A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Humorous Music

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HUMOROUS MUSIC. The element of humour in music is far from common, and though easy to recognize when encountered, is rather difficult to define. Nor is this difficulty lessened by calling to mind a number of examples and endeavouring to generalize therefrom. Such a course shows us only that our title is either too comprehensive or too limited for the name of one particular kind of music, embracing on the one hand all scherzos, all comic-opera and dance-music, and on the other hand including only serious music in which a sudden and momentary change of mood appears. It is evident, however, that the title is inapplicable to merely light, gay or frolicsome music. On the other hand, to pronounce Beethoven the sole exponent of musical humour is to do away with the necessity for making a 'class.' How then shall we limit our definition? Will it be of any use to remember that there are various kinds of humour, such as high and low, comedy and farce? We fear not. Schumann indeed, writing on this subject, says:[1]—'The less educated minds are usually disposed to perceive in music without words only the feelings of sorrow or joy, but are not capable of discerning the subtler shades of these sentiments, such as anger or remorse on the one hand and kindliness or contentment on the other; a fact which renders it difficult for them to comprehend such masters as Beethoven and Franz Schubert, every condition of whose minds is to be found in their music. I fancy that I can perceive behind some of the Moments musicals of Schubert certain tailors' bills which he was not able to pay, such a Philistine annoyance do they express.' The poetic temperament may be permitted to indulge itself in fantasies like these, for which there may or may not be any actual foundation, but Schumann's words must not be taken literally. The scientific musician in his calmer moments is forced to admit that the expression in music of any emotion or sentiment whatever—beyond the elementary sensations of gloom and gaiety—is purely a matter of convention, depending for its effect upon the auditor's previous musical experiences. A Chinaman would not be thrilled by the strains of the Marseillaise, and a European finds nothing pleasing in the Javanese Gamelan. The National Anthem of one country is seldom rated highly by a foreigner, but let an Englishman hear 'Home, sweet home!' a Scotchman hear the skirl of his native instrument, or a Swiss be reminded of the Rans des Vaches, and each will be moved to the very soul. Gaiety and gloom in music are discernible by all human beings alike; for this reason—joy is usually accompanied by an inclination to dance; therefore, by a natural association of ideas, music which has short brisk dance-rhythms excites lively emotions, while slow long drawn sounds connect themselves with tranquillity, repose and gravity of spirit. The Introduction and Vivace of Beethoven's A major Symphony afford an excellent illustration of our meaning; the broad slow phrases of the opening would impress the veriest savage, while the frisky rhythm of the main movement must gladden every heart that hears it.

We have, however, wandered from our point, which is not what kinds of humour can be expressed in music, but, admitting that humorous music does exist, in what does its humour consist? The answer is, that in music, as in literature, humour is chiefly to be sought in (1) sudden and unexpected contrasts of thought or language, (2) grotesque exaggeration, and (3) burlesque. To all three of these forms of humour Beethoven was equally addicted, and added besides a farcical fun all his own, sometimes exhibited in allotting a passage to an instrument unsuited to it, and upon which it sounds absurd. The bassoon is the usual victim on such occasions. To class 1 belong such passages as the middle of the ist movement of the Symphony no. 8

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 6/8 \key f \major \clef bass \repeat unfold 2 { <c c,>4. <c c'>8 <c c,> <c c'> } <c c,>4. }

the imitations of birds in the slow movement of the 'Pastoral,' and the tipsy bassoon in the scherzo of the same, the wrong entry of the horn in the Eroica and its indignant suppression by the rest of the orchestra [quoted in vol. i. p. 73], which may be compared with the somewhat similar joke at the opening of the Choral Symphony scherzo, the charming effect of the long pedal bass on the drums in the last movement of the E♭ Piano Concerto, and many other passages too numerous to mention. Under class 2 are to be ranked those especially 'Beethovenish' passages in which a phrase is insisted upon and repeated with a daring boldness, yet perfect artistic propriety, entirely beyond the conception of less gifted musicians, and indeed only imitated by one other—Anton Dvořák. Two conspicuous examples may be given from Beethoven's Pianoforte Sonatas; one in the last movement of the G major, op. 31. Here in the coda the simple first phrase of the principal subject is tossed about, fast, slow, in the treble, in the bass, until it finally dies of exhaustion. The passage is too long to quote, as is the equally delightful instance in the E minor Sonata op. 90 (1st movement), at the return to the 1st subject, where a mere transient semiquaver passage (a) metamorphoses itself into the actual subject:—

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \key e \minor \relative g'' { g16^"(a)" fis e dis } }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \key e \minor \time 3/4 \partial 4 \relative g' { g4 g4. fis8 e4 a2 } }

This whimsical exaggeration of a trifling phrase into momentary importance is a favourite device of Beethoven's. The instance in the slow move- of the C minor Symphony is familiar to every one.

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 3/8 \key aes \major \partial 8 \relative e' { ees16. g32 | \repeat percent 2 { \repeat unfold 3 { \times 2/3 { bes16[ ees, g] } } } \repeat unfold 2 { bes32[ g ees g] } } }

The long dominant passages with which he returns to the subject in the 4th Symphony (1st movement), in the 'Waldstein' Sonata (1st movement), in the 7th Symphony (last movement), and many others, are all imbued with the same kind of humour. In his most serious moods, as in the passage from the C minor last quoted, and again at the end of the same movement, he does not fear, as a less consummate artist might, to weaken the impression of his most earnest and poetic thoughts by this momentary intrusion of the grotesque; he is conscious of holding the reins of our emotions so firmly that he can compel our smiles or tears at any moment.

The third kind of humour in which Beethoven indulges is the burlesque vein so conspicuous in the finales of Symphonies No. 7 and 8 and the concluding pages of the C minor. It is a sort of scoff at musical commonplaces, and consists indeed, like the previous class, in comical exaggeration, but so evidently intended as a satire on the inferior composers of the day as to justify us in classing it apart. To this class belong also such eminently droll passages as the hurry-scurry of the double-basses in the Trio of the C minor, and in the finale of No. 4, the snorting low notes for horn in the Trio of No. 7, etc. But after all, Beethoven's infinite variety of moods cannot be summed up so shortly as this; the quaint suggestion of 'tuning-up' in the following passage (A major Symphony, 1st movement)—

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 3/4 \key a \major \relative e' { \acciaccatura dis8 e4 e'8 \acciaccatura e,8 fis4 e'8 | \acciaccatura fis,8 g4 e'8 \acciaccatura g,8 a4 e'8 | \acciaccatura a,8 b4 e8 \acciaccatura b8 c4 e8 | \acciaccatura c8 d4 e8 dis4 e8 | \compressFullBarRests R2.*2 \bar "||" } }

the comical introduction to the Finale of No. 1—

{ \time 2/4 \key c \major \partial 8 \tempo \markup { \smaller \italic Adagio. } \relative g' { g16.-. a32-. | b8 r r16. g32-. a16.-. b32-. | c8 r r16 g32( a) b16-. c-. | d8 r \times 2/3 { r16 g,([ a)] } \times 2/3 { b16-.[ c-. d-.] } e8 r r16 g,32\([ a] b[ c d e]\) | f8\fermata } }

so suggestive of an animal let out of a cage, trying first cautiously one step, then another, then bolting off at full speed these and a hundred other examples partake of the characteristics of more than one of our suggested 'classes' and must be left to speak for themselves.

Turning away from Beethoven we must remark, as we have done under Scherzo, that humour in music is rarely to be found elsewhere. Gaiety, liveliness, we find abundantly in Haydn and Mozart, piquant gracefulness in Schubert, Mendelssohn and composers of the French school, a certain grotesqueness occasionally in Schumann, Dvořák and Rubinstein; but in vain do we seek for those sudden contrasts of mood and matter which are the essence of humour. Not to be too sweeping, let us admit that the Clowns' March, and still more Pyramus's dead march in Mendelssohn's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' music are highly comic, that Schumann, in the 'Faschingsschwank aus Wien' hit upon a decidedly humorous idea when he made the rhythm of the first movement suggest, first his favourite 'Grossvatertanz' and then the prohibited 'Marseillaise'; let us also admit that Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette is comical music, even apart from its 'programme,' still our collection of humorous specimens is not a large one. We must fall back upon that extensive class of music in which the humour is suggested—if not entirely possessed—by the words or ideas allied thereto. Many early examples of this kind will be found in the article on Programme Music. Such phrases as

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \relative d'' { d2\( cis4 c b bes a\) r \bar "||" \autoBeamOff c8 c c c c c fis4 } }

do not appear particularly droll by themselves, but when we know that they are intended to represent the mewing of a cat and the clucking of a hen we smile—perhaps. The humour of comic opera consists either in the rapid articulation of syllables on successive notes known as 'patter' or in the deliberate setting of nonsense to serious music. The so-called comic cantatas of Bach might be sung to serious words without any incongruity being apparent, although his 'Capriccio on the departure of a brother,' with its picture of the lamentation of the friends who tell the traveller of the dangers of his way, is one of the best musical jokes, ancient or modern. Mozart affords us in his operas many specimens of music which is at least thoroughly in keeping with the humour of the words, if not inherently humorous. Decidedly his best efforts of this kind are to be found in 'Die Zauberflöte.' In the operas-bouffes of Offenbach a decided feeling for musical humour was sometimes exhibited; for instance when Barbe Bleue relates the death of his wife to a pathetic-sounding air which, as he quickly recovers from his grief, he sings faster and faster till it becomes a merry quadrille-tune. The snoring chorus in Orphée, the toothache song in 'La Princesse de Trebizonde,' and many others, are singularly characteristic. Of the same class of humour as this might be mentioned an idea in Smetana's light opera 'The Two Widows,' which consists in making one of the characters stammer all the time he sings. This is funny enough, but unfortunately, in real life, the most inveterate stammerer loses his affliction the moment he sings. In the comic operas of Sir Arthur Sullivan, delightful as they are, the humour is quite inseparable from the words. Change these and all is lost. Almost the only instance of musical humour in opera, where the humour emanates from the music independently of the words, are to be found, where they would scarcely be looked for, in two of the later works of Wagner. In 'Siegfried' the whole of Mime's music is eminently characteristic, but in Act II, Sc. 3, when the dwarf comes wheedlingly to Siegfried he has the following expressive subject in the orchestra:

{ \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \time 3/4 \key d \major \clef bass \relative c' << { \repeat volta 2 { r4 \grace { cis16[ d e] } d2^\sf->\( ~ | d4 e,8\) r r4 } r \grace { gis16[ a b] } a4. g8 | fis8. g16 a4. } \\ { fis,4-. r <fis' ais>8 r <b e, g,>8 r r4 r | a,4 r <cis e>8 r r4 r <d fis>8 } >> }

His murderous intentions having been revealed by the forest-bird, the theme appropriated to the latter is woven into Mime's music as if in mockery:

{ \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 3/4 \key d \major << \relative f'' << { r4 r fis^\p ~ \times 2/3 { fis8[ e8. cis16] } \times 2/3 { a8 fis a } \times 2/3 { cis a cis } e } \\ { r4 \grace { dis,16[ e fis] } e2\sf ~ e4( \change Staff = "down" \stemUp f,8) g8\rest g4\rest ais, } >>
\new Staff = "down" { \clef bass \key d \major gis,4-. r <bis gis>8 r <cis' e a,>4 r a,4\rest } >> }

Again, a little later, when Siegfried deals the dwarf his merited fate, the brother Alberich, watching from a cleft in the rock, utters a peal of laughter to the 'smith-motive'

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 3/4 \clef bass \partial 4 \relative d' { \autoBeamOff \set tupletSpannerDuration = #(ly:make-moment 1 4) \override TupletBracket #'bracket-visibility = ##f \tupletUp \times 2/3 { d8. d16 d8 d bes c d8. d16 d8 d bes c } cis } \addlyrics { Ha, ha -- ha -- ha -- ha -- ha -- ha -- ha -- ha -- ha -- ha -- ha -- ha! } }

as if to say 'He will never wield the hammer again!' In the 'Meistersinger' we find many admirable specimens of musical drollery, such as the illustrative accompaniment of David's absurd catalogue of 'Tones,' the way in which the orchestra pokes fun at Beckmesser both in his serenade and in his version of Walther's song, but most especially in that remarkable scene of the 3rd Act (unfortunately reduced to a few bars in performance) where Beckmesser enters alone in silent perturbation and the orchestra interprets the current of his thoughts. This is a piece of musical humour absolutely without parallel.

Lest we should be deemed to have forgotten them, we will mention in conclusion Haydn's 'Farewell Symphony,' the 'Musical Joke' or 'Peasants' Symphony' of Mozart, and the 'Wuth über einen verlornen Groschen' of Beethoven, but whatever humour there may be in either of these compositions certainly does not reside in the music.

[ F. C. ]

  1. Schumann. Ges. Scbrift. b. 1: Das Komische in der Musik.