Humour and Classical Music
14. The Simpsons
by David Barker
When I began this series of articles, I knew I would write about Fantasia and the Bugs Bunny cartoons, but I hadn’t expected that The Simpsons would appear. Aficionados of the series will have already known that there have been several episodes across the thirty-five series involving some aspect of classical music.
The connection begins in the second episode “Bart The Genius”, where the family goes to the opera to see a performance of Carmen. Needless to say, Bart, the son, and Homer, the father, are less than enthused to the embarrassment of mother Marge. Bart sings “Toreador, don’t spit on the floor; Use a cuspidor, that’s what it’s for” and the evening goes downhill from there.
In Season 2, “Marge vs. Itchy and Scratchy” is about Marge’s campaign to fight violence in cartoons. It features a scene of an idealised Springfield, with children playing traditional games and activities, such as skipping rope, marbles, swings, treehouses, baseball and kite flying. It is set to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, an obvious reference to Fantasia. There is also a reference to the scene from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Tom is whitewashing a fence.
More than a decade later is perhaps the most ambitious classical music-related episode: Season 15’s “Margical History Tour”. More than seven minutes of the episode is dedicated to a “retelling” of Amadeus (the play/movie). Bart is Mozart and sister Lisa is Salieri who sets out to ruin the first performance of Bart’s opera, The Musical Fruit. As Marge explains to Lisa, she might practise harder but it is Mozart who “keeps the family in lead-based face powder”. Homer, as Leopold, tells her to go play with “the three other untalented members of the family, Tito, Randy and Jermaine” who are clearly members of the Jackson Five. At the opera’s opening night, which uses music from Eine kleine Nachtmusik for a song about farting (I had thought this might be the first time that word has been used on this site, but my colleague Ralph Moore dispelled that notion), Lisa drugs the Emperor’s wine so that he falls asleep. The audience follows his lead, and the opera is a failure, leading to Mozart’s decline. After his death, Salieri takes Mozart’s requiem, now under her name, to the Emperor, believing that she is now the greatest composer in Vienna. She is told that the Emperor is busy with another composer, and we see school bully Nelson Muntz as Beethoven being acclaimed as a genius, and that “all other music is obsolete”. Beethoven turns to Salieri, laughing to the opening of the Fifth Symphony. Salieri takes herself off to the asylum. It is an extraordinarily clever seven minutes.
Season 16’s “The Seven-Beer Snitch” is a brilliant skewering of the superficiality of modern life. A Frank Gehry-designed concert hall is built in Springfield, and the opening concert begins with Beethoven’s Fifth, conducted by Karajan (I think). After the first two bars, the audience leaves, because “we already heard the dum-dum-dum-DUM, the rest is just filler” and “it sounds much better on my phone’s ringtone”. Marge tries to convince the audience to stay, saying that “the next piece is an atonal medley by Philip Glass”. A stampede, including the orchestra, results. The concert hall closes, becomes a X-rated movie theatre briefly and ends up as a gaol.
The final major involvement of classical music is in Season 19’s “The Homer of Seville”, where an accident gives Homer the ability to sing operatically, but only when lying on his back. He is hired to sing the role of Rodolfo in a production of La bohème, and in Mimi’s death scene, he pushes her off the bed, so that he can lie down and sing his great aria. He even gets the chance to offer singing advice to Plácido Domingo.
Elsewhere, there are a few brief excerpts that form part of the soundtrack – Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Season 18‘s “Marge Gamer”) and O fortuna from Orff’s Carmina Burana (Season 20’s “Gone Maggie Gone”) are two I am aware of – but they aren’t essential to the storylines.
There are plenty of Simpsons excerpts on YouTube, but I am unsure about their copyright status, so I will leave you to track down these episodes, should you so wish.