Humor in Music


Classical music is very serious business, as all those grim portraits of great composers suggest. But remember that those folks were quite human, and loved to laugh -- as we'll discover in this light-hearted Active Minds presentation. Bach poking fun at coffee addicts. Haydn playfully chiding those who applaud too early, as he offers a series of false endings to a string quartet. Rossini re-creating the late-night meowings of two cats. Beethoven getting silly with a simple scale. Erik Satie writing a set of "Truly Flabby Preludes for a Dog." And Mozart --- well, we won't spoil the joke...


Most folks refer to the works of Bach, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and the others as “classical music.” Some call it “serious music.” As we'll discover in this program, not all classical music is serious. In fact, some of it is downright funny. But how do you bring humor into the world of the symphony orchestra? Beethoven knew how: As the final movement of his very first Symphony began, he followed an ominous single chord with a playful little scale that built its way up in excruciatingly hilarious fashion, note-by-note. Even Bach enjoyed a good laugh, when he wasn't praising God in celestial works written for a pair of cathedrals in Leipzig. Each Friday night, he and his pals served as musical entertainers at a local coffeehouse – even performing a charming “commercial” that sang the praises of that addictive hot beverage favored by folks back then (and now!). The composers of the French Impressionist era in the early 20th Century took their work very seriously – or at least most of them did. Not Erik Satie. With a wink and a smirk, he poked fun at everything and everyone, especially music critics. Responding to those who complained about a lack of shape in his meandering piano works, he composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear.” When his friend Debussy showed Satie his newly completed masterpiece, La Mer, Satie replied that he liked the first movement, From Dawn to Noon on the Sea – “particularly,” he deadpanned, “the part between 11:30 and 11:45.” Much of comedy relies on the element of surprise, something that another Frenchman, Camille Saint-Saens, understood. In his beloved Carnival of the Animals, he created a musical portrait of the tortoise by serving up the high-energy Can-Can by Offenbach – but played by the basses at a lumbering, slow tempo. Another aspect of humor is juxtaposition: putting one element in a strange, unexpected new place. That's what Rossini did when he called for two grand, operatic sopranos to imitate the whining, meowing of a pair of lovesick pussycats. Great music often has fun laughing at itself, and there have been those quite willing to lead the ribbing – namely a pair of unforgettable comedians, Victor Borge (“Ah, Shostakovich!” Looks at the score. “Just a moment!”) and Anna Russell (On Wagner's Ring Cycle: “It begins in the Rhine. Not on the Rhine – In it!”). But the most humorous moments come from those great composers, who simply wanted to entertain their listeners, as well as inspire and move them.

Exploration Questions

  • Zimmermann's Coffeehouse was a popular hang-out in Leipzig during Bach's time there, What impact did it have on the city's cultural life?
  • Who was Erik Satie, and where did he get such a quirky sense of humor?
  • Who was Florence Foster Jenkins, and how did she become the darling of New York City society a few decades back?

Reflective Questions

  • Which makes you enjoy laughing more – subtle witticisms or broad slapstick?
  • Why did Mozart often act like a silly child who never grew up?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Bremmer, Jan and Roodenburg, Herman. A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Polity Press. 1997. 280 pages. A fascinating, probing examination of our desire – and our need – to laugh at others and ourselves.
    Click here to order