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Posts Tagged ‘Humor’

Haydn is perhaps most famous today for his sophisticated musical wit. Many young musicians encounter him for the first time in the context of his “Surprise” Symphony, with its explosive fortissimo just when you least expect it. (I recall playing this melody with my 6th grade band, and even to us modern kids, comedically conditioned as we were by TV jesters like Steve Urkel, it was a quite a hoot.)

Perhaps the most lengthy musical analysis yet to be found in the OHWM is RT’s 13-page discussion of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33 No.2, “The Joke” (pp.542-555). As he’s quick to admit, dissecting any act of humor is bound to quash the very quality it aims to explain. Nonetheless, since musical conventions have shifted considerably since Haydn’s time and some of his comedic gestures might not be immediately comprehended today, as they were likely to have been in the late 18th century, I found his thorough explanation quite helpful. Items that benefited from RT’s sure-footed analysis include Haydn’s clever motivic and harmonic manipulations in the first movement, and his parodies of “uncouth village musicians” in the second. The humor of these musical stratagems were, shockingly, actually enhanced through analysis.

But the big joke of the quartet, the witticism that gives the piece its title, comes at the very end. Haydn’s parting jest needs no explanation, no translation, even to listeners in 2010. He makes you think the piece is ending, only to give you more; then, when you think that more is coming, he ends the piece. The clip below demonstrates the comedic currency this gesture still carries for modern audiences (starting around 2:45). RT writes: “And so whenever this ending is performed, it takes the audience an extra second or so to recover its wits and realize that the piece is indeed over. The result is an inevitable giggle – the same giggle that overtakes a prestidigitator’s audience when it realizes that it had been ‘had.’ Haydn’s titular joke is thus not an ‘anecdote’ but a ‘practical joke,’ the product of misdirection.” (II, 553)

The humor in this closing passage comes in defying the listeners’ expectations by manipulating when we think the piece is going to end. It’s quite a sophisticated procedure, really, even though we get the joke without having to make a Schenkerian graph of it. A useful distinction when trying to analyze the anatomy of this joke can be gleaned from musical phenomenology (a great place to start here is Thomas Clifton’s classic 1983 book, Music as Heard). Clifton argues that there’s a profound difference between “ending” and “finishing” in a piece of music. All compositions, of course, end (though Satie’s Vexations comes close to defying this), but not all pieces finish. To end is simply to bring sound to a close, to run out of notes on the score, to put the baton down, and to go to the after-concert party to chat about the show over a brew. To finish, on the other hand, involves an important phenomenological component: does the piece feel like it’s over? Does it close its internal processes and provide some feeling of satisfactory conclusion? Looking at the distinction between ending and closing can be fascinating; Tchaikovsky, for instance, very often FINISHES. But Sibelius, on the other hand, is often quite illusive about the way he closes his symphonies; many of his works end instead of finish. There’s a world of irony and humor (and plenty other affects) bound up in this procedure, a fact that Haydn manipulated to get his audiences, and his musicians, giggling. And we’re still giggling today.

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Handel’s Games

In his Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6 no. 7 (1739) Handel’s second movement (at 1:06 in the example below) is the traditional fugal canzona with a twist. It’s joke-like subject (a systematic diminution of a single note) is so striking, lucid, and memorable that it allows him, as Taruskin points out, to play with the listener’s expectations. The entrances of the subject are irregular, creating a game of “hide-and-seek”—where will it pop up next?

The example is one of several Taruskin gives to indicate a shift in compositional technique and listener experience: instead of music evoking an emotion, the composition requires an intellectual consideration. It sets up a listener’s expectation, then fulfills or delays the expectation. In Taruskin’s estimation, this was “a virtual revolution in listening, in which the listener’s conscious mind was much more actively engaged than previously in these processes of forecast and delayed fulfillment, and in which the form may even be said to arise out of the play of these cognitive processes.” (II, 208)

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It’s all too easy to attribute modern comedic sensibilities to modern people only. But if the comedic impulse comes out of suffering, as Lenny Bruce claimed when asked why so many comics were Jewish (“All my humor is based on destruction and despair”), then the Middle Ages should be the Age of Hilarity. This is an insight Monty Python understood well. (“I’m not dead yet!”)

As our reading progresses, a prominent new stylistic feature is beginning to emerge – humor. Earlier repertories, while fascinating and beautiful, can hardly be called funny. But with the motet, we find examples of music that is – even to modern ears – quite clever and witty. This is somewhat surprising given the solemn treatises on the genre (remember dour Grocheio) and its status as an elite art. But just as frisky motet texts often belie the technical complexity and esotericism of the form, so too do the complex forms belie the essentially comedic and playful nature of some of these pieces. The more progress occurred in notational technology, moreover, the more composers were free to experiment with ever more elaborate (and hilarious) techniques.

Take the motet Musicalis Sciencia/Sciencie Laudabili. Its text is in Latin, not exactly the typical conduit for comedic expression in those days. (As opposed to today, when Latin comedians are all the rage. Think Carlos Mencia. *rimshot, cymbal*) In fact, the text is straightforward and dignified enough: the triplum takes the voice of an anthropomorphized Music: “The science of music sends greetings to her beloved disciples…” Music goes on to instruct the singers to respect the rules and “not to offend against rhetoric and grammar by dividing indivisible syllables.” The motetus text (remember, each voice has a different text in the double motet), conversely, is the voice of Rhetoric: “Rhetoric sends greetings to learned Music.” This voice warns against faults like rhythmic hockets. Simple enough, right?

The zinger comes when you notice that the music doesn’t in any way follow the advice of our friends Music and Rhetoric. In fact, the music is actively undermining the stentorian declamations of the poetry – indivisible syllables are divided, a strict violation of the rules; and what’s more, the voices engage in a complex series of hockets. I imagine two stern old teachers in a classroom telling a group of students not to use their cell phones while all the while the kids are texting furiously under their desks.

What we have here is an early case of irony in notated music. Perhaps if the composer of this motet was alive today he would frequent hipster bars and sport a mullet, gas station attendant jacket, and mustache.

All joking aside, this is pretty amazing. As Taruskin astutely points out, in order to poke fun at a style, one has to be fully conscious of the codes and forms that are typical of said style. Irony is essentially a self-aware form of humor, and the recognition of the fundamental constructed-ness of musical practices represents, I think, a small breakthrough in the Western notated tradition.

I’ll close with Taruskin: “Every one of the ‘faults’ for which singers are berated by Music and by Rhetoric are flagrantly committed by the composer. The piece is a kind of satire. But such satire requires an attitude of ironic detachment, a consciousness of art as artifice, and a wish to make that artifice the principal focus of attention. These are traits we normally (and perhaps self-importantly) ascribe to the ‘modern’ temperament, not the ‘medieval’ one. Only we (we tent to think), with our modern notions of psychology and our modern sense of ‘self,’ are capable of self-reflection. Only we, in short, can be ‘artists’ as opposed to ‘craftsmen.’ Not so.” (I, 270)

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