Can classical music be funny?

Tom Hulce as Mozart in "Amadeus"Orion Pictures

May 01, 2015

In What's Opera, Doc?, Elmer Fudd as the Viking Siegfried hunts Bugs Bunny while singing: "Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!" to the tune of Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. I'm giggling as I write this.

This cartoon makes me laugh because of the incongruity of Wagner's music with silly lyrics sung by these two cartoon characters. I cannot hear Ride of the Valkyries now without chuckling. Cartoonists, ad agencies, and movie directors have all found ways to create incongruity using classical music in a totally different way to make us laugh. The classical music becomes funny by association.

But can classical music be funny on its own? Have you ever heard Beethoven's "Rage over a lost penny"?

Franz Josef Haydn was quite the musical jokester. In his Symphony No. 94, "Surprise," he uses a sforzando for a laugh. A sforzando is a single loud note or chord that comes in the midst of quiet music to startle the listener. It's like Haydn sneaking up on you and suddenly shouting "Boo!" Surprises me and makes me laugh no matter how many times I've heard it.

Haydn's attentive student, Ludwig van Beethoven, was a musical jokester in his own right. He continued the tradition of sforzandos, and I encountered them in his piano sonatas. I loved being a co-conspirator with him as I played and often laughed out loud after a sforzando. My piano teacher would laugh too, although I never knew if she was laughing with Beethoven or at me. And of course, there's "Rage over a lost penny."

I may be the only person on the planet who laughs at the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Such drama! It's especially funny to me in concert — whether at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis or the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria. I cannot remember a time when I didn't laugh at it. I have this image in my mind of the genius Ludwig throwing a tantrum, stamping his feet, and then proceeding to develop his musical argument against something — but what? Another lost penny?

On the other hand, I imagine Beethoven playing and having pure fun in the final movement of his first piano concerto with its jazzy sections. I laugh and want to move every time I hear it. This if fun, feel-good music, too.

What makes my inner child fall over giggling? The elephant walk movement in Camille Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals.

Then there's "Golliwog's Cake-walk" from Claude Debussy's Children's Corner Suite.

Or the trombones' ascending slide in the fourth movement of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Musical silliness for adults.

Bartok had something more on his mind in that fourth movement. The sliding trombones are part of a jaunty echo of the first movement main theme of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7.

Listeners and musicologists have debated ever since as to whether Bartok meant this as a nose-thumbing joke or an homage to Shostakovich. I just think it's fun, and makes me smile every time.

Composers have given us musical humor to tickle our funny bones whether we're alone at home or in the concert hall. It's perfectly okay to laugh if something strikes you as funny! In fact, if you happen to see a dark-haired woman giggling during the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, she could be me.

Cinda Yager writes essays, fiction, and two blogs in Minneapolis. She loves classical music and has just published an e-book novel set in the classical music world, Perceval's Secret.


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