Piece of the Week: Academic Festival Overture by Brahms

Academic Festival Overture

In 1879, the University of Breslau (in Wroclaw, Poland) awarded an honorary doctorate to composer Johannes Brahms, who was then at the height of his career. Brahms accepted the honor and agreed, after some cajoling, to write a new piece to mark the occasion (which he did during the summer of 1880) and conduct the premiere (which he did in January of 1881). Brahms himself had not finished college, and perhaps this irony explains why the composer decided to play a light musical joke on the university: instead of a solemn and stately march, the piece that Brahms wrote for the school was a medley of well-known college party songs orchestrated in a contrapuntal style. In other words, Academic Festival Overture is a collection of lowbrow tunes presented in a highbrow academic style. Though the specific tunes are no longer familiar, students and audiences of today will still recognize the insouciant humor of this piece.

In recognition of the back-to-school season, we at SmartMusic invite you to give Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture a listen. We have three different arrangements of the piece to suit the needs of your ensemble: an easy level concert band arrangement by Alfred, a medium level concert band arrangement from Curnow, and a medium-advanced level string orchestra arrangement from FJH.

Audio Sample: Academic Festival Overture, Alfred Publishing Co.

Audio provided by Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc

Arrangement Notes by Michael Story

This easy-level arrangement of Academic Festival Overture contains most of the important themes of the original work in a setting lasting approximately 3 1/2 minutes.

Audio Sample: Academic Festival Overture, Curnow Music Press

Audio provided by Curnow Music Press, Inc.

Arrangement Notes by James Curnow

The entire overture is based on musical themes and ideas taken from a collection of German student songs. These songs represent many styles and moods and capture the spirit of the student body of the university. The best known of these songs is presented in a grand finale that draws the overture to an exciting conclusion.

This arrangement is designed as a telescopic view of the entire overture. All of the original thematic material is presented in its original order, with some limitations placed upon the developmental sections.

Audio Sample: Academic Festival Overture, FJH Music Company

Audio performed by The Washington Pops, The Washington Winds and/or The Studio A Big Band. Conducted by Edward S. Petersen. (P) Studio Productions, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Arrangement Notes by Dr. Robert McCashin

This work is probably the best known of the overtures written by Johannes Brahms. It is a compendium of familiar college songs from his day, woven together with short bridge sections and eventually ushered forth in a full orchestral voice. The four songs are “We Have Built a Stately House,” which was majestically stated by the brass section in the original; “The Landfather,” put forth by the strings; “What Comes from Afar,” sung by the woodwinds; and finally the triumphant “Wherefore Let Us Rejoice,” powerfully rendered by full orchestra amidst active string lines. Careful attention has been given to both dynamic and stylistic indications, which should be the central focus for all members of the ensemble.

As a string arrangement, the work offers exciting opportunities for mature high school players. All of the primary lines are intact, just as written by Brahms.

Composer Biography:

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, and died on April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria. He is recognized as one of the great composers of the Romantic era (1820-1900), and as a keeper of musical tradition. He had a reverence for the form and construction used by the old masters from Bach to Beethoven, and upheld this sense of order in his own music. Because of this, he was recognized in his own time as a composer in the true central German mold. Brahms knew that his artistic direction was different from that being taken by members of what was called the “New German School.” Richard Wagner and others openly attacked him for his aesthetic beliefs, but Brahms found support from artists like Joseph Joachim, J. O. Grimm, and Robert and Clara Schumann. This support was crucial because it led to his eventual popularity and success. He composed a large quantity of choral and chamber music, and a number of orchestral works. Among his larger pieces are four symphonies, the German Requiem, two concertos for piano, one for violin; and a double concerto for violin and violoncello. Brahms was a very reserved man who needed solitude to truly express his feelings through music; he disliked sentimentality and admired chivalry and patriotism. Some saw him as self-righteous and egotistical, but evidence also points to the contrary. Although he commanded attention from his circle of friends, and was intolerant of disagreement, he was not afraid to ask others for advice in composition, and displayed loyalty and selflessness. Even after a lifelong friendship, Clara Schumann admitted, “To me he is as much a riddle – I might almost say as much a stranger – as he was 25 years ago.”

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If you are an educator, musician, composer or student with a suggestion for a “piece of the week” blog post, you can email your suggestion to Griffin at [email protected]. Please let me know the name of the piece, composer, publisher, and why this piece is special to you.


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