Humour and Classical Music
12. The Hoffnung Music Festivals
by David Barker

Gerard Hoffnung was truly a Renaissance Man: artist, cartoonist, raconteur, public broadcaster, musician and comedian, and it is his contributions in those last two fields that find him a place in this series.

Hoffnung was born in Berlin in 1925 to Jewish parents, who fled Germany in 1938, finally settling in England the following year. In post-war Britain, he became a regular contributor to a number of BBC radio programs, and the debating societies at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. To the wider comedy public, it is his Bricklayer’s Lament, given to the Oxford Union in 1958, for which he is best known (YouTube). Tragically he died of a brain haemorrhage in 1959, aged only 34. A full biography can be read on MWI’s Hoffnung site.

hoffnung music festivals

Hoffnung drew and published a large number of cartoons humorously depicting aspects of classical music, and he expressed the thought that it would be good to put some of these comic impressions he had drawn into reality. Thus was born the idea for what would become the Hoffnung Musical Festival (also the title of one of his books). Hoffnung’s circle of friends and acquaintances was such that a number of prominent British composers and performers, including Malcolm Arnold, Humphrey Searle, Franz Reizenstein, Donald Swann, and Dennis Brain, agreed to join the project. London County Council agreed to sponsor the event, to be held at the Royal Festival Hall, and when the three thousand tickets went on sale, they sold out within two hours, unprecedented in those days.

The concert was held on 13 November 1956, and fortunately was recorded by the Columbia Gramophone Company. Four items on the program were omitted from the LP release, and have never seen the light of day. It is not certain why the latter two in particular have not been released. They were:

  • Respighi’s Roman Festivals (Hoffnung insisted that one serious work should be included)
  • Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue, written in 1930
  • The Lift, a song by Donald Swann
  • an orchestral piece by Frank Butterworth

From the outset, the audience knew it wasn’t going to be an “ordinary” music festival (if they were in any doubt), when the manager of the Royal Festival Hall, TE Bean, announced that “owing to circumstances over which the LCC and the management of the Hall have no control, tonight’s program will be given exactly as advertised”. A drumroll then fooled the audience into standing for the National Anthem, when in fact it was a dazzling miniature fanfare by Francis Baines (no relation to fellow British composer William Baines).

The next work, Malcolm Arnold’s Grand, Grand Overture has been recorded a number of times and even made it to the Proms in 2009. It has significant musical quality, but its comedic ones need to be seen to be best appreciated: it is scored for three vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher and four rifles. At the Proms, David Attenborough and Stephen Hough were among the “soloists”, whereas back in 1956 at the RFH, the wives of Malcolm Arnold and conductor Norman Del Mar were among those playing the domestic appliances. Gerard Hoffnung’s wife Annetta was in charge of the huge bass drum (eight feet in diameter).

Audience members might have assumed that Dennis Brain playing Leopold Mozart’s Alphorn Concerto was one of the “serious” pieces for the evening, except the alphorn was replaced by a length of garden hose, which made a remarkably musical sound.

The major work on the program, at over eleven minutes, was Franz Reizenstein’s Concerto popolare featured actress Yvonne Arnaud (who began her performing career as a pianist) playing the Grieg Piano Concerto, but the wonderful joke is that the orchestra, under Norman Del Mar, are playing the Tchaikovsky concerto instead. Reizenstein weaves the two works together brilliantly, without making the mistake of having the soloist and orchestra play together (which would have been a mess). The orchestral music morphs into Rachmaninov, but Arnaud moves to Rhapsody in Blue. Beethoven and Addinsell are also roped in, and there is a quite brilliant musical metamorphosis when what appears to be the Grieg becomes Roll Out The Barrel (there is also an appearance of Pop Goes the Weasel). But the Grieg versus Tchaikovsky is the main event, and that is how the work closes, with unlikely instruments being brought in to play the melody line. The big finale has the orchestra and soloist fighting over the right to have the last “word”. My initial impression was that it may have gone on a little long, but repeated listens have made me realise how clever it is. It too has been performed at the Proms, in 2011 at a special Comedy concert.

Donald Swann, best known from his comedy song partnership with Michael Flanders, took the slow movement from Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, and added numerous extra surprises. Unfortunately for those of us not in the RFH on the night, the majority are visual, among them, the main surprise crescendo, which causes one of the organ pipes to fall over. We do hear the violins playing out of tune a couple of times, but there are a number of instances where the audience is roaring with laughter, but the listener is totally oblivious to what is happening.

The remaining three works on the program all use the joke of unexpected and incongruous instruments: a Chopin Mazurka arranged for tuba quartet, a setting by Humphrey Searle of some of Scott’s Lochinvar accompanied by “instruments” such as broken glass and air-raid sirens, together with some twelve-tone music and even some rock and roll, and finally, Gordon Jacob’s variations on the Scottish song Annie Laurie, scored for the outlandish ensemble of piccolo, heckelphone, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, serpent, contrabass serpent, harmonium, hurdy-gurdy and subcontrabass tuba. There is a photo of the ensemble on the excellent website dedicated to Gerard Hoffnung, run by his two children, showing that it would have been funny, had they not even played a note. That it is even listenable at all is testament to Jacob’s skill as composer.

My feeling is that the program could have been better organised, in that the strong pieces were all in the first half. Nevertheless, it was a such a great success that Hoffnung was repeatedly asked to organise another concert, and just over two years later at the same venue, The Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival was held on two successive nights.

Joseph Horovitz’s Metamorphosis on a Bed-time Theme cleverly paraphrases Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and others, imagining them writing for television advertisements. The Mozart segment promotes the Bourn Vita malted chocolate drink in a style straight out of The Marriage of Figaro.

In under two and a half minutes of Sugar Plum, Elizabeth Poston manages to condense Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies and the 1812 Overture, with four recorders doing battle against an assembly of percussion. I will leave you to imagine how poor Pyotr fares. Peter Racine Fricker’s Waltz for a Restricted Orchestra also employs strange instrumentation, this time for original “music”. However, instead of mismatched instruments, he has the strings play every way but the usual bowing, and the woodwinds use only their mouthpieces. It last less than two minutes, you will be pleased to hear.

I knew the name William McGonagall from The Goon Show and assumed that he was an invention of Spike Milligan. I have now learned that he was a real person, and considered by some to be “the world’s worst poet”. Perhaps that is why Mátyás Seiber chose his poem The Famous Tay Whale to set to music. The brass-heavy score (does a foghorn count as a member of the brass section I wonder) quotes from The Flying Dutchman and generally does its best to match the overblown text, declaimed by Dame Edith Evans. One of the less conventional “instruments” used was a coffee machine, which in the words of Gerard Hoffnung “imparts a strange, sweet sound of the sea and somehow always reminds me of coffee”.

There is a short piece titled Concerto for Conductor and Orchestra by Francis Chagrin, the humour of which is clearly apparent to the audience, but apart from the general high-spirited and oddball nature of the music, it is lost on the listener. One has to assume that there was a lot of physical comedy from the conductor, Hoffnung himself. It is undoubtedly a musical representation of the wonderful cartoons of various conductors that Hoffnung drew. I would have loved to have included several of these throughout this article, but they are of course covered by copyright. You can find them for yourself easily enough.

Punkt Contrapunkt (a composition by “Bruno Heinz JaJa”, Humphrey Searle in reality) is a comedy sketch satirising European modernist composers, in particular Bruno Maderna, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono. It is performed by Hoffnung and John Amis, employing very broad German accents, which probably would not pass the “political correctness test” these days. Some of the best lines include “Music paper is out of date, graph paper is essential now” and “the second bar of silence is in three-four time, giving the whole work a classy Viennese flavour”. After eight minutes of very funny “explanation”, the work is played and takes less than thirty seconds (mercifully).

Malcolm Arnold’s contribution to this concert was The United Nations, where a lovely string melody is interrupted by multiple brass bands, who enter the hall each playing a different national anthem. Eventually, harmony and peace is restored, and the work ends quietly. It is less comedy and more an idealistic hope for world peace, which as I write this, seems a very long way away.

Let’s Fake An Opera (also known as The Tales of Hoffnung, constructed by Franz Reizenstein and William Mann) is the major piece on the program, and the opera equivalent of the first concert’s Concerto Popolare. Across its twenty minutes, it manages to squeeze in just about all of grand opera. According to Ralph Moore, it quotes from thirty-three operas and one ballet either musically or in the libretto. It is exceptionally clever, managing to work all the musical quotes together without having the joins seem obvious or forced. The audience absolutely loved it – I can understand why – and the cast of singers treat it as though it was a proper opera. While only Owen Brannigan’s name was familiar to me, Wikipedia confirmed that the others, among them Edith Coates and Gloria Lane, did have significant careers.

This second concert (and I am assuming that the order on the CD is the order in which the pieces were performed) is better balanced in terms of programming than the first, with Let’s Fake An Opera being an excellent finale.

Gerard Hoffnung died the following year, and there was a Vintage Festival in 1960 to commemorate his life and works. It included some pieces from the two concerts and a couple of new items, but these have not found their way onto record, as far as I am aware. There was, however, demand for another full-scale public concert, though some of those involved in the organisation of the first two, according to William Mann who wrote the booklet notes for the CD, doubted that it would be a success without Hoffnung’s input. Nevertheless, Malcolm Arnold agreed to organise a concert, and it was held as before at the Royal Festival Hall, on November 28, 1961, with the title The Hoffnung Astronautical Music Festival. The evening’s entertainment began, as before with a fanfare by Francis Baines, this time called Festival Overture. The gentle “joke” contained within was the inclusion of a number of national anthems.

Malcolm Arnold’s compositional contribution was a supposed recently discovered fourth Leonora overture by Beethoven. Being Arnold, the work is a very fine piece of music; a Beethoven pastiche of course, but of the very highest quality, and substantial at almost ten minutes. There are occasional outbursts of laughing from the audience, not obviously related to the music, so presumably prompted by some physical humour from conductor or players.

Humphrey Searle’s fictitious modernist composer, Bruno Heinz Jaja, makes a return with a duet from “his opera”, The Barber of Darmstadt, which is a good joke in itself. The music is, of course, unlistenable, the words, sung in German, reprise the old joke “Who was that lady I saw you with last night? That was no lady, that was my wife” and so on.

I’ll admit to being a bit slow in taking quite some time in linking the title of Francis Chagrin’s Ballad of County Down to the “…” spoken in it. It was, of course, the Space Age, so it was entirely appropriate. Nevertheless, it remains a very curious piece, which didn’t raise too many laughs from the audience, and little response from this listener. There are bees buzzing around (accompanied by Flight of the Bumblebee), and then brief excerpts from Yankee Doodle Dandy (references to the main protagonists in the space race perhaps??), the overture from The Marriage of Figaro and the closing moments of Beethoven’s Ninth (no idea).

There is an excerpt from Belshazzar’s Feast conducted by Walton himself, the joke being that it is literally one note. This leads into the main work on the program, an oratorio mash-up by Joseph Horovitz, Horrortorio, which is both a pun on the genre and a hint as to the story. The four characters are Dracula, his daughter, the Dowager Countess Frankenstein and her son, along with Edgar Allen Poe as narrator. It is conspicuously less successful than its concerto and operatic equivalents in the first two concerts, in large part to the music being less immediately recognisable. There are quotes from Handel, Mendelssohn, Gilbert & Sullivan and Walton, and undoubtedly others I didn’t know.

The concert finishes with Mobile for Seven Orchestras by Lawrence Leonard (not a name I’m familiar with), which involves players moving around the stage, following their own conductor. Undoubtedly it was impressive and amusing when viewed, and the choral finish is definitely stirring.

This third concert was certainly the weakest of the three, bearing out the reservations of those who believed the input of Gerard Hoffnung was essential.

I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to listen to these famous concerts, but it has been quite difficult to write an article on them. I suspect the concerts, especially the two with Hoffnung’s direct involvement, are very much a case of “you had to be there” to get the full benefit.

Experiencing them as a listener does have considerable frustrations and difficulties. Firstly, and most importantly, there are numerous instances where the audience laughs at some visual joke, which the listener cannot share (sadly no film footage seems to exist, though the Hoffnung website suggests that the BBC televised the first half of the first concert). The Concerto for Conductor in the second concert is a prime example of this. Similarly, some audience responses drown out the next spoken or musical line. Nevertheless, it would be a much less rich experience if one listened to “perfect” studio performances.

Secondly, the pieces were never intended to be “great” music, and indeed some of it is borderline unlistenable. Scoring works for totally unsuitable combinations of instruments has comedic value in the absurd sounds, but does become tiring fairly quickly. It is an approach frequently used by Peter Schickele, whose creation – PDQ Bach – will be the subject of a future article.

There was a 1988 “revival” concert (available on Decca) which included some of the items from the original three, plus some new pieces. I haven’t listened to it, but the reviews I have read on Amazon suggest it is a nice reminder of the originals, but no more. It is titled “The Hoffnung Festival of Music”, whereas the originals are called “Hoffnung’s Music Festivals” and were released on EMI (review) and are now available on Warner Classics (download only) through Presto Music. So if you are interested in making a purchase, you need to be careful, otherwise you may not end up with what you wanted.

A full list of the contents (on record) of each festival can be found here.