Yes, classical music can be funny. This may come as a shock to many, including longtime fans of the genre. We’re brought up to believe just the opposite—that “classical” is synonymous with “serious,” and with “good,” “artistic,” and “boring.”
But that’s not really the case (although the world might be a better place if more of us could embrace our Inner Bore). We can easily find music within the classical realm that is lighthearted, or witty, or crudely satirical, or coquettish, or devious, or any number of other subcategories of funny. We’re going to explore some of them here.
Years ago, when I lectured on Humor in Music to undergraduates, I prepared by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica article on humor. Britannica’s explanation is fairly long, and not that amusing. So I’m going to skip most of the background stuff. Suffice it to say that musical humor operates mainly by setting up a context that produces certain expectations—which it then nimbly defeats. We get the rug pulled out from under our feet. Listeners fall flat on their mental keisters, because they didn’t see the banana peel. Of course, because they’re merely engaging in a fantasy narrative via certain musical sounds, no bones are broken. It’s just funny.
This is the essence of what is more accurately called wit, in which the calculated inducement of surprise is the key. The humorist constructs a narrative, but its expected climax never comes. Instead, the punch line cuts across the story’s logical development. It throws us into another context, which renders pointless whatever emotional tension we’ve invested in the story. So we laugh, or at least we smile.
Wit is important, but it’s only half the story. The other half would be parody, which sets out to mock something familiar. By exaggerating certain qualities of that familiar object, parody forces us to view it in a new, presumably harsher light. And that can be very funny. Below, we’ll look at both techniques.
Part One: Wit. The defeat of the listener’s expectations is so common a feature of music in the Viennese Classical Era (roughly 1740 to 1800) that it would be easy to classify virtually all of Mozart’s and Haydn’s music as humorous. Yet that would be wrong. M. & H. do expect you to arrive on-scene with some expectations about what you’re going to hear: for example, the first movement of an instrumental work will probably proceed in sonata-allegro form, with an exposition that encompasses first theme, transition, second theme, and possible closing theme. Then on to the development, and so forth. But composers typically introduce mildly dissociative elements that freshen the formula and keep you slightly off-balance, i.e., engaged!
Here is a Mozart first movement that shows how your expectations can be exploited. You’re going to hear the following: (1) a graceful, “singing” first theme, in two-and-a-half phrases ending in a perfect cadence, followed by (2) a more rhythmic minuet-like tune, also in two phrases, the second an ornamented version of the first, ending in another perfect cadence. Then, (3) another cadence, a very brief pause, and yet another cadence. What’s going on? It’s simple and yet it’s not. Mozart is telling us that the first theme is over—hence the extra cadences. But the act of introducing not one but two extra cadences also increases the tension at this point. Part of your brain may be getting impatient: how long is this little game going to continue? It’s like having a guest at your party who has announced his departure and now lingers by the door, offering farewell gestures but showing no sign of actually going home.
Then, bang. Without breaking the rhythm of the preceding cadences, Mozart shoves us into D minor, forte, and a breathlessly quick transition theme that injects drama, energy, and menace into what had been a gracefully conventional opening gambit. And all of this happens in the first 30 seconds of the first movement.
But does it qualify as wit? Probably not. For one thing, Mozart doesn’t exaggerate anything; he doesn’t insert, say, four extra cadences, which would too obviously increase the tension and create a more palpable rift in the musical flow. For another, what came before (the first-theme complex) and what follows (the transition and then second theme) pretty much abide by the cookbook rules. We’re not being messed with—much—except for that tiny bit of tension at the end of the first theme. And that is par for the course. It’s everywhere in Mozart: if you’re a sensitive listener, you’ll pick up on his avoiding the cadence, prolonging the action, dozens of times in the course of a concerto movement or a symphony. It’s what he does.
To get closer to wit, we could turn to Haydn, who created overtly witty movements in a number of his works. I’m going to start with one of his most obvious jokes. This is the famous String Quartet, op. 33 no. 2, actually nicknamed “The Joke.” Here is the first minute of the final movement, as played by the London Haydn Quartet in their excellent new Hyperion release:
You now have everything you need in order to get the joke, which plays out in the last minute of the movement. Hint: it hinges on the fact that both the first phrase and last phrase of the main theme end on a perfect authentic cadence, and hence could provide the ending. Here’s the last minute:
Now let’s consider some slightly more complicated funny parts in Haydn. One of my favorites is the minuet from his Symphony No. 104, “London.” Since he was more or less obliged to put a minuet in virtually every multi-movement work he wrote, Haydn once said that he wished he could create just one truly original minuet. To judge from this one, though, he could turn out an original minuet and barely break a sweat. Listen:
Okay, I did say this one was more complicated. Let’s begin with the rhythms. A minuet typically comes in one metric flavor: three beats to a bar. You will have noticed that in nearly every bar of this minuet, Haydn accents the third beat. It would ordinarily be the weakest beat in the measure, but not here. Close to the end of the first period (at 0:07 and 0:16, because it repeats), he emphasizes that third beat further by using it to start a big leap downward to the penultimate note in the tune. In the contrasting section that follows, Haydn starts banging out a series of equally accented beats, and our comfortable triple-meter dance gets lost entirely in duple (one-two-one-two) for a few moments. Then (at 0:29) the music regains its metric footing, and a harmonic buildup leads to the return of the first-period material.
When that leads, as we expected it would, to the end of the section, we get the punch line. At the big leap downward (about 0:48), Haydn pauses. Instead of completing the leap, we get . . . nothing. This disorienting grand pause can’t last forever, of course. (That would be so 20th-century.) A moment later the music resumes speed, and the “A” section of the minuet safely ends.
Ready for more? Here’s a Haydn piano sonata finale that actually creates a comic protagonist. At least, if the material is handled sensitively, we begin to react with amusement to the predicament Haydn has created for his hero. Listen:
This is a frustration joke. It’s not unlike watching a wind-up toy blithely chug into a wall and then spin its wheels vainly, unable to escape. Except that, of course, the music does have to go on, and it does. We were listening to Marc-André Hamelin, from volume one of his superlative recent Haydn sonata series for Hyperion. I am collecting these, and I found Hamelin’s way with this sonata delightfully packed with energy, clarity, and sunlight.
But listen now to an Old Master, Alfred Brendel, interpreting the same sonata:
By making slightly more obvious tempo changes—not indicated in the score but well within the expressive boundaries for 18th-century keyboard works—Brendel allows us to savor the comedy even more than Hamelin. His protagonist doesn’t recover and get on with it quite as quickly. If you have ever marveled at how Keaton or Chaplin could use a small gesture, a slightly cocked head or raised eyebrow, to take us inside their characters, then you will appreciate what a master pianist can achieve here.
Here’s a kind of graduation exercise: the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. It’s a sonata-rondo with some subtle wit of the type we’ve explored above. You’ll easily catch the delayed-denouement, or “other shoe” tease, that occurs during retransitions to the main theme. But see if you catch the noisy iteration of that same motive in the horns as the coda drives us onward, crudely but merrily, into the very end of the work. (Pay no attention to the conductor. He’s just grandstanding.)
Part Two: Parody. If wit is the humorist’s rapier, then parody is his blunt instrument. Whether it’s Mad Magazine or Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” parody relies mainly on broad brushwork. That means anyone can give it a go, and nearly anyone can enjoy it. Even if you don’t know the original, you will probably appreciate that someone is knocking the stuffing out of it. Or at least acting wild and crazy while referencing something ostensibly profound, dignified, “serious,” and so forth. Hence the perennial appeal of Spike Jones and His City Slickers. More recently, Peter Schickele used the fictional P.D.Q. Bach to skewer the pretensions of Baroque music and its supporters.
Mozart excelled at dramatic humor; there are comic moments in his operas that never lose their appeal. (I’ll devote another column to those someday.) Other than in his operas, though, he didn’t explore wit nearly as often as Haydn. What he did leave us was one of the classic examples of parody in all classical music: the Musical Joke, K. 522. It’s not witty. It’s just bad. The music is full of senseless repetition, clumsy and inept attempts at tunes and accompaniments, awkward transitions, and more. You couldn’t ask for worse examples of the Classical style. Well, you could, but there’s a point at which such things just become pathetic. It’s more amusing to behold the deadly combination of can-do enthusiasm and lamebrain results that Mozart gives us.
To make things worse, the players also have their weak moments. You’ll hear some of that beginning at 5:38 in the YouTube video below. It’s revealing that Mozart waits until the second movement to bring in the humor of poor performance technique; clearly he considers poor composing the original sin!
Time for a little Britannica: Clearly, there’s one human impulse common to all humor but especially to parody, and that is aggression. It may surface as malice, contempt, condescension, or just an absence of sympathy for the “victim.” In that sense, humor is cruel, and cruelty is essential. If you replace aggression with compassion, the joke is lost. Aristotle and Cicero both noted the relationship of the comic to the ugly, base, or deformed. In primitive cultures, cruelty and boastful self-assertion are almost always present in jokes, as they are with children’s teasing. Perhaps in this way the joker conquers his or her fear of suffering or injustice and emerges unscathed by a perceived threat.
Thus humor can be a way to work off uncomfortable emotions. That would certainly explain the prevalence of satire and parody in 20th-century music, especially when it pops up in the work of, say, Mahler, or Shostakovich.
Here I am tempted to launch into a discussion of the slow movement in Mahler’s First Symphony, which is parodic and satirical on many levels. It treats a children’s nursery song, Frère Jacques, as a slow funeral march in a minor key. That is followed by a mournful, vaguely “Jewish” melody rudely shoved aside by a cheap marching tune scored as if for klezmer band. (In the YouTube video below, the slow movement begins at 25:08, with the Jewish and klezmer tunes intruding at 27:23.)
Yet the effect is hardly comic. We feel too directly Mahler’s own emotional involvement, his intent to register a personal reference, to take any of this lightly. We experience it as pathos (certainly) and irony (probably), but not as comedy.
For parody as comedy, we can turn to Shostakovich, whose Ninth Symphony aggressively pokes holes in his audience’s expectations, but with a smile. Ever since Beethoven’s time, any Symphony No. 9 that came along was destined to signal “Milestone!” or “Big Statement!” in people’s minds. A ninth symphony was automatically assumed to be the work in which a mature, distinguished composer would issue Deep Thoughts and Valedictory Remarks. Then he was expected to exercise further good taste by dying.
Shostakovich wasn’t having any of that. Instead, he came up with a playful, relatively brief work. “Musicians will love to play it,” he said, “and critics will delight in attacking it.” He was right on both counts. Soon after the work’s 1945 premiere, some Soviet critics found fault with its “ideological weaknesses.” It had utterly failed “to reflect the true spirit of the Soviet people.”
This obviously didn’t come as a surprise to its composer. You can almost hear him anticipating those critics in the first movement, whose merry goings-on are eventually put down by flatulent blasts from a trombone:
Did you notice how the music changed course after that first trombone entrance? The sprightly, freely wandering tune gave way to a crisp quickstep that, bit by bit, took over the proceedings and grew in strength. Maybe Shostakovich used this parody of military musical style to suggest the chilling effect of official criticism on artists. Or maybe not—his light touch allowed for multiple interpretations. It also allowed him to dodge the repercussions that a more pointed musical message would have provoked.
By the way, that was Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, from their ongoing, extremely successful Shostakovich series for Naxos. I’ve raved about it in this space before, so ‘nuff said! You need to get the whole set. (There’s a Bernstein recording—of course—in which that trombone comes on with even greater vulgarity, but I think Petrenko gets the job done.)
Not A Bit Funny, But: And so we come to the end of our Discourse on Musical Humor. For those who remain unconvinced about the value of the funny parts, I am attaching a couple of pocket reviews that will provide you too with a takeaway. Exhibit A: Ondine’s magnificent Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, featuring the Latvian Radio Choir (ODE 1206-5; SACD). These are the same singers who did such wonderful work for Gavin Bryars’ On Photography, one of my all-time favorite choral discs (GB Records BCGBCD07). Here they apply their faultless intonation, blend, and dynamic control to one of the undisputed masterpieces of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. It’s not their technical perfection that carries the day, however. It’s their earnestly expressive delivery. Recorded in St. John’s Church, Riga, this disc will effortlessly propel you into the world of Orthodox devotion. Recommended without reservation.
Exhibit B: La Voie Triomphale, from the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces (2L 86, SACD & Blu-ray). I realize this disc has been lauded already in our big audio magazines, but I wanted to add my two cents. Everything you’ve read is true: the music (from Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Dukas, Milhaud, Tomasi, and Bozza) is expertly played and recorded equally well. If you like band music, you will love this. Oddly enough, its chief virtue and only fault are one and the same: precision. Does your heart leap up when you remember your old drill sergeant, the guy who could bounce a quarter off your exquisitely-made barracks bed and reward you with a tight little smile? Kid, this disc is for you.
Featured image: “PDQ Bach on the Air,” an early effort from the inimitable musical humorist Peter Schickele. Courtesy Vanguard Records.
Next month: Best of Spring 2013 and a Verdi Update