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HUMOR IN MUSIC by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen HISTORY OF HUMOR IN MUSIC In the 1600s, the Italians developed their “Opera Buffa,” leading the way to comic opera, which in France became the “Comedie Fran çaise” and in Germany the “Komische Oper.”

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HUMOR IN MUSIC


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humor in music

HUMOR IN MUSIC

by Don L. F. Nilsen

and Alleen Pace Nilsen

26

history of humor in music
HISTORY OF HUMOR IN MUSIC
  • In the 1600s, the Italians developed their “Opera Buffa,” leading the way to comic opera, which in France became the “Comedie Française” and in Germany the “Komische Oper.”
  • Karl Haas says that in England it led to John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” (1728), and in the 1850s and 1860s to Offenbach’s satirical masterpieces.

26

slide3
In the 1870s through the 1890s this led to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas which include:
  • “The Gondoliers,”
  • “H.M.S. Pinafore,”
  • “Iolanthe,”
  • “The Mikado,”
  • “Patience,”
  • “The Pirates of Penzance,”
  • “Prince Ida,”
  • “Ruddigore,”
  • “The Sorcerer,”
  • “Trial by Jury,”
  • and “The Yeoman of the Guard.”
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 213)

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a musical cigarette holder
A MUSICAL CIGARETTE HOLDER
  • Phyllis Diller chose her signature prop of a cigarette in a long holder to portray a certain type of woman.
  • But she soon found that she felt comfortable using it in much the same way that a conductor uses a baton: She could signal for attention, puncte the end of a joke, point at someone, express hostility, and control the audience in general.
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 215)

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shooting the keys
SHOOTING THE KEYS
  • When Chico Marx played an arpeggio on the piano, he would play all of the notes but one, and then would point to that key with his index finger and using his thumb as a “trigger” he would “shoot the key.”
  • Harpo Marx would also “shoot the keys,” but he was famous for playing glissandos (sliding music), and for getting his finger stuck between the keys.
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 215)

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getting lost in the music
GETTING LOST IN THE MUSIC
  • In the middle of one of Victor Borge’s piano concertos, the conductor lost his place in the musical score.
  • Borge stood up from his piano bench, walked over to the conductor’s stand, pointed to the right place in the score, and then returned to his piano bench to finish the concerto.

26

slide7
One of Borge’s musical gags was to look befuddled as he examined a musical score and tried to play it. After some false starts and pondering, he realized that it is upside down, so he turned it over and played it masterfully.
  • Another musical trick of Borge was to shift slyly from a piece of classical into a piece of popular music.

26

slide8
Borge also liked to play pop culture music pieces like “Happy Birthday to You” as it would have been composed by Bach or Brahms.
  • He also engaged in much wordplay. For example, he said that a particular piece he was playing by Rachmaninoff was written in four flats.
  • This was because the composer kept moving while he was working on it.
  • Another piece was written by Bach, but he couldn’t remember whether it was Johann Sebastian, or Jacques Offen.
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 216-217)

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musical parodies satires
MUSICAL PARODIES & SATIRES
  • Tom Lehrer is a Harvard Professor who has written more than forty musical parodies and satires. He has written songs about poisoning pigeons in the park, hometown perverts, and charred bodies in a nuclear holocaust.
  • But his most controversial piece is “The Vatican Rag” with its “bow your head with great respect and—genuflect! genuflect! genuflect!”
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 217)

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slide10
Mark Russell also writes musical parodies and satires. During Reagan’s presidency, he took the tune of “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” and changed it to:
  • “My ship of state’s practically grounded
  • for want of a policy plan.
  • I deny all the charges—unfounded—
  • since the state of my ship hit the fan.
  • Bring back. Bring back. Oh bring back my Teflon to me, to me….”
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 217)

26

slide11
P. D. Q. Bach is another composer who writes musical parodies and satires.
  • He is purported to be the last of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 20-odd children.
  • He was “discovered” by Peter Schickele, the first person to occupy the “General Electric Chair” at the University of Southern North Dakota at Huppel.

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slide12
Peter Schickele keeps unearthing various P.D.Q. Bach “schleptetas” and “pervertimentos.”
  • When people hear the music of Mozart or Beethoven they get an inferiority complex, so Schickele reasons that P.D.Q. Bach has a wider appeal than these other classical musicians because they feel they are capable of writing something just as good.
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 217)

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slide13
Spike Jones and his City Slickers also did musical parodies.

For example he did a parody with Humer and Jethro called “PAL-YAT-CHEE.”

http://www.themadmusicarchive.com/song_details.aspx?SongID=8092

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iconicity in music
ICONICITY IN MUSIC
  • Examples of composers making their music match the plot are the popping staccatos of Mozart’s “Popagano-Popagana” duet in “The Magic Flute,” the flourishes and strikes in Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” the “bump de bump de bump de dadada” of Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” and the expressively cross-sensory sounds of “The Painted Desert” in Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”
  • Ogden Nash added words to Saint Saens’s iconic “Carnival of the Animals.”

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irony in music
IRONY IN MUSIC
  • In Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” and Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” dramatic irony comes into play as characters become victims of Tricksters and suffer from misidentifications and misunderstood events.
  • An extra irony in relation to Offenbach’s “Orpheus” is that one of its musical sequences was so lively that it became famous throughout Paris and the world as “The Can Can.”
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 212)

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humor in classical music
HUMOR IN CLASSICAL MUSIC
  • Humor in classical music has a long tradition as shown by such playful vocabulary items as the French “gavotte,” which like the Irish and English “gigue” or “jig” is music for a fast-moving dance.

26

slide17
A “scherzo” is a musical joke.
  • A “cappricio” is a composition that is irregular in form and usually lively and whimsical.
  • A “divertimento” is a light and entertaining instrumental composition.
  • And a “rondo” is a composition whose principal theme is repeated three or more times in the same key, interspersed with subordinate themes.
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 211)

26

johann sebastian bach
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
  • In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter compares artist M. C. Escher’s fascination with visual loops in which a waterfall, for example appears to become its own source to Johann Sebastian Bach’s fascination with acoustic loops.

26

slide20
In his “Endlessly Rising Canon,” Bach seems to be drawing to a conclusion but instead slips out of the key of C-minor and into D-minor. This false “ending” ties smoothly into a new beginning where Bach repeats the process and returns in the key of E, only to start over again.
  • Hofstadter says that “these successive modulations lead the ear to increasingly remote provinces on tonality, so that after several of them, one would expect to be hopelessly far away from the starting key.
  • And yet, magically, after exactly six such modulations, the original key of C-minor has been restored?”
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 211-212)

26

ludwig van beethoven
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Beethoven satirized local musicians in his “Pastoral Symphony” where he portrayed a sleepy village in which the musicians doze off, wake up, play a few notes, and then doze off again.

BEETHOVEN’S PASTORAL SYMPHONY:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EM8RlCZP0KQ

(Nilsen & Nilsen 211)

26

franz joseph haydn
FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN

Franz Joseph Haydn was distressed by the number of people who fell asleep while listening to his chamber pieces.

So he wrote “Symphony Number 94” (The Surprise Symphony) in the key of C using a slow tempo and soft and repetitive sequences.

26

slide23
At the end of each stanza, he modulated the music to the key of G and ended with a resounding fortissimo chord guaranteed to wake up anyone who might be dozing.

HAYDN’S SURPRISE SYMPHONY:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJDWh9F3Vig

26

slide24
Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony” is another example of Haydn’s humor.

Haydn wanted to tell the audience that musicians were lonely for their wives and wanted to go home for the summer.

As the symphony draws to its end, various musicians put out the lights on their music stands and depart from the stage.

Haydn’s audiences were amused at the gradual diminishing of the performing force, but they also got his other message.

This same technique of a diminishing number of performers was later used in “The Sound of Music” as the von Trapps left the stage and were smuggled out of the theater past the Nazi guards.

HAYDN FAREWELL SYMPHONY:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXY4DaF9d9Y&feature=related

(Nilsen & Nilsen 211)

26

joseph haydn s musical joke
JOSEPH HAYDN’S MUSICAL JOKE:

Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet Opus 33, Number 2 is called “The Joke.”

This is because it has so many false endings:

PRESTO MOVEMENT FROM JOSEPH HAYDN’S “THE JOKE”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDkWBzH6dkE

26

wolfgang amadeus mozart
!WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
  • Mozart was a contemporary of Haydn, and his “The Village Musicians,” also known as “A Musical Joke,” burlesqued the nonprofessional playing that was done by amateur community bands of his day.
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 211)

26

camille saint sa ns
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS:

In his “Carnival of the Animals,” Saint-Saëns parodies the “can can” melody from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

The can-can is normally performed at breakneck tempo, but in the “Tortoises” parody it is played painfully slowly by low-register strings.

TORTOISES:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHvqaRaDzQE

26

richard wagner
!!RICHARD WAGNER
  • Even in the most serious operas, composers include light moments for comic relief. For example in his “Ring Cycle,” Richard Wagner has the young Siegfried turn the brown bear loose on Mime so that he and the audience can relish in the dwarf’s fright.
  • And one of the funniest lines in all of opera is the dramatic irony when Siegfried slices open Brunnhilde’s breastplate with his armor-piercing sword, and exclaims, “Das ist kein Mann!” (“This is not a man?”).
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 211)

26

humor in classical music29
!!!HUMOR IN CLASSICAL MUSIC

DOMINICK ARGENTO: “MISS MANNERS ON MUSIC:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OThlAi9ovk

BACH’S ENDLESSLY RISING CANON:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsgdZFIdmeo

BALLET TROCADERO:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIQyZo1PeFA

BOB AND RAY & PETER SCHICKELE: CLASSICAL MUSIC AS COMPETITION:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0vHpeUO5mw

VICTOR BORGE:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcV19rylSZc

CLAUDE FRANK “HAPPY BIRTHDAY MEDLEY”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RD8COH-7Bug

26

slide30
IGOODESMAN AND JOO:

http://cartoonando.blogspot.com/2008/04/1000-posts.html

SILENT MONKS SINGING “HALLELULIA”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCFCeJTEzNU&feature=related

SPIKE JONES & HIS CITY SLICKERS:

http://www.ilike.com/artist/Spike+Jones+%26+His+City+Slickers?src=onebox

PACHELBEL RANT:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM

26

slide31
PIANO JUGGLER # 1:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07brW206D84

PIANO JUGGLER # 2:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fwgjw68TZWg

ERIK SATIE: “AIR DU RAT” & “AIR DU POÉTE”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fil1SngtOY

Silent Monks Singing Halleluia:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCFCeJTEzNU&feature=related

PETER SCHICKELE (PDQ BACH):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mY0CFaracVE

AARON WILBURN (If My Nose Was Running Money”):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egCeIwjIuZM

WONDERFUL WORLD (SACHMO ARMSTRONG):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WlbQPmXg08

26

slide32
References:

Ellis, Iain. “Resistance and Relief: Thew Wit and Woes of Early Twentieth Century Folk and Country Music.” HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research 23.2 (2010): 161-178.

Haas, Karl. Inside Music. New York, NY: Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, 1984.

Horowitz, Susan. Queens of Comedy: Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, and the New Generation of Funny Women. New York, NY: Gordon and Breach, 1997.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York, NY: Knopf, 1988.

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