On 11 January 1880, the University of Breslau awarded the 47-year-old Brahms an honorary doctorate, and the directors expected from him a new work by way of a ‘thank you’ for the honour. Brahms was on holiday in Bad Ischl when got round to composing the work, ‘an academic festival overture’. In a letter he referred to it as ‘janissary music’, referring to 18th-century ‘Turkish-style’ music and the fact that the overture calls for a large orchestra featuring quite literally all the ‘bells and whistles’ of ‘janissary music’, that is, a bass drum, cymbals and a even a triangle. Elsewhere he described his work as a ‘very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs ? la Suppé.’
Critics of the overture usually agree about Brahms’s reference to the RákócziMarch in the first bars of the work. Later, after a kettle-drum tremolo creates exciting suspense, the music shifts from C minor to C major, and the trumpets sound the first musical ‘quotation’, a song that was known as both a student ditty and a patriotic song. The second, lyrical quotation emerges from the intertwining violins in E major, an excerpt from Landesvaterlied. It is intoned by the two bassoons and taken over by two oboes in G major, leading to the third quotation, the Fox Song with a funny and mocking text. This is followed by a Maestoso coda where the whole orchestra plays Gaudeamusigitur, and effective as it is, it must have been to the liking of the rector and eminent professors of Breslau University attending the concert.