Music is a Serious Business

Sometimes the term “classical music” elicits groans. Thoughts of long, boring concerts full of long, boring music tend to scare listeners away from the seemingly outdated instrumental medium. And then there’s the daunting (yet maybe stereotypical?) image of the concert hall: the formal orchestra and an auditorium full of the cultured and well-dressed who attend so they can listen to serious and emotionally moving music; and they do take the music seriously and leave feeling emotionally moved. It does sound a little intimidating. However, I think we should look at classical music through a different lens – that of humor.

I think classical music composers are hilarious. Here are some examples.

In 1791, Franz Joseph Haydn placed a sforzando (a note or chord with sudden emphasis) in the middle of the quiet opening of the second movement of his famed Symphony No. 94. Because audiences of the time weren’t expecting a sudden loud noise, there was humor in the surprise. (Rumor has it he placed the chord there in a competitive spirit. Read more here.) Have a listen:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote “A Musical Joke” in 1787, in which he intentionally broke all of the music composition rules of the time. The phrases are unbalanced, the orchestration is weak, and he throws in a little polytonality (the mixing of two or more keys, which was not developed as a composing technique until early in the 20th century). Mozart deliberately wrote wrong notes to create the illusion of discord. Because audiences expect nothing short of perfection from Mozart, this work seemed wrong at first – but the “musical joke” and the humor in this piece is the absurd wrongness.

One of my personal favorites is the Overture, op. 21 from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Felix Mendelssohn. (As a side note, Mendelssohn wrote this in 1826. He was only 17 years old at the time!) The Overture introduces the various characters and themes of the Shakespearean play, ranging from dancing fairies, a royal fanfare, and the horn calls of a hunting party. Seems pretty serious, right? It’s a beautiful piece of music, but the best part is that Mendelssohn carefully wrote in a surprise where the audience doesn’t expect humor. The only other thing I’m going to say is listen closely from 3:13 to 3:37; you might just hear a donkey “hee-haw.”

There are countless other examples of funny classical pieces. So the next time someone groans about stuffy composers and boring music, remember: music isn’t always as serious as it seems.

And just for fun, here’s a bonus piece called “Duetto buffo di due gatti” written in the 1800s as a compilation of works by Gioachino Rossini (read more here):

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