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

Video transcript
johannes brahms was not a university man he never attended university but in eighteen seventy nine when he was 46 he was offered a doctor 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 a right of peace 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 required Strauss was given an honorary degree he was required to write a piece and he wrote a piece go tally affair the thing it's a remarkable piece but the thing about the pieces it takes 20 minutes but it calls for 200 people to beyond this stage huge brass a tenor solo a huge chorus I mean what he did was he just took every possible person he could he could find in Heidelberg and put the botanist stage for his to get his honorary degree prams 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 in a contrabassoon which he did quite often and percussion Brahms described it as a cheerful peppery of student songs Allah supe that refers to Franz von suppe who was a wonderful composer of operettas and overtures in fact he uses for 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 climbed up on but you have the percussion joined it right away how unusual I try 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 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 chorale tune played by the violas and then that melody extended by the horn you 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 m and P Q is pianissimo The Woodlands playing something very simple and the strings 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 a numerous times but here Brahms does it and it gives you this feeling of what's going to happen next and then finally we get the second school tune played by a brass chorale of horns and trumpets this brass Corral leads to another wonderful home active moment we repeat what we heard at the beginning and then the violence come in with another beautiful tone 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 it has beautiful harmonies and and suspensions it's just just absolutely exquisite it is reminiscent of so much of brawn 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 of the school themes played by the the two bassoons what's also interesting about this is that the violas and cellos are accompanying the two persons but never on the beat you'll hear the bassoons bomb and the and the village over every it just makes it a little funnier and then the one that when finally the violins and violas come in they're playing again Pizza kado it's a credible imagination of this can bubble what to do you have a simple tune how to make it interesting how to make it fascinating and and then all of a sudden explosion and the violins are in and the same tune is played Forte loudly and little variety big third horn solo of triplet so it's just it's just marvelous eventually the same jovial tune is played by the brass as a real brass fanfare while the strings now are playing those off beats but they play in progressively and loudly this leads eventually to the recapitulation of all the early material and then finally the great melody the great tune of all the gada I musica tour and played by the brass and when we listen to this paid special attention to the wonderful string writing because here when the brass and the woodwinds are never 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 a ride then he switches and has the violence for the melody in the cello bass playing accompaniment and famous triangle so percussion brass and it ends in a very very exciting way in 10 minutes they 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 and 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 you