Attending a classical music concert requires serious concentration, right? It’s quite the elitist entertainment, right? Well, if you believe that and it’s kept you from classical music, you’ve missed out on a LOT. Believe me, there’s a lot of humor in classical music if you’re willing to open your ears for it. In surprising places, too.
My first taste of musical humor came from Ludwig von Beethoven, musical genius and giant among composers. He is known for his sforzandos, i.e. a single loud note or chord that comes in the midst of quiet music. It’s like he’s sneaking up on an unsuspecting listener then shouts “boo!” Makes me laugh. The opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony also makes me laugh. I don’t know why, but every time I’ve heard it, in concert or a recording, as soon as those opening notes sound, I’m giggling. There’s a jazzy section in his first piano concerto that makes me smile, too; I imagine Beethoven wanted to have fun when he performed the concerto and it is fun.
Beethoven studied with Josef Haydn, also a known musical jokester. One of his most famous is the “Farewell” Symphony, his Symphony No. 45. During the final movement of this symphony in concert, the musicians gradually stop playing, stand and leave the stage, one or two at a time, until there’s only one left. Of course, if you don’t know that it’s written that way, it can be disconcerting — a joke on the audience from Haydn. In his “Surprise” Symphony, Haydn uses the sforzando for the same effect Beethoven did.
During the golden age of cartoons, classical music provided another element of fun. For example, Richard Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries has been used in Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny. Dukas The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became a cartoon starring Mickey Mouse that opens the movie Fantasia. Camille Saint-Saens composed a musical cartoon with his Carnival of Animals. The elephant walk movement always makes me laugh.
Opera composer Gioachino Rossini probably never dreamed that the overture to his opera Wilhem Tell would give us the theme to a TV show and provide background music for more cartoons. As a result, whenever I hear this overture, I listen and giggle. The music has become funny through association.
On the other hand, Bela Bartok knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote his most famous musical joke in the Concerto for Orchestra. In the fourth movement, which has an absolutely gorgeous, lyrical theme, Bartok inserts a section introduced by hilarious trombones playing an ascending slide. The music turns into a funny, jaunty echo of the main theme of the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7. Listeners and musicologists have debated ever since if Bartok meant it as a nose-thumbing or an homage. No one disagrees that it is funny.
Like Bartok, composers have been known to write inside jokes in their music, mischief for the delight of those in the know. Authors and other artists do much the same thing. But they also create for the world and share their senses of humor with their audiences. It’s perfectly OK to smile, giggle or laugh while listening to music if something you hear strikes you funny. The composer may have wanted you to laugh. Like Beethoven and hissforzandos…..