The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on December 10th, 2013

So it is the year 1772, and we are seated with an attentive audience in the concert room of Hungarian Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy’s summer palace, Esterhaza, enjoying an evening of music composed and conducted by the Austrian musician, Franz Joseph Haydn (see image at left). Haydn is employed full time as an in-residence musician by the prince to provide music both for his enjoyment and for special occasions, and the prince furnishes him with a resident orchestra to realize his musical ideas. Now, in the subdued candlelight of the evening, the orchestra is coming to the final movement of Haydn’s most recent creation, his Symphony #45 in F# Minor. The music has been quite bracing so far, alternating between moments of robustness, drama, gracefulness, and lyrical sweetness. As the players begin, it is clear that we are going to be treated to yet another lively movement. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the prince has been in residence at these summer quarters for quite a while now – longer than usual, and the musicians are starting to get pretty restless. They had to leave their wives and families back at their homes and headquarters in Eisenstadt in order to take temporary residence at the prince’s summer palace, and they are longing to get back home. Little do we in the audience know that the musician’s sentiments will soon find expression…
One might wonder whether such a cheeky “hint” could have provoked Prince Esterhazy’s wrath. After all, Esterhazy (see image at right) was a prince and wielded a considerable amount of power in society, while Haydn was merely one of his employees. He and Haydn, however, were on such amiable terms that the prince took the hint, had a good chuckle into the bargain, and agreed that the whole entourage should depart for home the next day.

Humor in classical instrumental music is not generally given to inciting great guffaws, but it is present much more than many people think. Most of the time it tends to be quite subtle compared to the kind of humor we see expressed in opera and the other arts. The absence of words, pictures, and physical gestures demands a different, purely musical approach (which we will explore in later posts).
The broadest and least employed form of humor in classical instrumental music is a little like slapstick --- obvious, a bit shocking, and sometimes even rude. The piece we just heard was a somewhat understated version of that style. Haydn, a major figure in the evolution of music in the 18th and early 19th centuries, infused several of his pieces with just such humorous touches, some of which undoubtedly raised more than a few eyebrows and engendered smiles among the well-mannered concert audiences of the time. Two of his most well-known examples of this kind of expression occur in the second movements of his Symphonies 93 and 94, which were written for a series of concerts he was invited to give in London in the late 1700s.

The second movement of the 93rd symphony immerses us in a graceful, benevolent-sounding atmosphere. It is surprisingly unconventional that Haydn begins the movement with the sound of a string quartet instead of full orchestra, but that extra touch creates an air of welcome intimacy at the beginning of the music. As the piece progresses there are moments of darker, contrasting mood that provide variety, but most of the music is quite friendly. Then toward the end when we are in the midst of a particularly lovely and lulling section of music, something quite unexpected occurs in the bassoon part. As you listen to the movement from the beginning, pay particular attention around 12’14” on the timer.
That bassoon outburst, graciously understated in this performance (such is not always the case), is completely out of step with the tasteful aesthetic of the rest of the movement. What does it signify? Is it the brusque reaction of a voice impatient with all of the hesitant musical “waffling” going on at that moment, or is it just the musical equivalent of a random whoopee cushion experience? I’ll leave it to you to decide. One thing is certain, though --- it is a rude sound. But it only seemed to add to the enjoyment of the London concert goers in the late 18th century. In fact, they were so taken with the movement that they demanded an immediate encore.

There was another humorous moment in store for those same Londoners when Haydn conducted what is now probably the most well-known of his symphonies, the 94th in G Major. Again all the music is full of the kind of life, lyricism, and subtle wit that is so typical of Haydn, but it is the second movement that prompted a particularly hearty outburst of laughter due to its moment of “surprise.” Although the surprise is the most conspicuous musical event in the movement, what follows is no less astonishing as Haydn leads us through a series of clever variations on its theme. The movement is a fine example of the composer’s inventiveness, and if you listen carefully you may be delighted to perceive the many moods and guises Haydn employs to dress up his theme. The second movement begins around 9’34”, and the “surprise” occurs at around 10’11”.
Finally, I just couldn’t leave the topics of broad humor in music or Haydn’s 94th Symphony without going completely over the top and bringing the work of Gerard Hoffnung (see image at left) to your attention. Hoffnung was an artist and musician who began a series of concerts called the Hoffnung Music Festivals in England in the 1950s. These events were devoted to spoofs aimed at the world of classical music, and they were loved by musicians and audiences alike. The piece we just heard was the subject one of his parodies. Although for the sake of humor his efforts go far beyond what we will actually find in the real world of classical music, they still retain a modest amount of subtlety, so attention to musical detail is still required. Here it is, then --- just for fun!



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