The subject of humour in music is one that has been much on my mind recently for some reason. The variety of musical jokes is as interesting as it is wide, so let’s take a very cursory look at some choice examples.
As a rule, I suspect, newer jokes are funnier. As a child I remember being entertained (if not convulsed) by the surprise in Haydn’s Surprise Symphony when it was pointed out to me, but more in the self-satisfied way in which I feel amused when I understand a Shakespearean joke, whether it’s objectively funny to modern sensibilities or not. The quodlibet at the end of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, where Bach ingeniously quotes two popular songs of the time, including one about not liking turnips, isn’t funny because, as a rule, the modern listener doesn’t know the songs beforehand, but Bach’s ingenuity is, as ever, to be praised. I think Mozart’s Musical Joke falls rather flat, though in his defence ‘joke’ is a mistranslation. The German title, Ein musikalischer Spaß, has different connotations.
There is a rich vein of parody and pastiche to be explored – Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, with its affectionate nods to Haydn, and Ravel’s piano pieces imitating Borodin and Chabrier are endearing. More incisive is Dudley Moore’s Beethovenian treatment of Colonel Bogey:
There seem to be just as many if not more instances of famous composers quoting others to humorous effect. One thinks of Saint-Saëns’ witty recompositions of (I am tempted to say improvements on) Offenbach and Berlioz in his Carnaval des Animaux; Stravinsky’s outrageous quotation of Schubert’s first Marche Militaire towards the end of his Circus Polka for a Young Elephant; Satie’s unexpected inclusion of the middle section of Chopin’s funeral march in his Embryons Desséchés, accompanied by the customarily absurd acknowledgement, “Citation de la célèbre mazurka de Schubert”… Perhaps the wittiest of all is Debussy’s inclusion of the opening of Wagner’s Tristan prelude in the “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” from Children’s Corner. It communicates so much of Debussy’s warmth. Jokes in Wagner’s music are scarce. Compare and contrast:
Jazz presents all manner of possibilities for jokey recompositions of classical music. Names like Jacques Loussier and Uri Caine spring to mind. Stéphane Grappelli and Eddie South’s interpretation of Bach’s double concerto with the Hot Club of France is a favourite. Perhaps most joyous are the arrangements of the Belgian pianist Clément Doucet, who with Jean Wiener formed the piano duo at the Parisian salon Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where Cocteau and Les Six traditionally congregated. Doucet’s stride piano version of Isolde’s Liebestod has to be heard to be believed. This is a performance by the immortal Marc-André Hamelin of Doucet’s take on Chopin:
Deliberately bad composition is another source of amusement. There are Saint-Saëns’ Pianists practising their scales, either well or not depending on the performance, and an embarrassingly incompetent violinist at the end of “Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen” from Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch. Pieces which exploit the possibilities of wrong-note composition such as Schnittke’s delightful (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, which begins as a sedate pastiche of the Viennese Classical composers and quickly deteriorates into chaos, are fun.
And of course, one doesn’t need musical instruments to be funny. Rowan Atkinson, one of the most gifted physical comedians of this or any age, has in his repertoire not only a marvellous interpretation of Beethoven but also this. He is evidently possessed of an innate musicality:
I wondered if much had been written about music and humour before. Alongside the inevitable journal and magazine articles, there is this transcript of one of Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated Young People’s Concerts. The examples he chooses are excellent – Prokofiev Classical Symphony, Kodály Háry János (sneeze), Mahler 1 (minor-key Frère Jacques, drunken klezmer clarinettist), Rameau Poule… One can buy a box set of 25 of these television programmes, happily preserved for posterity, on Region 1 DVD. Twenty years after his death, Bernstein’s ability to educate and inspire is still greatly missed.
I haven’t reached comic song yet. Watch this space…