Humour and Classical Music
1. Joseph Haydn
by David Barker


A few months ago I posted a survey of comedy overtures on MusicWeb, and in it mentioned that it had come about through researching the topic of humour and classical music for the purpose of writing an article. So many comedy overtures turned up that it spawned its own article. As I looked more at the topic in general, I realised that the diverse content (from Haydn to Bill Bailey) lent itself better to a series of short contributions, of which this is the first.

A note of caution first: the great majority of the performances and productions mentioned in these articles are available on YouTube, but their copyright status is unclear. Where I think that there is problem, I will include a link, but will err on the side of caution, and allow you to track down those where I haven’t. If there are instances where a provided link is to something in breach of copyright, we will of course remove it as soon as we are notified.

Humour is of course totally and utterly an individual thing, so the topics I intend to cover in these columns make me laugh, or at least smile. Undoubtedly there will be items which do not appeal to you at all, and others that I have omitted for the same reason.

1. Haydn

It would seem on the evidence of his music that Haydn had quite a sense of humour. The three of his compositions discussed here demonstrate quite a range in that humour as well.

The Surprise Symphony (No. 94, 1791) is probably the best known of his works in the “humour” genre, for basically one chord: the unexpected crescendo at the end of the pianissimo opening to the slow second movement. I have read in various places how this was supposed to wake the audience up, but given it comes only thirty seconds into the movement, and follows a sparkling Allegro, that doesn’t seem to ring true (especially as Haydn himself says that it wasn’t his intention). At its premiere in London, the audience was definitely still awake at the end of the first movement as cries of “Bravo” echoed around the hall. The second movement itself was met with shouts of “Encore”. Also written in various sources is that the crescendo only happens once. Certainly, there is only the one pp to ff moment, but there are two more instances where the full orchestra including timpani plays the same single chord loudly, but the preceding bars are not as quiet. Did Haydn intend this as a funny ha-ha joke or a novel orchestral idea? I suspect it is a little of both – Haydn said to his biographer that he “was interested in surprising the public with something new”. He certainly did that, and continues to do so.

The Surprise Symphony is one of Haydn’s most recorded symphonies, so I see no point in trying to pick out a particular one for you. There is a good performance on YouTube with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Mariss Jansons, which has been split into four separate videos, one per movement. I did find it a little disappointing that the musicians did not react with even the slightest of smiles at the key moment.

If the humorous intent, if that is what it is, in the Surprise Symphony is quite broad, even slapstick, it is much more subtle in the earlier Farewell Symphony (No. 45, 1772). Much of Haydn’s working life was in the service of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, and summers were spent at the Prince’s retreat in rural Hungary. The summer season of 1772 kept being extended, and the orchestra players became restive, as they had been away in the countryside for so long. They protested to Haydn, and asked him to intervene with the Prince. Instead of a direct request (which probably would have been turned down on the spot), Haydn wrote this work. The final movement is where the sly dig occurs. I see it as satire, gentle and subtle certainly, but with a definite intention to send the Prince a message. After a typically energetic opening to the movement, the mood shifts to one of tiredness. One by one, members of the orchestra snuffed out their candles and left the stage, until only Haydn and his concertmaster remained, playing muted violins. The prince got the idea – the court returned to Eisenstadt the next day.

Again, there are numerous fine audio recordings of this work, but the visual element of the finale would reward being able to watch a performance where the spirit of Haydn’s subtle dig at the Prince is honoured. There are plenty of performances of the symphony on YouTube, and in all cases that I checked, the players do leave the stage when their duty is completed. In most instances, however, the stage lighting remains unchanged, diluting the impact. In two instances, the conductor actually feigned surprise when the players started leaving, hamming it up for the audience and cameras. Let me name names because they are anything but little-known: Giovanni Antonini, a driving force in Alpha Classics’ ambitious Haydn 2032 project as well as a HIP adherent (YouTube), and Daniel Barenboim at a Vienna New Year’s Day concert (YouTube). Now there is no doubt Prince Nikolaus was a music lover, but he definitely didn’t conduct the orchestra – that was Haydn’s job. All the orchestra were in on the joke, only the Prince and his court didn’t know. So a conductor pretending surprise is going completely against Haydn’s intentions. Or am I being too precious? The closest I was able to find to a true re-creation of the original was conducted by Igor Gruppman, a Ukrainian violinist and conductor (YouTube). The orchestra is unnamed, and the technical quality of the video is not great, but they do switch off their music stand lights as they go, and Gruppman doesn’t react when the players begin leaving (as far as it can be discerned, given that the single camera is positioned at the back of the hall, so that conductor’s back faces us).

Haydn’s so-called “Joke” Quartet (op. 33/2, 1781) has the composer playing games with the audience. Like the Farewell Symphony, the joke appears in the final movement, and is a musical one, where the listener is kept guessing as to when the work has finished. After the main rondo theme is played, there follows a few chords which seem almost like they could be a gentle, if somewhat surprising, close. But no, after a pause, the main theme recurs, but is itself broken up by a couple of rests, then follows another even longer rest before the theme returns even more quietly, and again pauses in the middle. But this time, it is really the end. It is very gentle, intellectual humour. As with the symphonies, there are plenty of options for listening, but there is a good performance by the Harlem Quartet on YouTube, which plays the joke to the max, and catches the audience at the very end.