I was thinking this afternoon of humor. Specifically, jokes in musical compositions that are purely musical – i.e. not staged as in opera.
There are things that are on the boundary between musical jokes and stage jokes. Such as this rendering of ‘Da tempeste’ from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, where at 3.05 or so the singer plays on the fact that a type of vocal ornamentation used in opera sounds like the noise kids make when they play at shooting one another with machine guns.
Schubert’s trio Der Hochzeitsbraten (D. 930 I think) also falls into this category, particularly during the little ‘la-la-la’ bit at the end. I heard this most recently as part of that bootleg Schubert recital I mentioned a while back, and drew three conclusions. One, Ian Bostridge is not funny. Considering that he was on stage with two Germans, this is quite a feat. Two, hearing Dorothea Roschmann do sound effects is an absolute riot. Finally, we really ought to give the early nineteenth century credit where credit is due as far as skeeze goes: ‘Two shining white coins’ in exchange for not being arrested for poaching? Theobald and Therese are dirt poor, so I don’t think it’s cash that Therese is offering the gamekeeper.
Then, there are jokes relating to expectations about how things are composed. Mozart’s Musikalischer Spass is definitely one of these, as is Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony. Related to this are things which may be jokes, or they may not be jokes. There is a violin sonata by Biber (that would be Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber) that I am half convinced is not serious. And according to the liner notes of a recording I have of some of Purcell’s harpsichord music, Richard Egarr (the harpsichordist) claims to hear ‘fish-slapping’ humor in it. I am skeptical, but Mr. Egarr surely knows more about this than I do, so I am willing to allow it.
Whenever I am told that a piece is going to be funny in this way, it always makes me nervous, because I worry that I will fail to get the joke and thus mark myself out as an idiot. (I hate puzzle games for similar reasons – fear of exposure.) But most of the time, the joke is fairly obvious. I mean, in that Haydn symphony, the joke is roughly: quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet . . . BANG! This is hard to miss, as jokes go.
And then there are intertextual gags. The best example that I can think of here is Peter Shickele’s ‘Quodlibet for Small Orchestra’ and ‘Unbegun Symphony’ which are basically compositions made up of quotations from other pieces but put together in such a way that things you would never associate with one another are revealed to sound freakishly similar. Sort of. It’s hard to describe, but I still end up laughing aloud whenever I listen to either of these.
Finally, there is the unintentionally funny – or rather, the moments where something suddenly sounds like it does not belong there, but it’s not quite humorous. There is one of these in Act II of La Clemenza di Tito during Tito’s aria “Se all’impero” There is this little riff in there (you hear it first around 2.29) that I always find odd. I can sort of see what it’s doing there, but it’s slightly off. Then again, this same aria (at 3.19) also echoes some of Vitellia’s music from Act I (“come ti piace imponi”, at 0.37 in this version) and when you are echoing Vitellia . . . well, all may not be well. Necessarily.
I suppose the point here is that humor and music are very similar forms of art. They both depend on various sets of expectations and conventions that the audience is presumed to have/know about; at the same time, each works most effectively when those conventions are at once followed and overturned. The space between convention and convention-breaking is where the communication occurs.
That was rather more abstract a point than I had intended to make going into this (initially, I really only wanted an excuse to say something mildly insulting about Ian Bostridge because . . . well, sometimes one gets urges like that) but the more I think about it, the more I stick by it.