Composer Johannes Brahms took a bunch of drinking songs and combined them into a symphony as a sarcastic “thank you”
In 1879 the University of Breslau awarded Johannes Brahms with an honorary doctorate. Brahms loathed the public fanfare of celebrity and decided he would send a handwritten thank-you note to the University as acknowledgement.
Bernard Scholz, the conductor who nominated him for the degree, convinced him that a grander gesture of gratitude will be required. The University expected a musical offering. "Compose a fine symphony for us!" Scholz wrote to Brahms. "But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!"
Brahms, being a known joker, created a very boisterous medley of student drinking songs in an intricately designed structure, drawing on the ‘academic’ for the treatment of his sources. Brahms personally conducted the premiere of the symphony on 4 January 1881 at a special convocation held by the University, causing distress to many academics in the audience (and mischievous delight to others).
The piece calls for one of the largest ensembles for any of Brahms’ compositions: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (both doubling on B-flat and C clarinets), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns (two in C and two in E), three C trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.
A typical performance of the Academic Festival Overture lasts around ten minutes and the work is still a staple of today’s concert hall repertoire.