There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Mozart once heard an especially poor violinist playing in the street, and insisted that he keep performing. He found the bad playing a point of great amusement. It gives rise to an interesting facet of most music – its relative lack of humour.
Mozart was, of course, not in that list. There is great humour in his music, especially in the operas. It is a facet of his panorama of dramatic effects. Of all the great classical composers he was the most like a playwright, with a wide array of character types. It is not entirely erroneous to see parallels in Mozart’s sublime aesthetic and Shakespeare’s.
There was a downside, at least for those near him. Mozart was inordinately fond of scatological humour and his laugh, according to contemporaries, resembled “grating a cobblestone down a piano’s string”. But humour is a distinctive feature of his compositions.
By contrast, there is little or no sign of it in Bach or Beethoven, and even less in the works of the 19th-century Romantics. One can imagine that Wagner, for instance, would have met any levity with pained, stony silence. When one is being Germanic and transcendent, one does not tolerate such things.
Satie wrote some very amusing musical directions on his scores, but there is no great evidence of humour in his compositions, although their oddness of structure and eccentric conception does lend them a comic element. And he did like to mock the pretentiousness of his contemporaries with pieces entitled True Flabby Preludes, Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear and Desiccated Embryos.
Where else is there humour in music? There are not too many obvious candidates. Being able to execute musical humour well requires being playful, which in turn necessitates both a high level of control and then the self-awareness to be able to laugh.
Two jazz musicians who have a strong element of humour are pianist Thelonious Monk and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Monk’s lurching phrases at times makes this writer laugh out loud. At times, they are reminiscent of a drunk trying to put his key into his front door lock – without much success. At other times they sound like that same drunk having great difficulty negotiating a sidewalk, yet always magically managing to stay off the road. It is all part of the deep oddness that is Monk. But what is not as obvious is that it requires a unique type of mastery. It is unrepeatable.
Rollins also has an element in his playing that sounds a little like someone complaining and gossiping about the next-door neighbours, or perhaps a trainee rodeo contestant who is trying to walk again after a particularly rough session that has bruised his backside. They are only elements of his multi-faceted technique, but they lend his playing great breadth.
There is no humour in Miles Davis. There are some vaudeville hints in Louis Armstrong, but they are just stylised elements, not anything genuinely comic. And one can imagine that John Coltrane would have been about as humourless as Wagner. More of that earnest, magnificent transcendence stuff, I suppose.
Why is effective humour so rare? After all, musicians often make good comics and many famous comedians started out as musicians. Indeed, musicians very often have a good ear for the sounds and rhythm of jokes and comic timing. The answer is not obvious.
There is certainly a market for humour. That was proven by the popularity of musical comedian Victor Borge, who produced memorable pastiches of classical music. We have the glorious Portsmouth Sinfonia, who were uniquely awful. On hearing themselves back they realised that they could reduce most people to paroxysms of laughter. And they did, even going on to do concerts at the Albert Hall.
My personal favourite is their version of the William Tell Overture, which gloriously combines tunelessness with an ever-accelerating tempo as they desperately try to put themselves out of their own misery. Their version of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King is marvellously hideous, and the rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture would have a sane person suspecting that Napoleon must have beaten the Russians after all.
Finally, we have the wonderful performances of singer Florence Foster Jenkins, whose command of operatic technique can only be described as enthusiastically tenuous. Yet, as the film that has her name points out, her performance at Carnegie Hall is one of the top five most requested performances in the archive, along with The Beatles, Judy Garland and Benny Goodman. It seems that audiences, like Mozart, love to laugh.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.