April Fools'! Five Musical Jokes

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Serious music need not always be taken so seriously. After all, scherzo means joke, instruments perform impressions and attentive listeners can recognize puns and parodies woven into plenty of works.

Some composers have taken humor even farther. In honor of April Fools' Day, here are our Top 5 @ 105 classical music jokes:

1. Papa Haydn mastered the art of inserting wit into music. His best known prank comes in Symphony No. 94, appropriately nicknamed the "Surprise" Symphony. The surprise comes in the second movement when a lulling pianissimo suddenly explodes into a great bang.

2. An entire orchestra seems to fall out of tune at the end of Mozart’s Ein Musikalischer Spass, but a quick translation of the work's title “A Musical Joke” shows that the composer was having a little fun, perhaps at the expense of less-talented contemporaries.

3. Leonard Bernstein said that Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony was the only piece to make him laugh out loud. “I remember lying on the floor and laughing 'til I was crying,” he said during one of his Young People’s Concerts. Prokofiev satires Haydn, but also keeps listeners interested with sudden key changes and dissonances.

4. Richard Strauss doesn’t play the prankster, but orchestrates the story of one in his tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. The work famously begins with “Once upon a time” before launching into the 14th century figure’s series of hi-jinks. Even though the protagonist succumbs to the gallows, Strauss gives him the last laugh in the score.

5. Maurice Ravel described his Boléro as merely a long crescendo without contrast or invention. However, audiences have embraced the 17-minute repetition of a singular theme. Perhaps the joke was on the composer. “I have written only one masterpiece,” he said. “That is the Boléro. Unfortunately, it contains no music.”

What pieces of music make you laugh? Leave your choices below.

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Comments [7]

jack from UWS

Bach's coffee cantata certainly qualifies.

Apr. 02 2016 12:25 PM
john feather from Arlington, VA

The finale of Sibelius' symphony #5 always surprises and delights me. Later Ligeti really is very funny, especially AVENTURES and NOUVELLES AVENTURES for three voices and small orchestra.

Apr. 01 2015 01:28 PM
William Lee from Brooklyn

Can we please spell "Musikalischer" right in the Mozart reference? Thanks, though, for the Bernstein quote re Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. I note that it is a WQXR staple (played at least once a week, if not more). I guess your sense of humor is not confined to April Fool's Day!

Apr. 01 2010 07:37 PM
Annette Shandolow-Hassell from North Bergen

PDQ Bach! I love his Pathetic Symphony. Years ago, I brought a friend to a PDQ Bach concert at Carnegie Hall, and she left in a huff.

I got rid of her.

Apr. 01 2010 12:00 PM

Beethoven's "The Rage Over a Lost Penny"

Apr. 01 2010 09:26 AM
ward from New Haven

Malcolm Arnold's "A Grand, Grand Overture" scored for full symphony orchestra and organ – plus three vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher and four rifles.

It is as if this normally conservative composer was channeling Spike Jones. The coda is simultaneously majestic and hilarious, and lasts almost 1/3 of the entire piece.

Apr. 01 2010 08:07 AM
Constantine Coutroulos from New York, NY

Dvořák's waltz in Db major, Opus 54 number 4, begins with an introduction and theme, both repeated. Dvořák then develops the theme, hesitates -- and repeats the introduction and theme yet again! (Evidently deciding that enough is enough, he does not bring back the introduction when he returns to the main theme for the last time.)

Mar. 31 2010 10:12 PM

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