Playing for laughs: How comedians use classical music
When music takes itself too seriously, there’s a comedian waiting in the wings to bring it back down to earth. One such exponent, Rainer Hersch, looks back at how his predecessors have raised their laughs by sending-up classical music
What is it about musical comedy that makes it so special? Like spoken language, music too has grammar and syntax. Its rhythms can be manipulated, the expectations it creates dashed, there are famous quotations to be perverted and much more besides. In short, among the many other emotions music can evoke, it can also generate laughter. Combine that with some kind of verbal commentary and you are communicating with the audience on two levels – a wonderful double act.
Let’s start with a man who could be described as the Diaghilev of musical comedy, Gerard Hoffnung. You might be reading this thinking: ‘Hoffnung, yes I know his work’, but the truth is, these days the average punter hasn’t heard of him. There are two reasons for this: one is he died over half a century ago, and the other is that he had the bad grace to die young at the age of 34. This comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with his voice because he sounds like a very old man. At the time of his passing, it was said by one or two friends that he had impersonated an old man so well that Death had mistaken him.
Hoffnung was a man of many talents, but he was mainly a cartoonist – his theme invariably music. In the mid 1950s he had the idea to transpose the funny goings-on of his drawings onto the concert platform. He brought together leading composers and performers for two concerts at the Festival Hall (there was a third after his death) for the Hoffnung Music Festivals.
Arrangements, parodies and new compositions for full orchestra were mingled with comic introductions and sketches. A favourite of mine is the analysis of the mock Punkt Contrapunkt by the German, equally mock, serialist Bruno Heinz Jaja: ‘Then comes the Höhepunkt – three bars of silence. The first is in 7/8, the third also is in 7/8 but the second bar of silence is in 3/4… and this gives the whole work a quasi Viennese flavour…’
Among the music, Franz Reizenstein’s Concerto Popolare is also a must – a piece in which the piano soloist sticks to a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto while the orchestra accompanies with the Tchaikovsky B flat minor, among others.
Peter Schickele was a composer, humorist and perpetrator of the greatest spoof in musical comedy: PDQ Bach. Schickele originally assumed this identity in order to provide a name responsible for the composition of the Sanka Cantata, a decaff variant of JS Bach’s Coffee Cantata, written by him for friends as a teenager (Sanka is a brand of decaffeinated coffee in North America).
Later, while studying composition at the Juilliard School of Music, annual concerts of ‘recently discovered’ masterworks were attributed to the same name and the cult of ‘the last and by far the least of the sons of Johann Sebastian’ was born. PDQ has now spawned a book, two DVDs (one of a full-length opera) and 17 CDs, four of which have won Grammies. These range from recitals of The Short-Tempered Clavier to Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion, though the most successful are those recorded in front of a live audience where there is an imperative to go for laughs rather than musical chuckles.
Anna Russell, who died in 2006 at the age of 94, was born a Brit but spent much of her life in North America. In 1997, she was living in a retirement complex she had somehow helped raise money to construct. In gratitude, they had named one of the avenues after her, which she then lived on, leading to some funny misunderstandings whenever she was asked to give her details: ‘Name please?’ ‘Anna Russell.’ ‘Address?’ ‘Anna Russell.’
Russell trained as a singer at the Royal College of Music and earned pocket money accompanying other singers on the piano. Thus plodding her way repeatedly through the operatic repertoire was the foundation for her most famous creation The Ring of the Nibelungs (An Analysis) – a 22-minute routine summarising the great cycle ‘as if from one, ordinary everyday opera goer to another’.
Starting with: ‘the scene opens in the River Rhine… IN IT!’, she sang and played her way through the adventures of the three Rhine Maidens ‘a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters’, Wotan ‘a crashing bore’ and Siegfried ‘…very strong, very brave and very stupid’ who falls in love with Brünnhilde despite the fact that ‘she’s his aunt’.
The Russell treatment was similarly meted out to Gilbert and Sullivan, English folksongs and the bagpipes (delivered under the title ‘wind instruments I have known’). Despite her many years away from Blighty, she also maintained a wonderfully fruity British accent that heightened the effect of her delivery.
In the 1960s, Victor Borge ranked as the highest paid entertainer in the world. Born Børge Rosenbaum in Copenhagen in 1909, he studied piano with Egon Petri among others before making a half-hearted stab at a concert career: ‘I am going to play… Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto. Number two that is. By Rachmaninov of course. Who also wrote the music for this concerto…[it] was written in four flats because Rachmaninov had to move four times while he wrote it.’
In reality, Borge had migrated from Rachmaninov and Chopin to revue and cabaret – sometimes with, sometimes without the piano. This training set him apart, helping him from the beginning when he worked in the competitive world of professional variety, honing his skills as a stand-up comedian. Although his later stage persona was of a concert pianist gone AWOL, what drew the audience in was his skills as a comic raconteur – the piano playing, when he got round to it, came a distant second.
‘I have often been asked to play a number all the way through and I am delighted to announce tonight that… I am positively not going to do it. For two reasons. One is that I don’t know a piece all the way through… and that happens to be the second reason also.’
This is a shorter version of an article that first appeared in the July 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine