Humour and Classical Music
6. Dudley Moore
by David Barker

Dudley Moore (1935-2002) was one of the greats of British comedy, but also a very fine pianist – his main interest being jazz – and composer, primarily of film scores. He also made a successful career in acting, mainly in comedic roles, and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in the 1981 film, Arthur. He was one of a sequence of very gifted musicians who were equally gifted comedians, beginning with Victor Borge, and continuing to this day with Bill Bailey (each will be the subject of an article in this series at some point).

In the early 1990s, he presented the TV series Orchestra! and Concerto! introducing classical music to the general public, working with Sir Georg Solti and Michael Tilson Thomas, respectively. While there were some gently humorous moments in these series – I suspect Moore would have found it nearly impossible to be entirely serious for too long – they are not why I have included him in this series of articles.

Moore first came to public attention as part of a comedy revue group Beyond The Fringe, which was put together by the director of the Edinburgh Festival, Robert Ponsonby, who wanted the best comedy talent the Oxford and Cambridge revues could offer. Moore became involved when he and Jonathan Miller were recommended to Ponsonby by a member of Moore’s jazz group. Moore suggested his Oxford revue friend Alan Bennett, and Miller recommended Peter Cook, who was the undisputed star of the Cambridge Footlights.

The show’s run at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival was a storming success. It moved to London’s West End at the Fortune Theatre in 1961, and was an even greater sensation. The following year, it opened on Broadway, including John F Kennedy among its audiences. It ran in New York until 1964, when Jonathan Miller left, and in London (with a different cast entirely) until 1966.

Dudley Moore provided the music for the show, including five performances at the piano. Three are parodies of songs, by Fauré, Schubert and Britten, with Moore singing and playing. The Fauré seems to be almost straight, but the Schubert is wonderfully exaggerated and arch, while the Britten has Moore in his “best” Peter Pears voice. In the fourth piece, Moore is Dame Myra Hess, complete with stern wig (see right), playing for a wartime audience at the National Gallery. It is essentially the backdrop for a satire on World War II, introduced by Alan Bennett with the words “The music you are listening to, Timothy, is German music, and we’re fighting the Germans. That’s something you are going to have to work out later on.”

But it is the third piece, a parody of Beethoven, that is the standout, both musically and comedically, to the point where it now has a life of its own as a concert encore. He takes the theme from Colonel Bogey’s March, and subjects it to the most brilliant sequence of treatments, as though it was a Beethoven sonata. That would be amusing enough, and there are plenty of similar works from “serious” composers. One that comes to mind is Busoni’s Sonatina No. 6 “Fantasie über Carmen”. However, it is Moore’s physical humour that lifts it to another level. The first three minutes are played fairly straight, though certainly he mimics some of the more exaggerated movements of some pianists. As the end seems to approach, he becomes more agitated, casting increasingly anxious looks at the audience, as the codas seem to have no end. Eventually, he grabs the opportunity to end and leaps to his feet. It is truly marvellous. A film of the entire show (from the West End) is available on YouTube, and given that it is has been on there for more than a decade without being taken down, I feel fairly safe in providing you with the link. The uploader has been kind enough to provide links to the individual sketches, but if you wanted to just see the Beethoven, it has been extracted (YouTube).

The work evolved over time, and became a “party piece” for Moore long after the Fringe members went their separate ways. On that subject, I think it is fair to say that few, if any, performing groups have had all their members enjoy so much success in solo careers: Moore into Hollywood with an Oscar nomination, Cook remaining in England as a comedy icon, Miller as an acclaimed stage and opera director and Bennett, the only one of the four still alive, playwright, writer and national treasure. Not even The Beatles or Monty Python could claim this; certainly Lennon and McCartney had decent success in the 1970s, and Palin and Cleese went on to even bigger careers post-Python, but for the others, it is within the groups for which they will be remembered.

There are two other performances of the Beethoven parody by Dudley Moore from later years. One seems to be a Christmas show (from the late 70s perhaps, YouTube), the other from the 1990s British variety program, Noel’s House Party, hosted by Noel Edmonds (YouTube). The latter is remarkable, not for the performance in absolute terms as he is clearly not quite as fast in the octave runs, but that it was possible at all. The degenerative brain disorder, progressive supranuclear palsy, that would kill him within a decade had already begun to affect his life, especially his muscular movements.

After his death, the German comedian/musician Rainer Hersch (also likely to appear in a future article) transcribed the work from the filmed performances, and in 2008, asked Australian-British pianist Piers Lane to perform the work at a charity concert. Lane was initially reluctant because the “antics that took me way out of my comfort zone” (taken from Lane’s booklet notes for his recording Piers Lane Goes To Town, which includes the work; Hyperion CDA67967 review). It has since become one of his most anticipated encore pieces; I have heard him play it live myself. There is also a live performance available on YouTube of the Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, known for his ability to make the most extraordinarily difficult pieces seem simple, but I was disappointed that he played it completely straight, with no looks at the audience, and indeed, barely a hint of a smile.

I can’t leave a commentary on Dudley Moore and classical music without mentioning the great “Pete and Dud” era sketch, “The Music Teacher”. Moore plays a harried and poor Welsh music teacher, Cook an urbane businessman whose wife’s birthday is a couple of weeks away. Cook has no musical knowledge at all, unless you count him thinking that the black notes play louder than the white. He wants to learn a piece to surprise his wife on her birthday. Cook’s idea that she should hear the “music wafting up the stairs” brought to mind Wagner writing the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima’s birthday – I wonder if that was an input from Moore. What piece does he want to learn in less than two weeks? None other than “Beethoven’s Fifth … thing”. When Moore points out the difficulty given that it is an orchestral piece, Cook’s reply is that he has an orchestra: “he bought one last Wednesday”. Nor does the fact that there is no piano part deter him. I won’t take my description any further as I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t heard it, or like me, it is so long ago that you don’t remember it that well. It is one of the great comedy sketches, up there with the Two Ronnies Fork Handles and Python’s Dead Parrot. It is available in numerous places on the web, including YouTube, but also on Spotify, where presumably someone connected to the two men gets some pitiful amount of royalty if you listen there (and it is in better quality sound).