Recording: Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado [DG 435 683-2]
Published 1881.

Brahms was never a university student, but as a young man in the summer of 1853, he enjoyed the pleasures of student life in Göttingen among the circle of his friend Joseph Joachim, who was enrolled there.  In 1876, around the time of the first two symphonies, when he was at his creative height, the University of Cambridge in England offered him an honorary doctorate, a great honor for somebody who never attended college.  But he would be required to attend a ceremony in a country he never visited, and he was intensely wary of sea travel, so he declined the offer.  In 1879, a German university in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) decided to confer on him an honorary doctorate of philosophy.  He famously expressed his thanks with a postcard, then discovered that he was expected to compose something for the occasion, perhaps a “fine symphony.”  Brahms responded with his most humorous, joyous, and extroverted work.  He described it as “a very boisterous potpourri of student songs à la Suppé,” referring to the popular composer of operettas and concert overtures Franz von Suppé.  Suppé had written an overture, “Flotte Bursche,” that was essentially a string of student melodies, including the beloved hymn “Gaudeamus igitur.”  Brahms’s piece is, of course, much more artful.  He weaves his four student ditties (which he learned in Göttingen) into a very unconventional, but ingeniously designed sonata-like structure, adding his own more solemn minor-key introductory material (which he also used for the development) and introducing “Gaudeamus” at the very end in the coda, the most exuberant passage in all his works.   The overture boasts the largest orchestra he ever employed, including piccolo, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones with tuba and, most tellingly, three non-pitched percussion instruments, two of which (bass drum and cymbals) he only used here.  The triangle had been used in the finale of the Haydn Variations and would appear again in the Fourth Symphony.  The name of the piece is very apt.  Its structure is certainly “academic” and its mood “festive,” but when Brahms conducted the premiere at a special 1881 convocation at the University in Breslau, the professors, who were expecting a serious piece, must have been taken aback by the appearance of a tune used in a freshman hazing rite!  Brahms did take pride in his honorary degree and happily used the title “Dr. Brahms” for the rest of his life.  The overture is beloved by orchestras, one of the most popular of all pieces used to open a concert.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition [monochrome] from Harvard University)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (from Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)

Allegro--L’istesso tempo, un poco maestoso--Maestoso (Modified Sonata-Allegro form).  C MINOR/MAJOR, Cut time [2/2]--4/4--2/4--4/4--2/4--3/4.
INTRODUCTION--Allegro, C minor/major, Cut time [2/2].
0:00 [m. 1]--The main C-minor theme of the introduction enters secretively in the strings, sotto voce.  The first violins immediately pass it to the violas and then take it back.  The melody is march-like and played with very detached notes.  Its characteristic contour is two repeated notes followed by one note above and another below.  The melody is supported by prominent bassoons and horns.  The cymbal and bass drum also make their presence known in the only work where Brahms used them, playing soft punctuating beats.  In the second half of the first statement, the bassoons and horns gradually take over, leading to a cadence and reducing the strings, which gradually lose the violins, to a rhythmic accompaniment.  The theme has echoes of the familiar Hungarian Rákóczy March, which Brahms admired.
0:23 [m. 14]--The cadence overlaps with a new phrase that appears to begin the theme again, with the violas prominently playing after the beat.  But suddenly, over a mysterious timpani roll and tuba note, the clarinets enter and play ghostly downward-arching arpeggios in six-note groups (with triplet rhythm).  The violas join on the upward swing.  The strings attempt to reassert the theme by marching down., but the clarinets interrupt again with the mysterious arpeggios a fourth higher.  This time, the violas play with them on the way down, the first violins on the way up.  Again, the strings recover and march downward.
0:40 [m. 25]--The preceding jump up a fourth has changed the key to F minor.  On the last beat of the bar, the trumpets sneak in on an octave and hold it.  Then, changing to F major, the strings play a solemn chorale-like phrase, with the violas above the violins.  The trumpets drop out halfway through.  After five bars, pivoting on the note F, a single horn takes over from the strings and is then joined by bassoons.  The horn and bassoons use that note to swing to D-flat major, where they play their version of the chorale, expanding it one measure by lengthening a note in the middle.  The strings use D-flat to pivot back to F, now F minor, and the bassoons prominently take over with a descending line in thirds based on the chorale.      With the strings, they move to the anticipatory “dominant” in C after five bars, holding that harmony.
1:06 [m. 41]--The theme begins again in C, with a slight nod to the preceding F minor in the first notes.  This time, a crescendo immediately begins and the theme immediately turns to C major, then G major, its character suddenly altered.  To this point, it has been played by its original instruments, strings, horns, and bassoons.  After the arrival on G and the sudden intensification, the remaining wind instruments join for a new closing phrase.  This is in a clipped short-long rhythm and will be heard later on.  The loud phrase begins in G major, but in its second half turns suddenly to its relative E minor in a huge arrival.
1:20 [m. 50]--After the forceful E-minor cadence, horns, bassoons, clarinets, plucked strings, and the newly entering trombones suddenly quiet things down and artfully shift from E minor to E-flat major (“relative” to the home key of C minor) with a skeletal version of the short-long rhythm from the preceding phrase.  Then comes a strange and very hushed transition.  Rising stepwise figures alternate with falling ones, but some instruments, including all woodwinds, enter on a full upbeat while some strings enter on a half-upbeat with their motion after the downbeat, creating an unsettled feeling.  Low tuba and contrabassoon contrast with high flutes.  Finally, still with the off-kilter entrances, an arching phrase leads to a half-close in C minor with hollow plucked strings.  A fateful, quiet, and exposed timpani roll raises a new curtain.
1:43 [m. 64]--In C major, the three trumpets very solemnly intone the first of the student songs, “Wir hatten gebauet ein staatliches Haus” (“We had built a stately house”), a tune later adapted as a patriotic German song.  The low strings join the timpani roll on G.  The trumpets are supported by horns and trombones.  From the second phrase on, the flutes, oboes, and horns take the melodic lead on the song, with the other brass continuing to provide a background.  Between the second and third phrases, the low strings and bassoons add a colorful and chromatic arching bridge.  The volume then begins to build.  The third phrase is stretched out and adds sweeping scales in the strings.  These build to a great intensity, adding the piccolo at the end.  The cadence of this last phrase coincides with the grand arrival of the exposition.
EXPOSITION--L’istesso tempo, un poco maestoso, C major, 4/4 time.
2:19 [m. 88]--Theme 1.  The full orchestra, except for the extra percussion, joyfully presents it.  The theme combines elements from the “Rákóczy” introduction theme and “Wir hatten gebauet.”  It surges forward with plunging arpeggios, two-note descents, and rapid wind scales.  The second phrase makes a turn to E minor, a key used in the introduction, then immediately moves back to C major.  There, a syncopated ascent leads to exuberant fragments of “Wir hatten gebauet,” which move to “dominant” harmony.
2:47 [m. 106]--The music suddenly quiets and the instruments are reduced to low strings, bassoons, horns, and timpani.  They present the second phrase of the very first introductory statement.  The low strings provide a rhythmic accompaniment to the thematic fragments in the bassoons and horns, which lead to the same cadence as they did before 0:23[m. 14].  The difference is that the phrase and the cadence are here presented in C major instead of C minor.
2:57 [m. 113]--Transition.  Overlapping with the cadence, the first violins play a three-note upbeat to a new version of the theme that is smooth and gentle.  The strings first play it in harmony, and then the winds join on the next phrase.  Then the melody is spun out over rapidly changing harmony and increasing volume, with some string and wind imitation.  The continuation forcefully arrives on B major, a key that immediately functions as the preparatory “dominant” for E.  E minor has played a large role, but now E major will be the key of the second theme, which is also the second student song quotation.  An anticipation of the tune, with leaping violin octaves, is played as the bass descends from B to E.
3:25 [m. 129]--Theme 2.  The second student song, which starts the second theme group, is the ritual tune “Der Landesvater” (“The Father of Our Country”), also known as “Alles schweige, alle neige” (“All is silent, all bow down”).  The second violins carry most of the flowing tune, which is only a fragment of the original song.  The first violins largely soar above it, the violas harmonize, and the cellos play wide plucked arpeggios.  Wind participation is light in the first statement (horns and bassoons, then clarinets) until the trombones enter in the transition to the second statement, again introduced by leaping octaves (E major).
3:44 [m. 139]--The first statement ended on the “dominant,” B major.  The transition to the second statement has used that note to make a pivot to G major, the “dominant” of the home key and the expected area for the second theme group.  The principal flute and oboe begin the tune in that key, then hold a high note as clarinets and bassoons take the harmonized continuation.  The cellos continue the faster plucked arpeggios, which are then briefly taken by the violas.  The melody now diverges from its pattern with a chromatic descent in the winds. 
3:51 [m. 143]--A rising line from the theme in dotted (long-short) rhythm is passed from clarinet to oboe to flute, all over light string accompaniment.  The flute statement is fragmented and alternates with horn interjections.  Then the violins take over.  The violas and cellos return to their plucked arpeggios as the violins, beginning with the dotted rhythm, lead to a satisfying cadence.  This cadence phrase is then varied by the winds, who decorate it with harmonized thirds and sixths in a broad triplet rhythm.  Clarinets begin, oboes follow, then flutes and bassoons join, leading to a confirmation of the cadence and into the next song.
4:16 [m. 157]--Closing theme/section.  With a change of meter to 2/4 and the marking “animato,” Brahms introduces the third student song, “Was kommt dort von der Höh?” (“What comes from the heights?”), also known as the “Fuchslied” or “Fuchsenritt” (“Fox Song” or “Fox Ride”), which was used in freshman hazing rituals.  The song features repeated notes and a rising motion.  Brahms gives it to the two bassoons in one of his most effective uses of that instrument.  They play it lightly and quietly, with obvious humor and with effective use of thirds.  Violas and cellos accompany with short notes after the beat (G major).
4:24 [m. 166]--Overlapping with the end of the ten-bar bassoon phrase, the principal oboe takes the melody above the continuing bassoons.  The second violins and violas pluck their light accompaniment, and the cello plays a descending counterpoint to the melody.  The accompaniment has chromatic and minor-key inflections.
4:31 [m. 175]--With a sudden fortissimo entrance, the full woodwinds, horns and trumpets enter, cutting off the oboe cadence and becoming boisterous.  The top lines introduce a descent in the rhythm of the song, but the original melody can be heard in the low strings and bassoons.  The harmony makes an abrupt (but preparatory) motion to B major, immediately moving back to G as the first violins work back up with a triplet rhythm.  Then the violins interrupt the bass presentation of the melody, repeating its fifth and sixth bars.  They spin these measures out, moving steadily downward.  As they do, the harmony also moves steadily down.  The horns provide an almost wild counterpoint in triplet rhythm.  At the end, the key is jerked back to B major.
4:42 [m. 189]--The upper strings suddenly quiet things down with new yearning figures in B major.  The cellos, however, soon joined by the violas, maintain the “Fuchslied” rhythm.  The principal oboe then takes over with a completely new melody, also in B major and also with a yearning character, supported by violin harmonies.  The violas and cellos play the actual “Fuchslied” melody underneath it.  The new melody and the underlying “Fuchslied” stall and work down to a B-major cadence. 
4:53 [m. 202]--At  the cadence, the strings become more hushed.  They work down and the harmony turns to minor over a “pedal point” in the cellos.  This “pedal point” is also present in the principal bassoon, who plays rising octaves similar to those that introduced the “Landesvater” melody.  After eight measures, the bassoon, then the cellos, move their “pedal” from the “dominant” note in B minor to that in G major, restoring the main key of the “Fuchslied” section.
5:02 [m. 211]--The rising figures lead to a restatement of the music from 4:42 [m. 189] in G major.  The violins present the initial yearning figures, but this time without the “Fuchslied” melody.  The cellos continue to restate their rising cadence gesture that led into this passage.  The flute and clarinet also add a new descending response.  The violins now also take the yearning melody that had been played by the oboe.  Other instruments continue to add rising gestures.  The violas and cellos take over the melody, spinning it out and adding chromatic notes.  Then the entire string section joins in unison, winding downward under a sustained “dominant” in the winds.  The volume builds rapidly, the timpanist enters, and and the unison motion is halted with a sharp chord in the strings.
5:20 [m. 231]--Transition to development.  The “Fuchslied” melody is blasted out by the winds and horns, with sharp string chords, supported by trumpets and timpani, after the beats.  The characteristic harmonies in thirds are used.  After four bars, the melody veers sharply away from G major, moving to the overture’s first key, C minor, and plunging headlong into the abbreviated development section, which is almost entirely built on material from the introduction.
DEVELOPMENT--C minor, 4/4/ time.
5:28 [m. 241]--The change of meter is abrupt.  The arrival on C minor uses the material from 0:23 [m. 14].  Even the harmony from that portion is used, but the presentation is completely changed.  The arching arpeggios, still with the dissonant harmonies, are passed between instruments inside both the wind and string sections.  They are now in irregular five-note and seven-note groups instead of six-note groups.  The brass, including trombones and tuba, sustains a chord.  But everything is now loud and agitated, and a timpani roll is included.  The strings march downward, as they had in the introduction, and the sequence is repeated a fourth higher, as it was there.
5:41 [m. 249]--The solemn melody and thematic material that followed here before are omitted.  Instead, rising and falling upbeat figures are passed from strings to winds  The trumpets are again prominent, and these upbeat figures build to a restatement of the closing phrase in clipped short-long rhythm heard directly before 1:20 [m. 50].  It is played by the full wind and string groups, beginning in A-flat major (which arrives artfully in a pivot from C) and ending in the analogous “relative” minor key, F minor.
5:57 [m. 259]--This passage is similar to 1:20 [m. 50], even using some of the same notes, but its direction is altered and the key change is extended.  Stopped horns are used on the dissonant note G-flat, creating an eerie sound.  The low strings are not plucked, but bowed mezza voce.  The bassoon also participates, as before, but trombones and clarinets do not.  The motion first suggests an arrival on D-flat.  Then the sequence is repeated a whole step lower, appearing to move to B, but this is suddenly diverted to G, which immediately functions as the “dominant” of C.  Another quiet blast from stopped horns leads to a soft timpani roll under a dissonant clarinet entry.  The strange transition with asynchronous entrances is omitted.
6:14 [m. 269]--Moving backward in the introduction, the next passage in C minor is derived from the second half of the very first statement, which was again used in the exposition in major at 2:47 [m. 106].  It begins as those two passages had, but with the upper strings taking the former horn interjections.  The bassoons are also more active, doubling the low strings. After four measures, the smooth motion to the cadence from both previous statements is replaced by a sudden intensification of the material, which builds and rises with increased syncopation, incorporating more instruments until the sudden arrival of the reprise.
6:27 [m. 277]--This arrival point resembles the beginning of the exposition, but it is in C minor instead of major, and it retains other points of contact with the introductory “Rákóczy” material.  The music is driven by surging strings and the full brass section.  The opening thematic statement is followed by more surging music that reaches up, then descends over a leaping bass.  This leads to another statement a half-step higher, in C-sharp minor.  The reaching descents are now extended, rapidly changing harmony with more half-step motion and introducing some cross-meter with three-note descents.  The last such descent plunges down in the tremolo violins and woodwinds, its goal another even more grandiose arrival point in C.
6:47 [m. 290]--C minor gloriously gives way to C major, and Brahms finally realizes the potential of his expanded percussion section.  The cymbals and bass drum make their presence felt, as does, for the first time, the ringing triangle.  There is an underlying tension, however, because of a bass “pedal point” on the preparatory “dominant” note (G) that tenaciously holds itself for ten measures.  Here, there are many points of contact with the exposition material from 2:19 [m. 88], the persistent pedal point here being the major difference, even maintaining itself when the melody makes the expected turn to E major.  The sweeping string scales are another prominent addition.
7:03 [m. 300]--The pedal point finally gives way at the plunging arpeggio and syncopated ascent that lead into to the material from “Wir hatten gebauet.”  This is given even more grandeur by the ringing triangle, and it is expanded.  After four measures, including a soaring violin scale, it restarts an octave higher and adds a jubilant skip up in place of the third repeated note.  The melody then proceeds to its expected arrival on “dominant” harmony.  In a major abridgment, all of the material from 2:47 [m. 106] and the transitional music from 2:57 [m. 113] is omitted.  Brahms moves directly to “Der Landesvater,” and its anticipatory octaves occur directly after the conclusion of the “Wir hatten gebauet” music.
7:26 [m. 314]--Theme 2.  The first statement of the “Landesvater” melody proceeds essentially as it had before at 3:25 [m. 129], except it is now in the home key of C.  The orchestration is also the same as it was in the first presentation.  The omission of all the transition material has eliminated the key change.
7:45 [m. 324]--Second statement of the “Landesvater”melody, analogous to 3:44 [m. 139].  The harmonic motion for this statement is preserved, and it now begins in E-flat major (a minor third higher, as G was to E in the exposition).  This time, the clarinet and bassoon participate in the melodic presentation with the flute.  The passage is doubled in length.  The first four bars of the original theme are given before it restarts and takes the path heard at 3:44 [m. 139] with the held flute/oboe note, harmonized continuation, and chromatic descent.  This is also altered, moving further downward and back home to C (in the exposition it stayed in the new key).  By extending the statement, Brahms gives E-flat major more time.
7:59 [m. 332]--With the motion back to C major, this passage, analogous to 3:51 [m. 143] follows the exposition statement more closely.  The dotted-rhythm line and cadence arrive as expected.  The wind scoring is richer, with multiple instruments playing the line at once, first horn and oboe, then flute, clarinet, and bassoon.  The fragmented entries are passed from oboe and horn to clarinet and bassoon to flute and horn and finally to oboe alone.  When the violins take over at the cadence phrase, they are imitated by flute and bassoon.  The ensuing harmonized wind statement of the cadence phrase in triplets is as before.
8:24 [m. 346]--Closing section.  The change to 2/4 meter happens, but the closing material is greatly abridged.  All of the initial statements of “Fuchslied” and the first statement of the new melody, which had been presented in B major, are omitted, and the cadence leads into the passage heard at 5:02 [m. 211], now in C major instead of G.  The scoring is similar, with the flute taking its former role, but the clarinet joining the strings on the rising figures.  The fist statement of the yearning melody is played by violas instead of violins, and the second, developmental statement is taken by the oboe, with strings and winds reversing roles from before.  The downward-winding transition with the buildup is essentially as it was.
8:44 [m. 367]--Finally, the “Fuchslied” arrives, analogous to 5:20 [m. 231].  Again, it is transitional, but here it becomes truly climactic.  The scoring is similar to the former passage, but now the trumpets join in the main melodic presentation.  Instead of making a sharp turn into minor, the song blazes forth gloriously in its original form, coming to a full and complete cadence for the first and only time.  This cadence coincides with the arrival of the coda and the crowning final student song, “Gaudeamus igitur.”
CODA--Maestoso, C major, 3/4 time
8:55 [m. 379]--The coda is entirely based on the final student song, the hymn “Gaudeamus igitur.”  Often used as a graduation hymn, its origins are as a lighthearted drinking song.  The original Latin (not German) words are an exhortation to seize the day and enjoy life, for life is short.  The translation is “So let us rejoice.”  The song is in triple meter, and Brahms accordingly changes his meter to 3/4 for the rest of the overture.  The three percussion instruments enter in all their glory.  The first phrase of the tune bursts forth from winds and brass, including trumpets.  The violins, meanwhile, have rushing scales in rapid 32nd notes.  After sweeping up, back down, and up again, they have a soaring syncopated line to transition into the next phrase.  The lower strings, trombones, and tuba provide bass support.
9:06 [m. 383]--In the second phrase, the percussion drops out and the violins join the upper winds in the presentation of the melody, which is very similar to the first phrase.  The bass instruments provide an active marching line.
9:16 [m. 387]--The principal trumpet, one horn, timpani, and violins provide a preparatory upbeat to the third phrase, which is again led by the winds and brass and again includes percussion.  The violins return to their sweeping scales.  Their motion twice arches down and back up.  This phrase is quite different from the first two, and careful attention reveals it as having an affinity to, and possibly providing a source for, the introductory melody and the first theme, the tunes reminiscent of the “Rákóczy March.”
9:27 [m. 391]--The last phrase of the song is exceedingly grand, joyous, and triumphant.  The trumpets really take the leading role here, and the piccolo soars above everything.  The violin scales are mostly downward lines and upward leaps.  The final measure is stretched out so that the cadence arrives and coincides with the beginning of the final flourishes.
9:38 [m. 395]--The last measures are a series of cadences, with falling dotted rhythms passed from the bass wind instruments to the higher ones, each alternation taking two beats and thus obscuring the bar lines in 3/4.  The bass instruments move from the keynote to the “dominant” note and the higher instruments move back.  The rushing scales persist in the strings (except for basses), with violas and cellos rushing up as the low winds leap down, and violins rushing down as the higher winds move back home.  After two exchanges, all winds change to a held octave or octave leap, not leaving the keynote, and the piccolo joins the violins on the rushing downward scale.  With this last arrival, the instruments play two more exchanges. 
9:45 [m. 398]--The high instruments have a final arrival on an upbeat, and then the triple meter is restored as all instruments join together on the descents for one measure, reaching a held chord as the percussion instruments, including timpani, thunder and ring.  This is sharply cut off.  All instruments briefly pause before two punctuating upbeats and the final chord, held out over a timpani roll and ringing triangle.
10:17--END OF OVERTURE [401 mm.]