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A Sense of Humor [5&1 Classical Playlists #4]

Classical music is so stuck up, isn’t it? All prim and proper in its white tie and tails—no wonder it gets a wide berth. Yet, as with any other section of society, composers have ranged from the ultra-serious and self-important to the irreverent and shameless. So in the face of so much cultural weirdness and anxiety at the moment, it’s good to let our hair down occasionally. We need to take having fun far more seriously than we do!

Now I could have picked out moments where classical musicians have fun on stage; there are plenty out there if you look. If you have never encountered the wonders of Victor Borge, the musical gags of Dudley Moore—yes, that Dudley Moore—or more recently the genius of Billy Bailey on Downton Abbey here or U2 here, then you’re seriously missing out.

Or I could have chosen examples of composers satirising their fellows (which is not that rare either). But that feels like cheating. Instead, I’m looking for pieces that put a smile on your face just because of what they are. Composing humorous music is quite the art. For discerning precisely what makes particular combinations of notes and harmonies funny is harder and less funny than explaining one-liner gags. I defy you not to find yourself smiling after at least one of these… (but no answers on postcards, please).

Symphony No. 94 ‘The Surprise’ in G ma: 2. Andante (H 1/94, 1791)

  • Josef Haydn (1732-1809, Austrian)

  • Concertgebouworkest, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cond.)

One of Hadyn’s so-called London symphonies was written for his first major stadium tour of Britain. Well, not exactly. But he was one of the biggest stars of his era. Haydn was known for his sense of humour (as well as writing symphonies—he wrote over 100. Take that, Ludwig). The second movement of his 94th is the source of this one’s nickname. I wonder if you can tell what the surprise is…

The “Cat’s” Fugue in G minor (K30, L499)

  • Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757, Italian)

  • Elaine Comparone (harpsichord)

Scarlatti never used this piece’s nickname, so it could be a complete fabrication. But the legend is fun, so worth including. Fugues open with a sequence of notes (sometimes a subject or motif) and then build on it by repeating that sequence unchanged in different lines or voices (apart from starting on different notes). Imagine other instruments picking it up, or parts of a choir. It takes remarkable skill to do it with three or four voices. Bach did it with up to six! Anyway, Scarlatti’s motif is definitely weird. So the story is that it was originally ‘composed’ by his cat walking up the keyboard. See what you think…

A musical joke: 4. Presto (K. 522 Divertimento for 2 horns & quartet)

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, Austrian)

  • Concentus Musikus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cond.)

Okay, I did say I’d exclude composers ribbing other composers and Mozart does seem to be doing that in this four-part ‘Musical Joke.’ He pokes fun at the various musical clichés of the day. But my justification is that in the last movement, he’s having a giggle at the expense of incompetent performers. When I was growing up in the UK, there were only three TV channels (I know, right—serious deprivation). Sometimes I’d be so desperate for a bit of telly-therapy that I’d sneak in a bit of viewing at odd times. So this piece will be familiar to millions because it was used as the theme for BBC2’s Horse of the Year show. (I told you I was desperate). Because it would simply fade post-titles, I had no idea about Mozart’s actual ending…

Masquerade suite: 5. Galop (1941)

  • Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978, Armenian/Soviet)

  • Moscow RTV Large Symphony Orchestra, Karen Khatchaturian (cond.)

Khachaturian’s five Masquerade pieces (gathered into a suite so that they could be performed separately) were originally composed for the Russian playwright Mikhail Lermontov’s play of the same name. The glorious opening waltz is one of those pieces that will perhaps be familiar without you realising why. But it’s not funny. The 5th really is. It’s not directly depicting wild horses pelting as fast as they can (that would be a gallop); a galop was often the final dance at grandest balls in the nineteenth century. All caution is flung to the wind and speed is of the essence. This recording was conducted by the composer’s nephew.

The Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance (1879)

  • Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900, English) / book by W. S. Gilbert

  • George Rose (Maj-Gen Stanley), Joseph Papp (prod.), Wilford Leach (dir.)

Now this is just plain silly. Gloriously silly. Gilbert and Sullivan were the perfect antidote to British Imperialistic hauteur, and this ingenious tongue-twister is lyrically and musically sublime. Need I say more?

This recording was quite the discovery, though. Rather than the traditional option of the D’Oyly Carte Opera company in London (for whom G&S would create), here is a Broadway production whose cast featured Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury and Linda Rondstadt, believe it or not! The Major-General is played by a Brit though, George Rose, who made the part his own throughout his career.

Jazz Suites 1 & 2 (1934 & 1938) and Tahiti Trot Op. 16 (1927)

  • Dmitri Dmitryevich Shostakovich (1906-1975, Russian/Soviet)

  • Russian State Symphony, Dmitry Yablonsky (cond.)

If Schubert is my 19th century musical hero, Shostakovich is my guy from the 20th. He could do practically anything. Symphonies—check (all FIFTEEN). Concertos—check. String Quartets—check (also FIFTEEN). Solo instrumental stuff—check. Operas—check. Ballet—check. Songs—check. Film scores—check (Incidentally, you’d be amazed how small the list of composers who laid the foundations for modern film music is—for everyone from Bernard Herrmann or Erich Korngold to John Williams and Danny Elfman, James Horner and even Hans Zimmer—and Dmitri is definitely on it – perhaps a 5&1 for another day). You name it, he could write it. And brilliantly. There are widely accepted masterpieces from each of these genres. It was simply incredible—not least because he wrote it all under the sinister gaze of the Communist Party (which he was eventually compelled to join in the ‘60s), and for thirty years, that of Stalin himself. But jazz?

Like a number of composers in the century’s early decades, he was fascinated by African American musical forms, and by jazz in particular. So he wrote a number of individual pieces in jazz style (they probably sound a bit more like dance band music now)—and they’ve been grouped together in two suites, although there isn’t full consensus about which bits go where, so this recording has the lot! And after them comes the Tahiti Trot. This was written in answer to a bet from the conductor Nikolai Malko after he played Dmitri the tune on the piano. 100 roubles completely to reorchestrate (i) in under an hour (ii) from memory. He took just 45 minutes! So here it is. I’m sure you’ll recognise the melody…

Strictly speaking, these pieces are more fun than funny but I can’t help but think there’s a wink and a grin throughout.


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