SASO ends season performing a Brahms and Oxymoronic Masterwork

Punch Howarth

Academic Festival Overture Op. 80  (G. Akedemische Festouverture) by Johannes Brahms will open the final concert of the current season by the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra conducted by Linus Lerner. Also on this program of mighty-major works are Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto performed by Emily Sun and Symphonie Fantastique, a five movement symphony by Hector Berlioz.

As the article progresses, the reader will come to understand the oxymoronic label which means conflicting ideas. The nonmusical example of sweet gin, bitter quinine and tart lime makes a gin and tonic where the oxymoron is the taste and not the title. The musical oxymoron is the conflict in the music.

On with the Overture. Brahms received an honorary doctorate in 1879 from the University of Breslau which he acknowledged with just a thank you note.

Conductor Bernard Scholz, who nominated him, informed Brahms that a major composition was expected. Some background is necessary. Brahms was a concert pianist and in his early career (1856) he was accompanist to the great violinist Joachim who invited him to spend the summer with him at Gottingem University. Brahms did not attend classes and he never attended college, but did take part in all the student activities including beer-drinking and song fests at biergartens.

In the summer of 1880 at Bad Ischl, he composed his danke to the university with the Academic Festival Overture. As to the conflict in the work, the themes are serious, formal, structured but yet jovial, rollicking and possibly insulting.

The music is more festive than academic and calls for the largest orchestra of his career with added contrabassoon, tuba, base drum, cymbals and triangle. The work is a masterpiece of orchestration with development, variations and fugue. There are four parts.

Opening with an understated introduction based upon Rakoczy March, Brahms presents a formal start. Following a timpani roll, three trumpets announce the first of four student biergarten songs. First is a fast “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (We have built a stately house) a defiant protest song is developed. Part II presents the stately-lyrical “Der Landesvater” (the Father of our Country.) The animated Fox Ride “Was komm dort von der Hob” (What comes from afar) is Part III. These three humorous tunes are worked together. A grand ending in broad tempo, Part IV, presents the well-known “Gaudeamus igitur” (Therefore let us be merry) a fugue with powerful brass and full forces. At this point I hope the listener will catch the conflicts. Both the faculty and students back then grasped the musical pun as Brahms the fun-lover had his fun with them. Academic Festival Overture has always been popular and gets performed frequently.

Performances will be at SaddleBrooke on Saturday, May 7 at 7:30 p.m. in DesertView Performing Arts Auditorium and on Sunday, May 8 in Oro Valley at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church at 3:00 p.m. Go to for more information.