©HiyaImages/Corbis
©HiyaImages/Corbis

April Fool's Day: classical music doesn't miss a trick

Although classical music is often thought to be serious and learned, it knows how to poke fun of itself too. Let's have a chuckle at the pastiches, caricatures, parodies and other (good) musical jokes below.

The history of music is full of humour and witticisms. The first examples that come to mind, of course, are operettas (two wonderful examples are available for replay on Culturebox: Offenbach's Le Roi Carotte (King Carrot) and Hervé's Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde). Other examples are the witty remarks made by composers such as Claude Debussy, writing as Monsieur Croche: "Wagner: a beautiful sunset that we mistook for a sunrise...".

Apart from the very straightforward humour and sung music designed to make audiences laugh, there are all the little witticisms, surprises and pastiches. "The Surprise" is, precisely, the nickname a London journalist gave to Symphony No. 94 by Joseph Haydn. The composer inserted a mischievous cymbal clash in the Andante movement of his symphony to (so the saying goes) wake up dozing old ladies. The work, which was composed in London in 1791, is surprising on more than one account: Haydn overturns the peaceful image of his work with a strident cymbal clash and subverts the codes of symphonic writing on which he worked so hard.

  Haydn had fun with his own music, but many other composers chose instead to pastiche, imitate or evoke the style of another composer, sometimes with ironic intent. This was true of Emmanuel Chabrier in Souvenirs de Munich (1885-86) and Gabriel Fauré and André Messager in Souvenirs de Bayreuth (1888). Both are pastiches of works by Richard Wagner: Souvenirs de Munich parodies Tristan and Isolde, while Souvenirs de Bayreuth parodies the Ring Cycle. In both cases, the composers turn the Wagnerian drama on its head, making it into a light, dancing fantasy and completely changing the character of the hugely popular melodies.

"Wagner mania" provided a propitious context for other composers to pastiche familiar tunes, but the fashion was not to everyone's taste, as Claude Debussy points out, not without a hint of sarcasm: "It's striking that we never hear anyone whistling Bach... The same cannot be said for Wagner, who has the great honour of being whistled everywhere: in the street, when the luxury prisoners leave their musical prisons, you can hear people cheerfully whistling "Spring Song" or the opening phrase from the Mastersingers."  (La Revue blanche, 1 May 1901).

And when it's not enough to pastiche a composer, you can pastiche a whole musical style. In 1956, Gerard Hoffnung commissioned Sir Malcolm Arnold to write a ridiculously pompous overture for the Hoffnung Concerts he was organising at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The result was the Grand, grand overture, a musical joke for orchestra and four shotguns, a floor polisher and three hoovers, all in honour of the American president, Herbert Hoover. The work was performed again in 2009 at the BBC Proms' very prestigious Last Night of the Proms, following Elgar's (naturally pompous) Land of Hope and Glory.

Musician and especially caricaturist and humorist Gerard Hoffnung intertwined music and humour until his untimely death in 1959. With comedian and pianist Victor Borges, and actor and humorist Dudley Moore, he formed a sort of English school of musical comedy. Dudley Moore brought us an unforgettable Beethoven parody in the form of a sonata on the theme music of The Bridge On the River Kwai. Victor Borges will be remembered for his comic performances at the piano, such as the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Liszt

The French, too, are adept at comedy in music. Take Francis Blanche and Pierre Dac, for example, in their sung sketch Le Parti d'en Rire, of which it is said that "the anthem will no doubt be famous one day, musically speaking, under the title of the Boléro de Ravel". Maurice Ravel was not the only composer to have his music repurposed by a comedy duo: witness the famous Pince à linge sung by the Quatre Barbus.

Let the playlist below take you on a trip through the humorous world of music... or through the musical world of humour:

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