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Brahms, Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80

By August 26, 2021March 19th, 2023No Comments

I decided to do something a bit light-hearted for this post. We’re going to hear the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms. Yes, even Brahms can sometimes be light-hearted! This is a 1963 performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The conductor is Paul Hindemith, who was a very well known German composer. He began conducting in the late ’40s and continued up until his death in 1963.  His relationship with the Third Reich is described below.

Academic Festival Overture

Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 is an overture composed by Johannes Brahms on the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Breslau. The work was composed in 1880 and first performed on January 4, 1881.

The university expected the performance to be a solemn event. As an unspoken reciprocation of their award, the University of Breslau had anticipated that Brahms, one of the greatest living composers (albeit one who had not attended college), would write a suitable new work to be played at the award ceremony. There is little doubt that what he provided confounded his hosts’ expectations. Rather than composing some ceremonial equivalent of Pomp and Circumstance—a more standard response—Brahms crafted what he described as a “rollicking potpourri of student songs,” in this case mostly drinking songs. It is easy to imagine the amusement of the assembled students, as well as the somewhat less-amused reaction of the school dignitaries, to Brahms’s lighthearted caprice.

The Academic Festival Overture showcases four beer-hall songs that were well known to German college students. The first, “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (“We Have Built a Stately House”), was proclaimed in the trumpets. “Der Landesvater” (“Father of Our Country”) followed in the strings, and the bassoons took the lead for “Was kommt dort von der Höh’? ” (“What Comes from Afar?”), a song that was associated with freshman initiation. Lastly, the entire orchestra joined together for a grand rendition of “Gaudeamus igitur” (“Let Us Rejoice, Therefore”). It was the first melody, however, that was most notorious in the composer’s day. “Wir hatten gebauet” was the theme song of a student organization that advocated the unification of the dozens of independent German principalities. This cause was so objectionable to authorities that the song had been banned for decades. Although the proscription had been lifted in most regions by 1871, it was still in effect in Vienna when Brahms completed his overture. Because of this ban, police delayed the Viennese premiere of the Academic Festival Overture for two weeks, fearing the incitement of the students.

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms, (born May 7, 1833, Hamburg [Germany]—died April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria-Hungary [now in Austria]), was a German composer and pianist of the Romantic period, who wrote symphonies, concerti, chamber music, piano works, choral compositions, and more than 200 songs. Brahms was the great master of symphonic and sonata style in the second half of the 19th century. He can be viewed as the protagonist of the Classical tradition of Joseph Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in a period when the standards of this tradition were being questioned or overturned by the Romantics.

The chief of these was the nature of Schumann’s encomium itself. There was already conflict between the “neo-German” school, dominated by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, and the more conservative elements, whose main spokesman was Schumann. The latter’s praise of Brahms displeased the former, and Brahms himself, though kindly received by Liszt, did not conceal his lack of sympathy with the self-conscious modernists. He was therefore drawn into controversy, and most of the disturbances in his otherwise uneventful personal life arose from this situation. Gradually Brahms came to be on close terms with the Schumann household, and, when Schumann was first taken mentally ill in 1854, Brahms assisted Clara Schumann in managing her family. He appears to have fallen in love with her; but though they remained deep friends after Schumann’s death in 1856, their relationship did not, it seems, go further.

Between 1857 and 1860 Brahms moved between the court of Detmold—where he taught the piano and conducted a choral society—and Göttingen, while in 1859 he was appointed conductor of a women’s choir in Hamburg. Such posts provided valuable practical experience and left him enough time for his own work.

By 1861 he was back in Hamburg, and in the following year he made his first visit to Vienna, with some success. Having failed to secure the post of conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic concerts, he settled in Vienna in 1863, assuming direction of the Singakademie, a fine choral society. His life there was on the whole regular and quiet, disturbed only by the ups and downs of his musical success, by altercations occasioned by his own quick temper and by the often virulent rivalry between his supporters and those of Wagner and Anton Bruckner, and by one or two inconclusive love affairs. His music, despite a few failures and constant attacks by the Wagnerites, was established, and his reputation grew steadily. By 1872 he was principal conductor of the Society of Friends of Music (Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde), and for three seasons he directed the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. His choice of music was not as conservative as might have been expected, and though the “Brahmins” continued their war against Wagner, Brahms himself always spoke of his rival with respect. Brahms is sometimes portrayed as unsympathetic toward his contemporaries. His kindness to Antonín Dvořák is always acknowledged, but his encouragement even of such a composer as the young Gustav Mahler is not always realized, and his enthusiasm for Carl Nielsen’s First Symphony is not generally known.

In between these two appointments in Vienna, Brahms’s work flourished and some of his most significant works were composed. The year 1868 witnessed the completion of his most famous choral work, Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem).

Gradually Brahms’s renown spread beyond Germany and Austria. Switzerland and the Netherlands showed true appreciation of his art, and Brahms’s concert tours to these countries as well as to Hungary and Poland won great acclaim. The University of Breslau (now the University of Wrocław, Poland) conferred an honorary degree on him in 1879. The composer thanked the university by writing the Academic Festival Overture (1881) based on various German drinking songs. Among his other orchestral works at this time were the Violin Concerto in D Major (1878) and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major (1881).

Brahms remained in Vienna for the rest of his life. He resigned as director of the Society of Friends of Music in 1875, and from then on devoted his life almost solely to composition. When he went on concert tours, he conducted or performed (on the piano) only his own works. He maintained a few close personal friendships and remained a lifelong bachelor. He spent his summers traveling in Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. During these years Brahms composed the boldly conceived Double Concerto in A Minor (1887) for violin and cello, the powerful Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor (1886), and the Violin Sonata in D Minor (1886–88). He also completed the radiantly joyous first String Quintet in F Major (1882) and the energetic second String Quintet in G Major (1890).

Paul Hindemith

November 16, 1895 – December 28, 1963

Paul Hindemith, one of the most successful composers of twentieth century Germany, had a relationship with the Nazi Party plagued by inconsistencies and paradoxes. The same man whom Goebbels recognised in 1934 as ‘unquestionably… one of the most important talents in the younger generation of composers’ had his compositions banned only two years later. Although a committed modernist who collaborated with both leftist and Jewish musicians, Hindemith’s apolitical attitude and willingness to compromise, as well as his international reputation, allowed him to have a surprisingly long career in Nazi Germany, and to enjoy periodic support from high-placed Nazi officials. Despite, or perhaps because of, the Nazi censure he was subject to, Hindemith remained the pre-eminent example of a modern German composer, and his name became synonymous with Nazism’s tortured relationship with modernity.

Born in 1895 in Hanau, Hindemith studied violin as a child. As a teenager he entered the music conservatory in Frankfurt am Main, where he studied violin from 1909 and composition from 1912. In 1915 he was appointed concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra, leading the orchestra until 1923 (with a break when he was drafted in 1917-8). Hindemith’s father died in World War I.

By the early 1920s he had established a reputation for himself as a violinist and violist – establishing the Amar Quartet in 1921/22 – and especially as a composer. His expressionist operas showed the influences of atonal harmonies and especially jazz, but his compositions ran the gamut in terms of genre: he wrote children’s songs, chamber music, experimental theatre music and Lieder. His very range of interests was the source of condemnation from the right; already in the 1920s he was condemned for being ‘at home everywhere, except in the German folk’s soul.’ Despite this negative press, his career blossomed. He was offered a position teaching composition at the Berlin Academy of Music in 1927.

Hindemith cultivated relationships with many of the most important artists of his day, notably Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. His operas were often denounced in the Nazi press; his marriage to a Jewish woman and his friendships with leftists only made things worse. One critic wrote that “Hindemith’s music is foreign to the German style, as it is not art in the higher sense, rather simply empty games with tones, an artistic acrobatic artistic-ness”.

During the 1930s, he found it increasingly difficult to find concert engagements in Germany as a performer and composer. Nonetheless, his talent did impress some Nazi music-lovers, and some took his long-held interest in German folk-music to be an indication of a change in political artistic outlook, evidenced by a June 1933 review by a Nazi music critic:
“After the searching and roving restlessness of the years of development, new instrumental works have been composed with an allegiance to classicism and a sense of clarity and firmness which expresses the essence of German music in masterly economy of sound and form”.

In March 1934, what became known as the ‘Hindemith affair’ erupted. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler planned to premiere Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter) for the 1934-35 season. However, Nazi official Göring prohibited the performance. Furtwängler threatened to resign unless the boycott of Hindemith was lifted, and wrote open letters to the press defending the composer. However, he sought to avoid conflict with the Nazi party by avoiding all but the most mild critique. Ultimately the power of the Nazi regime over artistic expression was established. In 1935, under pressure from Goebbels, Hindemith requested an indefinite leave of absence from his post at the Berlin Academy, and accepted an invitation from the Turkish government to establish a music school in Istanbul, returning to Berlin later that year.

In January 1936 Hindemith was forced to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler (a requirement by any civil servant that wished to continue working in Germany) in order to keep his job at the Academy. He was also commissioned to write a piece for the Luftwaffe (which has never been found). However, he was still struggling to find opportunities to perform as a soloist, and to have his compositions performed publicly. Hindemith’s works were banned by the Nazis in October 1936 (though, as was typical of Nazi policy, with several exceptions). In 1938, he appeared in the exhibition Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) in Düsseldorf. Concerned for their safety, Paul and Gertrud Hindemith left Germany for Switzerland in 1938, before emigrating to the United States two years later.

Hindemith went on to build a successful career in the United States, where his music had been performed since the 1920s. He was granted a professorship at Yale in 1941. Immediately after the war, his music was considered to be among the rare contemporary German works free of Nazi influence. He experienced a boom in popularity, and was performed frequently on the stages of the occupied zones. He began his career as a conductor in 1947, having become a US citizen in 1946.
In 1953 he returned to Europe, relocating to Zurich, where he taught musicology at the university, and gradually began to conduct more frequently. He died in Frankfurt am Main in December 1963.