Scholz, Director of Music in Breslau, made it clear that the university expected him to express his gratitude in musical form. While vacationing at Bad Ischl during the summer of 1880, Brahms penned his musical “thank you” – the Academic Festival Overture.

With a masterful balance of serious and light-hearted elements, the emphasis is on the “festival” rather than the “academic” in an overture that brims with an irrepressible sense of fun. The work also sports the most extravagant orchestral forces the composer ever employed. Brahms himself described the piece as “a very boisterous potpourri of student songs.” Indeed, excerpts from four student beer-hall tunes play a significant role in the orchestral texture in what is, perhaps, a fond backward look to the carefree summer days of 1853.

A hushed, but urgent statement launches the Overture, followed by a dramatic succession of contrasting ideas and dynamics. The principal idea here is an adaptation of the Rakóczy March, a favorite tune with the composer since his youth. Following a soft drumroll, three trumpets then present the first of the traditional students’ songs: “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (We have built a stately house). Its roots lie in a Thuringian folk song, which had been transformed into a defiant protest song in the East German town of Jena when the students’ association there was disbanded in 1819. After Brahms develops and mixes this song with the earlier Rakóczy adaptation, the melody of “Der Landesvater” (The father of our country) appears in a sweeping, lyrical rendition introduced by violins and violas.

The tempo shifts to animato for the freshman’s song known as The Fox-Ride (“Was komm dort von der Höh’ ” – What comes from afar). Bassoons, accompanied by off-the-beat violas and cellos, add a touch of humor that must have raised a faculty eyebrow or two at the premiere. Not forgetting to stir in his original material, Brahms then plays the three student songs off one another in a light-handed development. For the grand finale, a rambunctious version of the imposing “Gaudeamus igitur” (Therefore, let us be merry) makes a joyful noise and provides a rousing conclusion with its blazing brass and full orchestral forces.

The Overture has been one of Brahms’ most often played works ever since the composer himself conducted the premiere in Breslau on January 4, 1881.

Composer Kathy Henkel has written program notes for many musical organizations in Southern California. LA Phil English horn player Carolyn Hove recently premiered Henkel’s Summer’s Echo at a masterclass recital in Indiana.