Brahms Academic Festival Overture

There is an apocryphal tale in which Brahms, when he heard the phrase — intended as a compliment — “Bach, Beethoven, Brahms”, replied “Bach, Beethoven, Bismarck”. The Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had ensured victory for Germany in 1871 in its war against France; the outbreak of this war had enabled him to create a unified Germany in place of the previous array of smaller sovereign states and as a result he was regarded as the architect of the new German Empire. Brahms poured all his patriotic feeling after the victory into his Triumphlied; its official dedication was to the brand-new emperor Wilhelm I, although Brahms himself referred to it in a letter to his publisher as his “Bismarck-Gesang”.

A desire to create a united Germany had long been felt by many, although this was not always the case throughout the land. Politically engaged student groups had been calling for a unified Germany from the beginning of the 19th century onwards; the authorities found this dangerous and banned the organisations. When the first of these organisations — based in the University of Jena — was banned in 1819, August Daniel von Binzer wrote the song "Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus" in which he voiced the students’ discontent; the song also contains the first mention of the future German flag, the black, red and yellow tricolour.

The song remained banned for decades, until unification had become a fact. It cannot be coincidence that Brahms gave this melody such a prominent place (at 1’30”) in the Academic Festival Overture in the midst of all the student drinking songs; it can only be a confirmation of his admiration for Bismarck and of his belief in German unity. The controversy that surrounded the song in Brahms’s time also played a role in the Overture’s first performance in Vienna: the song was still forbidden in Austria in 1880, causing the police there to delay the premiere of the Overture for two weeks.

When the Allies divided Germany into zones after the end of World War II, Germans wondered what they should do with the Deutschlandlied, their now somewhat contaminated national anthem. Von Binzer’s melody together with 'Ich hab' mich ergeben’, an alternative text from 1820 by Hans Ferdinand Maßmann, was used instead, until the Deutschlandlied became the national anthem again in 1952. Binzer’s melody is, however, still in use as the national anthem of Micronesia.

Translation: Peter Lockwood