I’m not sure what’s in the water over at WNED, the local classical music station, but they seem to be on a kick with this piece. I’ve heard it three times in the last two weeks whilst driving to various points around town. Luckily for them it’s a really good piece! Johannes Brahms’s music isn’t often the most humorous music in the repertoire. Brahms engages a lot of emotions, but sheer humor generally isn’t his thing. But here he is, presenting a collection of student drinking songs in his own wonderful style. It’s the Academic Festival Overture, and this performance is conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who used to relate an anecdote from his own life pertaining to this piece. He was a student and he was auditioning for a conducting class taught by the great Fritz Reiner (one of the canonical “podium dictator” conductors). There was a piano with a score on it, and Reiner asked Bernstein if he knew the piece. Bernstein looked at the page and admitted that he didn’t, but when he began to play he recognized a tune that he’d sung as a boy in school, a German Christmas song with the words:
What clatters on the roof
with a quick, impatient hoof?
I think it must be Santa Claus,
dear old Santa Claus.
Then he remembered recognizing that very tune when he’d heard this work on the radio, which the announcer then identified. Thus Bernstein was able to correctly say to Maestro Reiner, “Yes, I know this piece. It’s the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms,” and thus got into Reiner’s class.
And here it is.