In 1879, the University of Breslau awarded Brahms an honorary Doctor of Philosophy as ‘the foremost composer of serious music in Germany today.’ Initially Brahms, ever wary of celebrity and attention, had sent a simple hand-written thank you note to acknowledge the honor. But his friend Bernhard Scholz, Director of Music in Breslau, made it clear that the university expected him to express his gratitude in musical form. ‘Compose a fine symphony for us!’ Schloz said in a letter to Brahms, ‘but well-orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!’
During the summer of 1880, Brahms composed not exactly what the university directors were likely hoping for, but what Brahms described as a ‘very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs.’ The serious appearance of the piece belies the humor of the work. Shortly after the opening measures, the trumpets present the first of the traditional students’ song: ‘Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus’ (We Have Built a Stately House), a song that advocated for the unification of German principalities. The next college tune, known as the Hochfeierlicher Landesvater (Most Solemn Song to the Founder of the Country), occurs as a flowing melody in the violins. Then the piece shifts with the bassoon’s infamous Fuchsenritt (Fox Song), a freshman hazing song. In the conclusion of the piece, Brahms gives the full orchestral treatment of that best known of all college songs, Gaudeamus igitur (Let Us Now Enjoy Ourselves), which had characterized the carefree student life since the late Middle Ages.
The first performance of the overture was conducted by Brahms himself at Breslau in 1881 at a ceremony filled with much solemnity. But from a report of the event, the dignity of the occasion was interrupted as students burst spontaneously into song when they heard the familiar drinking songs. In the end, Brahms received his Doctorate of Philosophy and gave us a masterpiece which freshly resonates today.