Wednesday, 4 January 2017

TODAY IN CLASSICAL MUSIC HISTORY: “DR.” JOHANNES BRAHMS SCOFFS AT PRETENSION AND FANFARE WITH A BOOZY ACADEMIC TRIBUTE

Johannes Brahms: composer, conductor, comic
It was on this January day in 1881 that esteemed faculty and alumni at the University of Breslau in Wroclaw, Poland were first treated to a rousing performance of Herr Brahms’ so called “Academic Festival Overture,” a very tongue-in-cheek show of thanks from the composer for the rare privilege of having been nominated by the University for an honorary Doctorate of Philosophy.

The ever-so-humble Brahms, a noted dissenter of public displays of pomp and circumstance, first attempted to quietly thank the faculty via a postcard acknowledging his gratitude – a humble display of affection that was quickly dismissed as inadequate by the conductor Bernard Scholz (the man who had first nominated him for the degree). A “grander gesture” of thanks would be both required and expected from the nominee – no less than a freshly composed symphony would do to appease the honor! This was no altruistic endowment, that much was made surprisingly clear to the composer.

Brahms, more than a little miffed at the actions required to receive his “gift,” decided to turn the pretentious nature of the faculty on it’s head with a cleverly designed orchestration consisting of a mélange of student-favorite drinking songs and even a fraternity initiation ballad – intended to mock the ‘seriousness’ of the degree and those who bestowed upon him the honor – that elite sect of greedy bandits who gave with one hand and expected to take with the other. The premier of the overture was nothing less than a symphonic TKO.

It’s safe to say the faculty – who sat front and center at the premiere – were less than pleased with the performance.

What makes Brahms’ symphonic show of thanks even more delightfully crass lay in the dedication associated with the honorary degree – the University had dubbed the composer “the foremost composer of serious music in Germany today.”

Score one for Brahms! 

The Academic Overture:


Footnote:
The student 'initiation' ballad "Was kommt dort von der höh'?" (What comes there from on yonder?) was just one of the "very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la Suppé" (the description given to the Overture by Brahms himself) - and is certainly one of the works' more raucous themes. Click here to read the lyrics to this rowdy gem (external link).
-Rose.

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