Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. Under the influence of his musical father, he became a proficient pianist and helped with the family income by playing in various bars and restaurants. He also started composing from an early age, eventually making his living as a conductor and teacher in Vienna. He composed many works including four symphonies, four concertos and many songs, chamber works and piano pieces. He was a close friend of Robert Schumann and his wife Clara.
The overture was composed in 1880, in response to the Honorary Doctorate that was conferred on him by the University of Breslau in 1879. It has become a well known story that Brahms wrote a thank you note to the University but was told by his friend, Berhard Scholz, the director of music, that a note was insufficient and that he should compose a musical thank you. The result was the Academic festival overture which was premiered at the university on January 4th 1881, and conducted by Brahms himself.
The composition surprised many people as it was more a tribute to university student life, rather than academia. The overture is based around four traditional student drinking songs. The quiet, mysterious opening builds to the woodwind and brass playing the first song “Wir haben gebaut ein stattliche Hause (We have built a stately house). This is followed by the second song, “Der Landesvater” (The father of our country) introduced by the second violins and pizzicato lower strings. The bassoons introduce the third song- “Was kommt dort von der Hoh (What’s coming from on high?) and are soon joined by the rest of the orchestra. After each theme is repeated, the piece finishes with a rousing rendition of the most famous student song “Gaudeamus igitur” (Let us rejoice while we are still young).