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What Defines Musical Style?

A. Kori Hill

When you hear “popular music,” what do you think of? Likely, a big name like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, maybe Elvis Presley, or the Supremes. But in terms of style, big names might be harder to pin down. Classical and jazz music are so much more straight forward, aren’t they? We know exactly what we’re going to hear. Yes, there are different eras and specific styles (see Romantic era, bebop); but at the end of the day, we know what we’re going to hear. Or do we??? 

Let’s go back to Germany in the 1880s. Johannes Brahms is working on a new piece, a “thank you” to the University of Breslau for an honorary doctorate. But it wasn’t his idea. Brahms didn’t like public displays of praise; he’d declined an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University in 1876! When the University of Breslau extended the invitation, Brahms did what anyone would do: he sent a ‘thank you’ note. But his nominators, including his friend Bernhard Scholz, expected a grander “thank you”–a new composition!   

Brahms’ musical “thank you” was the Academic Festival Overture. It’s a common selection for youth and professional symphonies—it’s a nice mix of serious and fun! But do you know what else it is??? It’s an orchestral transformation of German student songs! 

If you were a college student in 19th century Germany, you’d likely come across these songs in different areas, such as at the pub, at a freshman initiation or at a study group taking a much-needed break. The songs Brahms quotes and develops were very much in the ear of German university students and faculty. The composer himself called the work a “rollicking potpourri of student songs.”  

First up, we have “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (“We Have Built a Stately House”), which appears in a gorgeous trumpet chorale that grows in intensity. This would have been a little controversial because a student organization that advocated for German unification had taken it up as their anthem. In fact, the premiere of the overture was delayed two weeks out of fear that it would incite demonstrations.  

As you move through the piece, you’ll also hear snippets of “Alles schweige! Jeder Neige” (“Be Silent! Everyone”), which is used in the Landesvater graduation ceremony. You’ll hear Brahms’ quote of the freshman initiation song, “Was kommt dor von der Höh’?” (“What Comes from Afar?”), which sounds really close to “The Farmer in the Dell.” Finally,  “Gaudeamus igitur” (“Let Us Rejoice, Therefore”), set in a contrapuntal texture, serves as the roaring finale for the overture.  

You might see Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture as an anomaly. But let’s think back to some of the music we’ve covered. A violin concerto that evokes a Turkish military band (Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, third movement). A symphony built on western classical and African American folk tonality (Price’s Symphony No. 3). An opera with pop music and Afro-Cuban instruments (Menefield and Williams’ Fierce). This tells us that just about any stylistic ingredient can go into a classical composition. It’s not always the material you use, but how you treat the material.  

Come back next time as we explore such an example in the realm of jazz.