This is where it all began: watching Leonard Bernstein conduct Brahms's Academic Festival Overture when I was all of three years old at my Bubbie and Zaydie's house - to this day I remember it. From then on, I was a kid obsessed.
Thirty years later, last night was the first time I've ever in my life seen this piece live - conducted by Lenny's final protege, Marin Alsop. It wasn't a great concert, but this ten minute piece was as thrilling to me now as it was when I was a precocious little shit.
Brahms is the master of tone: even his darkest and most serious pieces have light and humor, and even his lightest pieces have seriousness and drama. It doesn't get much lighter than the Academic Festival Overture - material from which was pilfered for college comedies as diverse as Tiny Toons and Animal House.
"Academic" might suggest something dry, but it is anything but. In 1880 Brahms received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Breslau, with the expectation that he'd provide them a piece for the occasion. No doubt, they expected a Symphony, or at least a blousily bombastic choral work befitting the supposed solemnity of the occasion. Brahms provided them with an overture of a tone like that written by an operetta composer like Offenbach or Franz von Suppe.
Brahms begins with a fake-out. It sounds like it will be an incredibly solemn, dramatic piece. It begins with a very dark, solemn march which is actually a subtle parody of Berlioz's Rakoczy March. Suddenly, in the most Lutheran tones, Brahms has the brass very slowly intone a solemn chorale, which is actually an old fraternity drinking song: "We have built a stately house." Later, he goes into a parody of "The Fox", which is a song that 19th century students used to haze Freshmen.
And yet, even through all this, Brahms manages to work in a quiet moment so dark and brooding that it seems to come straight from the most evil-sounding music in Wagner's Ring Cycle, then followed by a chromatic passage so violent that it seems like the apocalyptic music from the sixth movement of Brahms's German Requiem. And then suddenly, when all seems dark comes the most luminous return of C-Major light. there is no composer in history who did recaps better Brahms.
I often think I have to go to concerts alone because I never know when I'm not going to be able to hold it together. When I heard that passage last night, I suddenly dissolved in tears as I felt myself relive my whole life in an instant. To me, that music is exactly what hope sounds like.
Compositionally, I can't deny that the final two minutes of the piece are terribly awkward. It's a tacked-on climax, and yet it works because of the song it uses: Gaudeamus Igitur - "Let us therefore rejoice while we are young. After the pleasures of youth and the trouble of age, the Earth will claim us." It's a message to us all, whether young or old, that almost seems to come from beyond the grave. It's later than we all think, but we can still rejoice while there is time. It's trademark Brahms, bittersweet, even morbid, but determined to keep smiling through the unhappiness.