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

No doubt the premiere was intended to be a solemn occasion. 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”), a song later beloved by operetta fans for its appearance in Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince (1924). 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.


Stizzoso, mio stizzoso, Serpina's aria from La Serva Padrona

Stizzoso, mio stizzoso,
voi fate il borïoso,
ma no, ma non vi può giovare;

bisogna al mio divieto
star cheto cheto,
e non parlare,
zit...  zit...
Serpina vuol così...

zit...  zit...
erpina vuol così...
Cred' io che m'intendete, sì,

che m'intendete, sì,
dacchè mi conoscete
son molti e molti dì.

Irascible, my irascible
You behave with arrogance.

But no!  It won't help your position.
You must stay to my prohibitions
and keep silent,
and not talk!
Shut up !...Shut up!...
TheseareSerpina's commands.
Shut up !...Shut up!...
TheseareSerpina's commands.
Now,I think you have understood
Yes, youhave captured the message,

Because it's already been a long time
that I made acquaintance with you.


Goethe’s great tragedy Faust has been re-told countless times on concert and opera stages for nearly two centuries. Gounod chose a play version by Michel Carré as the structural framework for his opera but included elements from the original Goethe to fully flesh out the libretto. The 1859 premiere had many supporters (Berlioz included) but also a few detractors. Some Germans (Wagner in particular), ever disdainful of French mistreatment of their cultural treasures, later singled out Gounod’s Faust for some rather biting enmity. Not that the opera would fail utterly in Germany. To the contrary, it began to take hold there and elsewhere in the decade following the premiere and before long reached the prominent place we now know it for. Much credit for this goes to the 1869 revival in Paris that occasioned the addition of the ballet music in Act V. This suite, called by Saint-Saëns “a masterpiece of its kind,” was almost not written. At least not by Gounod. Gounod was reluctant to take it on and considered letting Saint-Saëns compose it instead. The younger man tentatively agreed with the understanding that Gounod feel free to replace it with music of his own if he so desired. According to Saint-Saëns, “I never wrote a note, and never heard any more about it.”  


Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 may be the most popular piano concerto ever written, but its opening tells a troubled tale. Dark chords mist over a repeating pedal tone, tolling like a death knell, growing in murkiness, increasing with ever more forceful attacks and volume, finally breaking free into tempestuous arpeggiated undulations as the orchestra plays its troubled, melancholic theme above. That famous opening appears to tell the terrible tale of Rachmaninoff’s own emergence from an alcoholic depression and writer’s block at the beginning of his brilliant career.

When he was just 19, the gifted Rachmaninoff wrote the piece that would launch his international fame, his Prelude in C# Minor. He had barely started his conservatory studies with the famous Tchaikovsky in Moscow. Beloved by audiences, that Prelude would become something of a bane to Rachmaninoff’s career, dogging his every steps as a concert pianist—the public would never let him finish a recital or concert without an encore of that famous Prelude. Rachmaninoff eventually came to refer to this piece as an almost dreaded “It.”

Soon after composing this Prelude, when all the world was adoring this young composer and awaiting more masterpieces from his emerging genius, Rachmaninoff unveiled his Symphony No. 1 in 1897. It was a terrible disaster. The audience hated it. Rachmaninoff remembered this as the most horrific hour of his life as he hid in a stairwell, hands clamped over his ears. Although today, his First Symphony is considered a great work, in 1897 it felt to Rachmaninoff as if all of his great hopes had been dashed.

His world came crashing down around him, as he was consumed by depression, excessive drinking, followed by almost three years of unremedied writer’s block. True, Rachmaninoff would be subject to melancholia and depression all his life, but this was the worst bout of them all. His family intervened and convinced the young artist to see an acquaintance who specialized in this type of perplexing problem – Dr. Nikolai Dahl of Paris – an internist who had found success in treating alcoholism with hypnosis. Beginning in January of 1900, Rachmaninoff and Dr. Dahl embarked on their journey back to sanity and creativity, by talking music, amending sleep patterns and eating habits, and repeating the hypnotic uplifting mantra: “You will begin your concerto . . . it will be excellent.”

By April the young composer was filling up with musical ideas far surpassing what was needed for a concerto, and a new dawn was breaking in his soul. By late 1900, what grew out of Dahl’s cure were the second and third movements of Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2, and by the spring of 1901 Rachmaninoff had written the extraordinary first movement with its historical pathos, completing the work. Beyond grateful, Rachmaninoff dedicated the piece to Dr. Dahl.

The Second Piano Concerto is yet another work by Rachmaninoff that seems to defy criticism, and so it has been ever since its premiere – so perfectly balanced is its form and pace, so exquisite its themes, so dark and restless and yet so filled with invention and hope. After that bell-tolling introduction by the piano in the first movement, and its subsequent melancholic theme, Rachmaninoff then introduces a new theme, this one the obverse of the first, piqued in utter sensuousness. The first movement ends with a certain violent overbite, however, which makes the second movement all the more enchanting.

The second movement Adagio is strikingly simple and breathtaking. The flute sings a plaintive, rustic melody over bare bones piano arpeggios, creating a mood of faraway dreams, of love remembered – which leaves us wandering in a lost reverie as the third movement sneaks in quietly, cleverly.

Within a few bars, Rachmaninoff has launched the last movement into a spirited scherzo march-like movement, full of pianistic and orchestral bravura and splashy effects. The Concerto comes to a perfect close – resolute, assured and brimming with good cheer, which is a wonderfully long way from the tolling torment with which the piece began.