Only When I Laugh

Michael Oliver either travels through the byways of the repertory or finds a fresh angle to a musical issue – armed with a new CD of Britten’s ‘Albert Herring’, he asks can music be funny?

Have you ever laughed during a string quartet or a symphony? There are comic songs that are genuinely funny, of course, and laughter is by no means unknown in opera; though even there, come to think of it, it’s often the words or the dramatic situation that make us laugh, not the music itself. And have you noticed that operatic or song-recital jokes are often pretty feeble, things that would scarcely raise a wintry smile in a television sitcom? We’re reacting, perhaps, with a mixture of surprise and relief that laughter is permitted even in the august surroundings of an opera house or a recital room.

That, of course, is one of the basic ingredients of humour: the comically absurd contradiction of expectation. Maybe we don’t laugh much nowadays at the final ‘Quodlibet’ in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but Bach surely meant us to: the phrase that recurs again and again just when we’re expecting his own theme to return is a rather vulgar tavern song called ‘Cabbage and turnips have driven me away’. It’s not a tune that we recognise from evenings in the local, but even so the joke doesn’t fall quite flat: the change of mood from the earlier variations is obvious, the way that Bach’s phrases, no matter which way they turn, end up with cabbages and turnips is… well, if not hysterically funny, at least engagingly good-humoured, all the more so after such a prodigious demonstration of contrapuntal skill.

Humour of a grotesque kind
The portentous orchestral gestures at the opening of Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Song are intended for maximum, grotesque contrast with the naïve little theme when it at last appears; the point of the joke is obvious since variants of that tune are known in most European countries (it’s very close to ‘Baa, baa, black sheep’). But the joke doesn’t entirely depend on the theme being familiar. With a bit of ingenuity Dohnányi could have pricked the balloon of his orchestral introduction with a tune of his own, and it was probably humour of that kind that the Emperor Joseph II had in mind when he spoke with such vinegary disapproval of ‘Haydn’s musical jokes’.

Haydn’s jokes are often mercurial, deftly witty; you can imagine his smile of pleasure when we realise phrases are not ending as we expect, or that they’re a bar shorter or longer than they should be, or that they lead in quite unpredictable directions. There are hundreds of examples, but the finale of his D major string quartet Op. 20 No. 4 is a good one because it’s actually marked Presto e scherzando – ‘very fast and jokingly’: it continually pulls the rug from under the listener’s feet by never quite doing what he thinks it will (and it follows a ‘gipsy minuet’ in which the syncopations are so teasing that anyone trying to dance to it would probably fall over). Beethoven’s jokes are more robust, and I suspect he laughed uproariously at them. In the very first of the Eroica Variations (the set for piano, not the Symphony’s finale) the theme is quite absent; all we hear is the bass line alone, and everything is marked either very loud or very quiet, with a couple of unexpected silent bars. The humour is a touch alarming, as though Beethoven had played a practical joke on us.

Do you get it? Not all the time
Of course, this sort of joke needs skill and a light hand. Many people must have guiltily wondered whether they’d lost their sense of humour entirely after sitting straight-faced through Mozart’s Musical Joke (Ein musikalischer Spass , K 522). But most of his humour either needs explaining (it’s hard to laugh at an incompetently written fugue unless you know the laws of fugue) or it’s rather childish: obvious and deliberate wrong notes.

And purely musical humour can only work in a style where there are clear expectations which can be surprisingly denied. Alfred Brendel, who wrote a couple of essays on musical humour, is probably right to say that he could find no trace of it in Chopin, Liszt or Berlioz, romantics whose music depends on the unexpected and on poetical surprise. When romantic and modern composers want to be funny or light-hearted, they are more likely to rely on witty allusion, often in an absurd context (Debussy quoting from Tristan in ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’) or on mockery.

Perfection in parody
Benjamin Britten was a master of parody, and it’s a pity so few of his works exploit it. The Frank Bridge Variations, his first internationally-acclaimed work, was less well received at home, where its caricatures of Viennese waltz, Italian operatic aria and neoclassicism were seen as flippant. Reviewers missed the affection in Britten’s mockery and his talent for characterisation which demonstrated, long before Peter Grimes, he was born to write opera.

It used to be said that although atonal music expresses agonised emotions very well, no one has yet succeeded in writing an atonal comedy. I’m not so sure. Even Schoenberg, in his Three Satires, wrote a spiteful and quite funny parody of Stravinsky. I can think of one piece in which various instruments play simultaneously in C, B, D, D flat and in no key at all, which is very funny indeed: Charles Ives’ Hallowe’en. And what about György Ligeti’s Aventures, in which a group of voices ‘mime’ emotional situations using every vocal noise, apart from words, you can think of? Perhaps the most brilliant musical satirist of our time is Sir Peter Maxwell Davies; his opera Resurrection is an encyclopedia of parody, of everything from sanctimonious hymn-tunes to every variety of commercial music. But his humour is edged: the squealing foxtrots in his work are often cries of outrage. And in Shostakovich it is often hard to distinguish mordant wit from bitter anger. Twentieth-century musical comedy has often been pitch-black.

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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