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Johannes Brahms: "Academic Festival Overture", analysis by Gerard Schwarz

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Video transcript

(orchestral music) - Johannes Brahms was not a university man. He never attended university, but in 1879, when he was 46, he was offered a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Breslau. He accepted, he was anxious to be acknowledged in that academic way. But part of the deal was he had to write a piece. In the 19th century, when people were given honorary degrees, they had to do something. Nowadays, you get an honorary degree, it's usually because you have done things, you have accomplished a certain amount, you have a certain fame, and they say, we'd like to honor you by giving you a degree. It's rare that anyone asks you to do anything. When Richard Strauss was given an honorary degree, he was required to write a piece and he wrote a piece called Tally Affair. It's a remarkable piece but the thing about the piece is it takes 20 minutes, but it calls for 200 people to be on the stage, huge brass, a tenor solo, a huge chorus. I mean, what he did was he just took every possible person he could find in Heidelberg and put them on the stage for his, to get his honorary degree. Brahms did something, I mean, not similar but in a way, his largest orchestra, three trumpets, not two trumpets, now that's, I think the only time he ever used three trumpets. Of course, normal three trombones, tuba, used a piccolo and a contrabassoon, which he did quite often, and percussion. Brahms described it as a cheerful potpourri of student songs a la Suppe. That refers to Franz von Suppe who was a wonderful composer of operettas and overtures. In fact, he uses four student songs as the basis for the whole work. The academic festival overture begins in a very subtle, quiet way, and what's interesting to me, of course, is that not only are the strings playing. (vocalizing) But you have the percussion joined in right away. How unusual. I'm trying to remember if I can think of an example in Brahms or any composer of that period where they begin a piece using the percussion right at the beginning like that, and it adds a certain air of expectation. (orchestra music) When the woodwinds come in, there is a certain dark hue, a dark color, again of expectation, where is this leading? Finally, we get the first choral tune, played by the violas and then that melody extended by the horn. This leads back to the initial material again and all of a sudden, it builds and it becomes exuberant. So finally you have something that, it's loud and exciting and then immediately, he brings you back to this ambiguous pianissimo. The woodwind's playing something very simple and the string's playing a little bit late every time, they're never together, and when you hear music where no one's ever together, you either think that they're making a mistake and they just can't play together or what's going on here? Beethoven did it numerous times, but here Brahms does it and it gives you this feeling of, what's gonna happen next? (orchestra music) And then finally we get the second school tune played by a brass choral of horns and trumpets. This brass choral leads to another wonderful climactic moment. We repeat what we heard at the beginning and then the violins come in with another beautiful tune and again, it's, I don't know, in some ways, this is like all the great Brahms done in 10 minutes because it has this beautiful tune, reminiscent a little bit of the Fourth Symphony and then the woodwinds answer it, it's just, and then it expands and becomes luscious and has beautiful harmonies and suspensions. It's just absolutely exquisite. It is reminiscent of so much of Brahm, you remember he was now in his mid-40s. By then, he, yes, hadn't written all those symphonies but he had the ability to do it and you can see it all here. Finally, you get the jovial theme, now this is the third of the school themes played by the two bassoons. What's also interesting about this is that the violas and cellos are accompanying the two bassoons but never on the beat, you'll hear the bassoons. (vocalizing) And the violas all go. (vocalizing) It just makes it a little funnier. And then when finally the violins and violas come in, they're playing again, pizzicato, you have this incredible imagination of this. What to do, you have a simple tune, how to make it interesting, how to make it fascinating. (orchestra music) And then, all of a sudden, explosion, and the violins are in and the same tune is played forte, loudly, and a little variety, big third horn solo, a triplet solo, it's just marvelous. (orchestra music) Eventually the same jovial tune is played by the brass as a real brass fanfare, while the strings now are playing those offbeats, but they're playing them aggressively and loudly. This leads eventually to the recapitulation of all the early material and then finally the great melody, the great tune of all. (speaking in foreign language) Played by the brass, and when we listen to this, pay special attention to the wonderful string writing 'cause here with the brass and the woodwinds and they were playing this great melody, the violins and violas are playing fast notes, furiously with what we call syncopation, so they're not on the beat but rather it gives the feeling of being slightly off and then when those syncopations resolve to being on the beat, it gives you a feeling of having arrived. Then it switches and has the violins play the melody and the cello bass playing the accompaniment and famous triangle, percussion, the brass, and it ends in a very, very exciting way. In 10 minutes, you get a lot of what Brahms is and who Brahms is. Of course, he always underplayed the importance and the grandeur of his music, but this one is among the most beautiful, among the most charming and very optimistically moving pieces in all of Brahms, an overture that these days is rarely played and yet, for me, it's a great, great gesture by one of the great geniuses.