Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) once wrote “I am only too often reminded that I am a difficult person to get along with. I am growing accustomed to bearing the consequences of this”. Famously bad-tempered, tactless and cynical, he is once said to have left a party saying “if there is anyone in here I have not insulted, I apologise”. He was sarcastic and bluntly spoken as the composer Max Bruch found out to his cost when he sent Brahms the manuscript of his oratorio Arminius for his comments. When the two dined later, Brahms exclaimed “Listen Bruch!” indicating a hurdy-gurdy player in the street, “that fellow has got hold of your Arminius!”
Brahms had a cruel sense of humour and was fond of practical jokes. His modest but cluttered fourth floor apartment at Karlsgasse 4 in Vienna contained a trick rocking chair which would tip any unsuspecting (usually female) guest onto the floor to loud guffaws from Brahms.
On another occasion, he pranked his friend, the eminent Beethoven scholar Gustav Nottebohm with a faked piece of manuscript paper purporting to be in Beethoven’s hand; at the time there was a story doing the rounds that the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter had found part of Bach’s handwritten manuscript for the St. Matthew Passion on some wrapping paper for cheese. Brahms instead faked Beethoven’s writing style on an old piece of manuscript paper and persuaded a street vendor to sell Nottebohm a sausage wrapped in it; he then retired to a safe distance to watch the reaction of his gullible friend who visibly beamed on opening it and then scurried away.
The often austere, serious music of Brahms is perhaps one of the last places to find humour but with the Academic Festival Overture we find Brahms with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Brahms never studied at University but for two months in the summer of 1853, he lived the student life of beer, debates, reading (and more beer) when he joined the violinist-composer Joseph Joachim who was taking summer courses at the University of Göttingen. It was a happy time and he made enough money to pay for a walking tour of the Rhineland the same year.
Years later in 1876, the University of Cambridge offered Brahms an honorary Doctorate in Music. But the thought of having to travel all that way to receive it in person (as well as the rumoured celebrations) were a turn-off for the curmudgeonly Brahms and he declined the award.
The University of Breslau (now the University of Wrocław in Poland) had better luck in 1879 when they conferred on him an Honorary Doctorate in Music; Brahms accepted the honour and thanked them in a postcard but declined to attend the ceremony. In a subsequent letter, his friend Bernhard Scholz, Director of Music in Breslau, leaned on Brahms to express his thanks – in music. “Compose a fine symphony for us! But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!”
The result was the Academic Festival Overture, one of Brahms’s most popular works and his only musical prank. When Brahms raised his baton at its first performance on 4 January 1881 at the University of Breslau, no doubt the faculty members in the audience were expecting a dry and somewhat regal work, given its title. Instead they were treated to what Brahms later described as a “rollicking potpourri of student [drinking] songs”.
The work has all the rigour and control one usually associates with Brahms but the delight is in how the sober atmosphere gives way to an increasing sense of fun, reaching a glorious and thrilling climax.
It opens with a hushed theme based on the famous Rakóczy March. This gives way to the popular and memorable student song announced by trumpets Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus (We have built a stately house). Brahms was being deliberately provocative here as it had been banned for decades for its use as a political anthem by student organisations in Jena which advocated the unification of several principalities.
Next heard are phrases on strings from Der Land Vater (The Father of the Land); bassoons and oboes then play the lively freshmans’ initiation song Was kommt dort von der Höh’? (What Comes from Afar?). These melodies are developed in masterly animated fashion, reaching the spirited finale with an emphatic statement of the famous song Gaudeamus igitur (Therefore, let us be merry).
When he wrote this delicious romp, it seems Brahms was fondly remembering his inebriated ‘student’ days in Göttingen with Joachim. And one imagines the middle-aged Brahms on the podium at the premiere with a mischievous grin as students in the audience joined in with their own bawdy lyrics, no doubt to the horror of the dignitaries. It must have been much more fun than his booby-trapped rocking chair.
Published 3 December 2015 on primephonic.