Comedy Classical

A look at the funnier moments in music….


SOMM Recordings have just issued a CD taken from a live performance by my instrumental group at the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton, and at the end of Perpetuum Mobile by Johann Strauss, the audience reacts with a good chuckle. It’s great to have this spontaneous audience feed-back on the recording – and it got me thinking about other comedic moments in music. Because although people might think Classical Music is all about seriousness and Teutonics, there are funny bits too.

 I am not talking about the moments when the performer trips over as they are going on stage, or their dress falls down in the middle of a difficult passage (these things have happened to a very close friend of mine who happens to look rather like me), nor am I talking about Morecambe and Wise playing the “right notes” of the Grieg Piano Concerto but “not necessarily in the right order”. No, I am talking about comedy actually arising from the music itself – those times when you can’t suppress a laugh at the composer’s wit.

Below are some of my favourite examples, but I would be fascinated to hear any of yours.

Often humour works when a composer sets up a pattern but then confounds expectation by suddenly doing something different. Perpetuum Mobile involves an open-ended chord sequence repeated over and over with solo instruments riffing over the top. Finally, in my version anyway, just when you think there is a danger of the sequence continuing until the end of time, unable to finish, destined to roam the galaxies repeating itself, the clarinet dares to stop the proceedings with a quiet cadence. Cue chuckle from audience….

Haydn had a nice line in funny wigs and was a great one for taking the listener by surprise; he even wrote a Surprise Symphony which has a sudden loud chord at the end of the quiet main theme designed to jolt awake all those philistines who think a concert is an excuse for a doze. Stravinsky plays the opposite trick in the last of his three Pieces For Solo Clarinet which is loud and jazzy all the way, but ends on an unexpectedly quiet, high note that always raises a smile.

Mozart’s Musical Joke, or Ein Musikalischer Spass, or the Horse of the Year Show, requires musicians to play the “wrong” notes, resulting at times in chaos and, for the Classical age, a cacophonous last chord. A similar joke is used by Hindemith in his Overture to the Flying Dutchman as Sight-read by a Bad Spa Orchestra at 7 in the Morning. However there is a danger that the “inept musicians” joke runs out of steam over the length of these pieces unless the players are very skilled at comedy, or the audience has had a lot to drink.

For real mastery of the light touch you can’t beat Johann Strauss whose Champagne Polka has champagne corks from the percussion section flying off at unexpected intervals. His Tritsch-Tratsch Polka was an overnight sensation too and uses a repeated snap rhythm to mimic the gossips in Vienna telling malicious stories about Strauss’ love affairs.

 American composer, Leroy Anderson, employs equally surprising sound effects in Sleigh Ride where sliding trumpets mimic the reindeer neighing, if indeed reindeer do neigh, and in The Typewriter for stenographer and orchestra we are treated to a virtuoso display of typewriter chings, whirrs and taps in time to the music. Which proves just about anything can be a percussion instrument if you try hard enough.


Skilful mimicry is at the heart of that fun and funniest of all pieces, Saint-Saens’ Le Carnaval des Animaux. It is a truth universally acknowledged that anything played solo on the double bass is hilarious and Saint-Saens capitalizes on this by having the undisputed giant of the string section embody the elephant. Not only that, he was not afraid of taking a swipe at himself in Pianistes, where endless scales up and down the instrument lay bare the drudgery of music practise and usually are livened up by open competition between the two pianists as to who can play the worst.

The scherzo is the classical form most geared to humour. Deriving from Italian for “joke”, scherzi have been written by composers from Montverdi to Malcolm Arnold.  Schubert and Beethoven loved the form and the Finnish composer, Sibelius, turned it into a high-spirited rhythmic game in his First Symphony, wrong-footing the listener with a principal motif at cross purposes to the triple time pulse.  London born composer, Henry Litolff is now solely remembered for his delicious Scherzo for piano and orchestra. Its melody trills, repeats and modulates stepwise up and down and leaves us gasping for breath – the musical equivalent of a tongue twister perhaps.

For a light-as-air, ear-tickling scherzo you cannot surpass Mendelssohn. Quoted discreetly in Saint-Saens’ aforementioned L’ Elephant, Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a light gauze of dancing woodwind pelting headlong and punctuated by the occasional guffaw, as if Bottom dressed as an ass has just woken up.

Beethoven’s Rage Over a Lost Penny is funny in that you can imagine the maestro working through his anger over his lost coin with scales and arpeggios flying. The title helps too – a welcome change from the usual uninspiring Sonata no.1 type efforts coined (coined – get it?) by many composers.

Off-beat rhythm can always lighten the mood. Copland uses syncopated accents in Rodeo which has the effect of whisking us away to a real live Hoe-Down. Copland lets his theme descend in steps down through the chromatic scale, a tried and tested comic device, like a wind-up gramophone gradually running out of steam, before the bright rhythms quickly reassert themselves.

Of course humour can be dark as well as light. Dukas’ The Sorceror’s Apprentice so vividly embodies the coming to life of multiplying brooms as the hapless apprentice lands himself in deeper and deeper water (joke alert), that it gives some children nightmares. Shostakovich is another composer who treads the thin line between comedy and tragedy. In his Symphony No.15 he quotes Rossini’s William Tell. Its cavalry charge pierces through the splintered, fragmentary texture on a number of occasions, a glimpse of an older struggle for liberty. We are not sure whether to laugh or cry. The layers of Shostakovich’s irony are many.

For sheer outrageous fun there is nothing more exhilarating than a “Rossini Crescendo”. Presumably the Italian maestro woke up one day and said, I know, why don’t we get the orchestra to go very gradually from pianissimo up to as loudly as they can play? And why not? In La Gazza Ladra Overture for example, the effect of the crescendo is like taking off in a speed boat. It should come as no surprise that Rossini in later life became famous for giving parties.

Perhaps the prize for the most enduring comic masterpiece of all should go to Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss in which the hero is represented by a mischievously sly motif for high clarinet which is like a musical naughty grin. Strauss employs a bevy of bassoons (another instrument with inherently comedic qualities) as the dry academics with whom Till has a run-in. Trilling instruments depict Till cocking a snook – do people still do that? – mocking the pomposity of the world.  Even after a graphic hanging scene at the scaffold, the music soon recovers and gallops to the end as the spirit of Till Eulenspiegel, the chancer, the mischief maker, cannot be suppressed. Also it’s kind of fun that Eulenspiegel actually means Wipe My Arse in old German!