A Laugh a Minuet: Humor in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

October 1, 1979

Give a musician even half a musical witticism and he'll laugh—often sorrowfully, much to the bemusement of the audience around him. Bring up the subject of funny music and he'll produce an arm's length list of examples of comic sounds. Yet to make a musical compendium of the best of buffoonery, one must embark on an impossible and endless, though happily engaging task. Indeed, to attempt such a list only invites sinning by omission. Thus it seems far more discreet to restrict the risible realm, in the case of this essay, to Classical caprice wherein tasteful selectivity has to rule, unless that is not possible so that reasonable selectivity will have to suffice. Hence the subject and title of this paper.1 Lest the full-witted reader believe the topic should be abandoned as a lost cause, or as an old chestnut more cracked than wizened, that sober scholar should note that

. . . papers of entertainment are necessary to increase the number of readers, especially among those of different notions and principles; who by this means may be betrayed to give you a fair hearing, and to know what you have to say for yourself.2

The musical merriment of this paper will be limited further to sample only jocularities in the instrumental music of the late eighteenth century. Alas, by leaving out the vocal genres one loses such examples as Haydn's canonic setting of the seventh of the Ten Commandments in which, ironically, he allegedly used a melody from another composer for his own purpose in presenting the text, "Thou shalt not steal."3 And of course one omits the Pandora's box of opera. Thus the task is simplified and what follows is a discussion of humor based on purely musical conditions and connotations, not on verbal communication. For this sort of humor to succeed the assumption must be that the musical language used is understood by both composer and audience. Sometimes humorous points may be enhanced through the interpretation given by the performer in whom we hope to find tasteful and reasonable loyalty to the composer's intent. For example, readings of Haydn's ever-popular Andante from his Symphony No. 94 in G can vary in their fulfillment of Haydn's purpose for the movement which, incidentally, was not to awaken a sleepy English audience. Haydn himself denied that story and stated, "I was interested in surprising the public with something new."4 As an illustration of this point, one must judge for oneself whether or not Haydn's interests are respected in such performances as the (in)famous and memorable one by the distinguished impresario Gerard Hoffnung and his equally distinguished Symphony Orchestra.

Before turning to other examples it might be wise to consider humor in music with a modicum of sobriety. Non-vocal and non-verbal musical humor exists on at least two levels: (1) that contained within the musical language itself and (2) that which is humorous because of our non-musical associations with the sounds we hear. Already implied is the premise that to have a purely musical humor removed from extra-musical devices we must have a fully developed and predictable musical language, a system which is flexible yet complete in itself, a system which an audience can understand. A composer who is able to write humorously must be as skilled as a clown on ice skates, effortlessly capable of the most extraordinary feats, inept in appearance only, and as successful as a cat in falling from a table instinctively landing right-side up when gravity is satisfied (since humor, we are told, "is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor").5 The language of late eighteenth-century music is both clearly articulated and essentially comprehensible in its organization of sound and rhythm, and fulfills the necessary linguistic requirements just described. In the words of Charles Rosen, it is the "first style in music history where the organization is completely audible and where the form is never externally imposed."6 We must add the corollary that this system is also strong enough to remain intact, unweakened and unbroken, when a humorous passage or moment deliberately violates it.

Illustrations of our assumption of the predictability of this language are easily found. We are accustomed to hear a set of harmonies which we assume will progress to an expected goal, e.g., tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic. But if we insert a deceptive cadence, the fun can start. Such unexpected harmonic progressions, of course, are plentiful in the body of musical literature.

Just as we predict harmonies in this musical language, we predict melodies. Again the simplest example can be extracted from context. A major scale tells us that we are conditioned to be satisfied only when our prediction of its destination is fulfilled. The only proof we need is to play a scale and walk away from the unresolved leading tone and then observe our audience's reaction. No greater illustration of the power of the predictable scale exists in any composition than that illustration which occurs in the cadenza to the Adagio cantabile movement of Mozart's Ein musikalischer Spass, K. 522.

To be sure, other kinds of humor occur at the same time within this example, such as Mozart's parody of the archaic baroque violinistic sawing, or harmonic patterns that do not know when to stop, or completely illogical part-writing (so that implied melodic lines behave improperly and awkwardly), or an exaggerated conceit on the part of the solo performer himself whose eagerness to display his technical virtuosity in playing impossibly high positions on the fingerboard (as if his fingers could play even on the bridge itself) produces pitches for which the sky made no limit and whose therefore unearthy and stratospheric results could not prove otherwise than irresistible as a means of calling together all the hounds, mutts, and canines of noble descent within the city to make vocal their protest against this splendid assault to their ears. And beyond that, should the human audience not be as sensitive as its best friends are to the spatial connotations of our performer's skill, lest his airborne efforts be lost, the performer obliges us by bringing us back to earth immediately with a contrasting dull pizzicato thud on the lowest note available on his instrument, after which he initially misses one note of the traditional concluding trill, thereby ineptly substituting a tremolo. If on the other hand, the eighteenth-century violinist's intonation is being satirized by the ascending scale, the open string pizzicato more than completes making the point.7

The movement ends as if to try to say nonchalantly (while repeating earlier bungles) that the execution of such impossibilities is really nothing extraordinary but is all in a day's labor. As if that were not enough, we might note that Mozart, in placing this slow and supposedly very serious movement (this Adagio cantabile, neither word of which is to be taken lightly) third among the four movements of the work, he parodies himself and his own musical development of making the latter half of a multi-movement work weightier aesthetically than the first half. Therefore he pretends to balance out a similarly supposedly serious movement, the opening movement, with a shift of weight away from that opening. Or if A Musical Joke is interpreted as a parody on the at best mediocre efforts of a provincial composer who is aspiring to keep abreast of the current fads and avant-garde ideas (whether or not he understands them), the placement of the somber slow movement next to the last is still no accident on Mozart's part.

Then there are other melodies which, instead of going somewhere cannot seem to get started. In the second subject of the opening movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 60 (Il distratto), the melody (appropriately marked perdendosi) wobbles to either side of its initial note, slows, and quietly expires, only to be jolted back to life by the prodding of a fortissimo tutti passage. It is as if the melody had absent-mindedly forgotten it was part of the symphony and only the brute force of the entire orchestra could have saved it, as well as the whole symphony, from disappearing into thin silence.8

On the temporal side of music, the most immediately perceived level is that of the beat or underlying rhythmic pulse itself. In the musical language of the late eighteenth century, this could be a rather sophisticated and complicated affair, although paradoxically completely rational and even naively simple in the ears of the audience. We generally assume that we can feel comfortable in dealing with the ratio of up to four short pulses to one long (as in sub-dividing one quarter note into four sixteenth notes). Yet Mozart, without mercy, pretends to be unaware of this rhythmic rule by asking us in that Adagio cantabile movement of A Musical Joke to unscramble a ratio of sixteen shorts to one long, i.e., sixteen thirty-second notes to the one half-note measure beat in this alla breve time signature. The difficulty of sensing that this movement has the temporal order of two slow beats per measure is only compounded by the unexpected stumbling into triplet eighth notes and triplet sixteenth notes after having grasped at those thirty-second notes. Even the arithmetic sounds baffling. (Parenthetically, one also gets the strange feeling that this movement starts in the wrong key.)

The master of the humorous silence was Haydn. Sometimes the pause interrupting the predictable rhythmic language of the time was fairly subtle, as demonstrated in the opening Allegro of the E-flat Piano Sonata, Hob. 52. Sometimes, however, his silences were not subtle at all. The illustration par excellence of silence to end all silences (if that is possible) is in the finale to his String Quartet in E-flat, Opus 33, No. 2 ("The Joke"), whose dangling conclusion has left many a concert-goer embarrassed by not knowing when—or if—to applaud. (Perhaps the solution is to sit on one's hands.) Because we assume that we can predict a proper eighteenth-century phrase structure, the ultimate joke is on us when the last movement—after its many pseudo-stops and prolonged pauses—finally stops with its beginning rather than with its ending.

Based on the evidence so far, we can conclude that one kind of humor results from expectation and the absence of that expectation's fulfillment. This, I suppose, may be called a form of distortion. Of course, humor can come also from distortion by exaggeration, by over-fulfillment of expectation such as in the fourth movement (Rondo: Allegro) of Mozart's "Haffner" Serenade, K. 250. Here the rondo theme, itself constructed of all-too-memorable parallel phrases, becomes inescapable whether we are in or on tonic, dominant, dominant of the dominant, back in tonic, submediant, or subdominant. Our apparent imprisonment for life with this inane tune is not alleviated by its treatment in retrograde, triplets, or any other permutation. Only a double bar grants us a sane asylum.

Or over-fulfillment of expectation may come as in Mozart's Musical Joke, the first movement, the musical counterpart of Evan Esar's humor-in-the-round which takes a circular course, ending where it began, e.g., "Billy Rose entered a plane. Billy Rose."9

As we associate phrasing with melody, we associate it with rhythm, particularly the rhythm of an entire musical form. Such devices as Haydn's false recapitulations often present the serious-minded listener with a temporal practical joke as his expectations become fulfilled too soon (and in the wrong key). This same prank of distorting a movement's overall timing is found in A Musical Joke, in Tovey's words, "in its finale [in which] Mozart idealizes all the nightmare stagnation of the composer whose tempo gets faster and faster while his phrasing gets slower and slower."10 Word-play is noteworthy in the music we are discussing. Alas, puns are solemn business in the music of this era because they provide one of the common means of moving from one key to another, as in the fourth movement of Haydn's String Quartet in C, Opus 76, No. 3, the "Emperor." The Neapolitan harmony first introduced in passing (in measure 10) is reinterpreted later as a whole new world (following measure 128). In Max Eastman's terms this would be a witty pun: one with a point,11 and one which "[springs] a neat practical joke upon a playful mind."12

Sometimes the absence of such a pun, rather than its presence, distorts with an abruptness beyond the capacity of even the most atrocious pun (a term also from Eastman). To return to Haydn's E-flat Piano Sonata, Hob. 52, first movement, the jarring effect of the sudden presentation of E Major after a carefully prepared dominant in C Minor startles the listener in a way that would make a witty pivotal pun seem bland.

Melodies can seem pointless (even atrocious) too. One needs but recall the Finale to Mozart's Musical Joke to find that composer, for want of a melody, exercising a part of a scale to try to get somewhere, then fragmenting that scale, stretching the duration of that fragment to twice its size, and giving up, letting that distorted version be the start of something new (and equally innocuous). How well this illustrates comedian Buddy Hackett's analysis of distortion: "If it's bent, it's funny. If it's broken, it isn't. Breaking is destructive."13

Purely grammatical errors are, unlike puns, not to be taken gravely, although the effect of reversing the correct order of harmonies in the Musical Joke's twelfth and thirteenth bars is deadly. So is Mozart's absent-minded omission of a melody a few bars later, leaving us with the bare bones of accompaniment. His parallel fifths in the Menuetto of the composition give us gray hairs, and, within the same movement, the wrong notes in the horns, marked dolce yet are indescribably wrong.

The Trio of the movement offers little solace to our battered syntax. Not only does the main tune bungle on one note too many, an error repeated twice, but we are subjected again (as in the first movement) to a melody-less accompaniment, this time with the pain from our wounds being aggravated by more parallel fifths. To this injury another is added. In the second half of the Trio the second violin insists upon coming in late, albeit tentatively and softly, as if lost. (The viola, when lost in the third movement, is at least bold about it.) But, then, everyone seems to be going in different directions at that point anyway.

The golden good sense of counterpoint is tarnished in the finale of this work. The cardinal. rule of limiting the number of complete repetitions of a pattern is demolished "ad boredom" when a fugal entrance leaps upward through the instruments not two or three but five times (tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant, dominant) followed by the horns' flimsy flourish in the dominant, "corrected" by the entire ensemble, in quick repartee, with a cadence in the subdominant, of all places. The counterpoint, which had been promised us, meanwhile gave up the ghost.

As to wrong notes, a Classic example occurs in the finale (movement six of the expected four) to Haydn's Symphony No. 60 (Il distratto). After sixteen measures of the Prestissimo movement, there is a pause, and then all the violins (as if to check their tuning) play their two highest open strings (E and A) followed by the next lower pair (A and D). Then comes an attack on the open D combined with the F below it. The violinists, one would hope surprised by what they found, retune that mistuned string, while playing as per Haydn's instructions, and proudly hold the properly tuned D and G, as if for inspection. Thereafter all goes merrily on.

Strange and comical sounds may be part of a purely musical language or they may be associated with some external stimulus to make us laugh. Whichever is true, of all the instruments in the standard orchestra capable of distinctive sounds and special effects the bassoon has been the scapegoat, or perpetrator (depending on viewpoint), of more jokes than any other instrument. The third movement of Haydn's Surprise Symphony is a minuet-and-trio movement. True to form, the Menuetto is rounded out with a return to its initial robust material before moving into the Trio. This return, however, is thrown off kilter by the insertion of two measures of comedy, one in the high register of flute and oboe, the other in the low register of cello and, naturally, bassoon.

But that jest is feeble when compared with Haydn's bassoon writing in the Symphony No. 93, in the second movement, marked Largo cantabile and truly a touching movement. It is touching, that is, until towards its end the mood is shattered by what Sir Richard Blackmore surely would have considered an inappropriate use of wit,14 since some might find it bordering on the obscene. Writers dealing with this passage have delicately called it either "ugly but devastatingly funny"15 or "a rather vulgar statement."16

The French horn, ordinarily a most uncomical instrument, takes on an unaccustomed high-spirited role in Mozart's Musical Joke, as we have already discovered. But there is more: in the last movement, the two hornists provide us with an extended trill, supposedly played softly. This sounds somewhat like an elephant in heat. The trill is repeated later with one horn in a higher range, while the second horn is in a much lower register. The effect is scarcely improved; this time it sounds like two elephants in heat.

Another area of instrumental humor that borders both purely musical mirth and fun based on sounds associated with events external to music is the area of character portrayal. To cite but three examples, one cannot fail to perceive the irony in calling "majestic" the Menuetto of Mozart's Musical Joke. Yet he marked it Maestoso, as if that description would give meaning to these sickly sounds which go nowhere and do nothing.17 More subtle is the wit Rosen hears in the opening bars of the Mozart Piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 272,18 in which the initial orchestral fanfare meets with an almost mischievous response from the piano (which, of course, displayed the most inappropriate behavior in entering so soon anyway). And in the last movement of Mozart's String Quartet in G, K. 387, the confrontation of the strict contrapuntal opening with a puckishly irresponsible answer sets off the movement's dialogue between personalities, so to speak.

A second level of non-verbal humor is less sophisticated than the first insofar as it demands less knowledge of or sensitivity to music per se than the level just discussed. This humor might be termed associative19 since it uses sounds positively familiar to us, sounds which our conditioning causes us to consider humorous as, for example, songs whose tunes trigger memories of humorous lyrics or playful sounds in nature. The well-known quodlibet from Bach's Goldberg Variations can only bring smiles of recognition to our faces as two street songs are woven ingeniously into the recurring harmonic base. Or in another instance we respond gently and delightedly to the childlike innocence of nightingale, cuckoos, and quail (European quail, that is) in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. But Beethoven's nineteenth-century example pales when we hear Leopold Mozart's Cassation in G or "Toy Symphony," or when we hear the same Mozart's Musical Sleighride, whips, bells, horses' snorts, and all. Not that these two examples are isolated; instead, they can be grouped with the exotic but not necessarily humorous sounds of military music and Janissary bands in vogue at the time, as for example in Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 100, the "Military," or his younger brother Michael's Turkish Suite (for Voltaire's Zaïre).

In Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 83 ("La Poule") the oboe clucks at us20 according to the Parisians who gave the symphony its nickname. A clock ticks familiarly in Haydn's Symphony No. 101, first as if a very large timepiece were at hand, and then as if a miniature mechanism took over the giant one.

Turning to the human side, we may be amused by the gentlemanly bowing and scraping that open Beethoven's String Quartet in G, Opus 18, No. 2, which gestures earn the quartet the nickname, "The Compliments." Sometimes human sounds are burlesqued; in Haydn's Sixth Symphony, "Le Matin," we hear the agonized and agonizing sounds of a voice student's vocalizing, after the class has started. To one who has heard the efforts of a solfège class, to which we cannot help feeling superior usually (whether we are or not), such is fair game for satire without violating Blackmore's admonition that "wit is . . . misapply'd, when exercis'd to ridicule any unavoidable Defects and Deformities of Body or Mind."21

Fair game too was Haydn's employer when, according to the famous story, he kept his court at his chilly summer residence well beyond the first cold weather of 1772. Haydn made the point with his prince that it was time to move the court to the winter palace with the well-known conclusion to his Symphony No. 45, "The Farewell," in which each musician, instrument in hand (after having played a prominent passage), extinguished his candle and left the stage, until only two remained to complete the symphony.

As to perversions of wit, we need but refer to the noted Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein and his observation about Mozart's "Andretter" Serenade, K. 185, which surely displays what Blackmore would consider a "criminal use of this talent, . . . exercised in lascivious and obscene Discourses."22 Professor Einstein described this wedding serenade in the Salzburg tradition as symphonic in style and "full . . . of erotic allusions that are all too clear. Thus the principal motive of the very first movement of this Serenade is counterpointed at the end of the exposition with unmistakable symbolism. . . ."23 Einstein assures us that Mozart's audience understood that symbolism.

Let us not overlook the various battle sonatas and symphonies that rose to great popularity in the eighteenth century or overlook works based on literary models, such as Telemann's Gulliver's Travels, in which the Lilliputians are represented by one-hundred-twenty-eighth notes and the Brobdingnagians by breves.24 And then there are Haydn's String Quartet, Opus 1, No. 0 (a joke hardly of his own doing) and in his sixtieth symphony, movement five, the incredible horn call (accompanied by pizzicato strings) which ignores the movement's title, Adagio (di Lamentatione), as does the lamentable ending to that movement.

Many are the examples of musical humor of a general nature, of musical light-heartedness, fun, gaiety, or pleasure. Almost every other work by Haydn can be so characterized, at least in part, for good humor and prankishness were with him throughout his life, giving rise to numerous anecdotes such as the ostensible cause of his dismissal from St. Stephen's Cantorei at age seventeen: it seems that he tested a new pair of scissors on a fellow chorister's pigtail. Apparently the shears worked.

If we wish to be serious about humor, though, we can observe that our examples of musical humor seem to fit Leonard Feinberg's "four basic techniques of humor: incongruity, surprise, pretense, and catering to the superiority of the audience."25 Of these he considers "the incongruity theory [to be] the most popular of all explanation of humor,"26 the next most popular being "that we laugh because we feel superior."27 The connection between laughter and humor continues to be explored. Such a writer as Fred Fisher28 has probed this relationship, commenting and expanding upon Ludovici's theory of laughter as an expression of control, an expression, we might note, much needed for our sense of orientation and well-being when confronted with incongruity. Perhaps we practice this restoring of balance with our jests so that we can survive the incongruities of life which may baffle our best reasoning. In other words: he who laughs, lasts. This analysis lends credence to Feinberg's belief that "humor is an appeal to reason," rather than an escape from reason.29 In most instances of humor, some sort of distortion of reality—whether of expectation, time, space, or character—presents reality, or, in the eighteenth-century words of Corbyn Morris (1744):

Wit is the Lustre resulting from the quick Elucidation of one Subject, by a just and unexpected Arrangement of it with another Subject.30

Similarly, an anonymous author from 1732 wrote of wit's striking the imagination with an "Idea of Beauty" and attending "Flash of Joy" and that wit

. . . stands in the same Regard to Sense or Wisdom, as lightning to the Sun, suddenly kindled and as suddenly gone. . . .31

But Sir Richard Blackmore seems to have said it best:

The End and Usefulness of this ingenious Qualification, is to delight and instruct. It animates and sweetens Conversation, by raising innocent Mirth and good Humor; and by this Effect it relieves Domestic Cares, revives Men of Business and studious Professions, and softens the Asperity of morose Dispositions . . . . By unbending and exhilarating the Minds of the Assembly, [it] gives them new Life and Spirit to resume the Labour of their respective Employments.32

1The author, with all due respect to her reader(s), submits this title in full awareness of God's Revenge against Punning and hopes that any and all Popes concerned will show mercy on her addiction "to this Crying Sin," obviously a sin of commission. See Alexander Pope, God's Revenge against Punning, 1716, in The Prose Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Norman Ault (Oxford: The Shakespeare Head Press, 1936), especially p. 269.

2Joseph Addison, Freeholder, No. 45 (1716), in Series One: Essays on Wit, No. 1, Publication No. 1, introduction by Richard C. Boys (Ann Arbor: The Augustan Reprint Society, May 1946), p. 327. In keeping with the current popularity of sloganeering, this quotation should be referred to henceforth as Addison's Adage.

3Karl Geiringer, Haydn: A Creative Life in Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 369.

4G.A. Griesinger, Biographische Notizen über Joseph Haydn, quoted in Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 103 in E-Flat Major ("Drumroll") ed. Karl Geiringer (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974), p. 6.

5An Essay on Wit: To which is annexed, a Dissertation on Ancient and Modern History (London: T. Lownds, 1748), p. 14.

6Charles Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972), p. 93.

7See John Hind Chesnut, "Mozart's Teaching of Intonation," Journal of the American Musicological Society, XXX, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), 257.

8For a delightful discussion of this entire work, see Paul Affelder's program notes to Haydn's Il distratto, published in Atlanta Arts (The Monthly Magazine of the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center), March, 1974.

9Evan Esar, The Humor of Humor: The Art and Techniques of Popular Comedy (New York: Horizon Press, 1952), p. 37.

10Donald Francis Tovey, Musical Articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (London: Oxford University Press, 1944), p. 173.

11Max Eastman, Enjoyment of Laughter (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936), passim.

12Ibid., p. 60.

13Quoted in Leonard Feinberg, Introduction to Satire (Ames, Iowa: The Iowa State University Press, 1967), p. 90.

14See Sir Richard Blackmore's Essay upon Wit (1716), in Series One: Essays on Wit, No. 1, Publication No. 1, introduction by Richard C. Boys (Ann Arbor: The Augustan Reprint Society, May 1946), pp. 211-12.

15Fred Fisher, "Musical Humor: A Future as Well as a Past?" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XXXII, No. 3 (Spring, 1974), 375.

16Geiringer, p. 354.

17One would be hard pressed to prove that conscious political satire was behind this characterization.

18Rosen, pp. 59-60.

19See James Goodfriend, "Going on Record: A Humorous Note," Stereo Review, XXVI, No. 3 (March, 1971), 52, 54.

20Catherine N. Dillon hears not only the barnyard represented in this symphony but also a donkey's braying in the first movement of Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony. See her article, "Serious Composers Are Humorous," Music Journal, July, 1972.

21Blackmore, p. 210.

22Ibid., p. 211.

23Alfred Einstein, Mozart: His Character, His Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 210.

24Goodfriend, p. 54.

25Feinberg, p. 101.


27Ibid., p. 206.

28Fisher, pp. 375-83. (The reference contained is to A.M. Ludovici's The Secret of Laughter [New York: 1933].)

29Feinberg, p. 5.

30Corbyn Morris, Essay towards Fixing the True Standards of Wit, Humor, Raillery, Satire and Ridicule (1744), in Series One: Essays on Wit, No. 2, Publication No. 4, introduction by Edward Niles Hooker ([n.p.]) (The Augustan Reprint Society, November 1946), p. 5.

31"Of Wit," Weekly Register for July 22, 1932 (reprinted in the Gentleman's Magazine, II, 861-62), quoted in Hooker, ed., Series One: Essays on Wit, No. 2, p. 5.

32Blackmore, p. 201.

4001 Last modified on November 9, 2018