We live in a very silly world. We’ve watched Republican primary candidates quote from the Pokémon movie, a former Poet Laureate get beaten by police while protesting the excesses of our greediest fat cats, and an eleven year old get touted as Opera’s Next Big Star (before damaging her vocal cords, of course). Reality TV shows now feature psychological disorders (“Hoarders”) and taxidermists (I can’t make this up – it’s called “American Stuffers”), and even the History Channel has succumbed to airing programs about ancient aliens. In a world like this, sometimes it seems that the only thing anyone can do is laugh. And — contrary to conventional wisdom — even the greatest composers of the most breathtaking, serious works could not suppress their musical giggles.
Perhaps the most famous musical punch line comes from Joseph Haydn, father of the symphony as we know it. There is a famous story that recounts the German Haydn’s frustration at his British audiences’ tendencies to fall asleep during the slow movements of his symphonies. As a bit of revenge, Haydn wrote the second movement of his Symphony no. 94 with the express design to lull the audience off before awakening them with a crash. This is Janos Ferencsik and the Hungarian State Orchestra playing the ‘Surprise’ movement, though if you have the chance to listen to Marc Minkowski’s 2010 recording, do so immediately. He adds several surprises that add to the joyful, slightly devilish mood that Haydn so perfectly created.
The ‘Surprise’ Symphony proved to be such a hit that Haydn was able to make another joke out of it, this time in his oratorio The Seasons. Right at the beginning of the piece, a countryman is heard singing along to the Surprise Symphony’s melody — quite a bit of mileage for a piece designed as a prank.
Composers did not limit their musical tittering to audiences, of course: the nineteenth-century master Claude Debussy, with demented glee, took a bit of a pot-shot at Richard Wagner in his piano piece “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” Wagner, whatever else he may have been, was a musical genius, and the harmonies he used in his compositions were absolutely groundbreaking. However, he also had a rather high view of his own importance in the grand scheme of things, and Debussy couldn’t resist putting in a small joke at the composer’s expense. At 1:10 in this video (performed by Scott Price), the theme from the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde can be heard, followed by what can only be described as a piano chuckling.
My favorite, however, is a piece that does not use laughter to poke fun at anything; instead, the laughter is a reaction to being filled with joy. George Frideric Handel, a composer I truly believe has no equal when it comes to writing joyful music, wrote an English-language oratorio, L’Allegro, il penseroso e il moderato in 1740. In the air with chorus “Haste, thee nymph,” both the soloist and chorus are overcome with laughter. The result is what may be the most delightful piece of music I have ever heard (performed by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists):
In a world where things seem to be getting more and more ridiculous by the day, sometimes it’s best to just sit back and laugh at everything. From practical jokes to jabs in the side to pure, unbridled glee, laughter has been central to music for hundreds of years, and I sincerely hope that is not forgotten in the years to come.