Category Archives: Humor

Mark Twain on opera

 

Mark Twain’s reactions to grand opera are epitomized by a passage from A tramp abroad in which he described a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

“The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed.”

“There was little of that sort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down by the footlights, warbling, with blended voices…no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sang his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra of sixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and one was hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, a great chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth.”

“We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven’s sweet ecstasy and peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproduction of the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of people marched around and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding Chorus. To my untutored ear that was music—almost divine music. While my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds, it seemed to me that I could almost re-suffer the torments which had gone before, in order to be so healed again.”

“There is where the deep ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts. A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhere else, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.”

Excerpted from “Mark Twain on opera” (The NATS journal XLIII/3 [January–February 1987] pp. 19, 49).

Above, the author around 1880, the year A tramp abroad was published; below, the “little season of heaven” at Bayreuth in 2010.

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Filed under Humor, Literature, Opera

How to destroy an organ

 

Part of the U.S. Army technical manual published on 13 November 1963 dealt with the installation, operation, and maintenance of the Hammond organ, which was then the instrument of choice in chapels on army bases.

One of the chapters details the destruction of the organ in the case of the capture or abandonment of the instrument to an enemy, urging all concerned to memorize the procedures so the manual will not have to be consulted in an emergency.

The chapter (above) is reprinted in “Your tax dollars at work for you” by Rollin Smith (The American organist LI/7 [July 2017] p. 88. Below, one way to do the job.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Instruments

Lead Belly and the folklorists

When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.

This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.

This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).

Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.

 

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Humor, Jazz and blues, North America

“Scrubs” musical fantasies

Despite its hackneyed premise—a group of medical students trying to get ahead in the competitive hospital environment—the television series Scrubs had something special: a judicious selection of accompanying music.

Sometimes the choice was linked to the musical biographies of the prominent figures, and other times the lyrics referred directly or indirectly to the development of the plot, to particular events, or to important characters. The frequent fantasies involving the main character, Dr. John Dorian, are riddled with emblematic musical references to the pop–rock music of the last 60 years, offering a rich and representative sample of what the last three generations were listening to.

This according to “La inserción del número musical en las series de televisión: El papel de la música en Scrubs” by Judith Helvia García Martín (Cuadernos de etnomusicología 3 [marzo 2003] pp. 204–19).

Above and below, a fantasy sequence involving James Brown’s The payback.

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Filed under Humor, Mass media, Popular music

The Marx Brothers at the opera

 

The Marx Brothers’ film A night at the opera is best known for its travesty of the high-society manners of the opera house and its sendup of Verdi’s Il trovatore. Underneath this farce, however, the film suggests deep affection for opera—a stance prompted, ironically, by the demands of the studio system.

The Hollywood movie is the heir and rival of opera as an entertainment medium, and both its follies and splendors are rooted in the immigrant experience of early–20th-century America.

This according to “The singing salami: Unsystematic reflections on the Marx Brothers” by Lawrence Kramer, an essay included in A night at the opera (London: Libbey, 1994 pp. 253–65).

Above and below, classic Marxian mayhem.

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Filed under Humor, Opera, Performers

Cathy Berberian’s humor

Irony and humor were inseparable parts of Cathy Berberian’s musical life; they permeated and guided her musical choices, her works, and her interpretations and stage performances. A key feature of her artistic personality was her love of laughter, derision, and amusement, her skill at combining seriousness and mockery, professionalism and frivolity, respect and irony.

The little girl playing with her voice, imitating what she heard—animals, sounds, singers—became the young woman who married Luciano Berio without abandoning her free spirit, which inspired John Cage and many others. Later, in her works and those composed for her, she gave free rein to parody, pastiche, diversion, and an array of peaceful weapons for fighting fixed ideas and shaking up certainties.

Berberian’s deep desire to question tradition and express an inventive concept of music—an open concept, anchoring music and singing in life—could not be fulfilled without destroying idols and wringing the neck of popular belief in a burst of laughter. She wielded irony as a corrective to dogmatism, parochialism, and obscurantism.

A daughter of exiles, always a foreigner in a host country, a woman among famous men, and intelligent far beyond what was expected from a performer and a singer, Berberian triumphed by defending humor, the wealth of the oppressed.

This according to “L’errance infitie de l’humor: L’humor de Cathy Berberian” by Marie-Christine Vila (Itamar: Revista de investigación musical–Territorios para el arte III [2010] pp. 311–21).

Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing her own Stripsody (1966), which uses a graphic score to indicate comic strip sounds.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Humor, Performers

Elgar’s rabbit

A white rabbit named Peter joined the Elgar family in 1905. He appears in numerous items of correspondence and is credited, as Pietro d’Alba, with writing the words for Elgar’s songs The torch and The river.

Elgar also welcomed musical criticism and suggestions from Peter; for example, after conducting the London premiere of his second Wand of youth suite in 1908, the composer wrote to him:

My dear Peter,

Your idea—the vigorous entry of the drums—was splendid. Thanks.

Yrs affectly

Edward Elgar

This according to “Peter Rabbit: The biography of an inspired bunny” by Martin Bird (The Elgar Society journal XXI/1 [April 2018] pp. 32–39).

Below, the composition in question; Peter’s contribution begins at 17:29.

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Filed under Animals, Humor, Romantic era

Beethoven’s coffee

A visitor to the 39-year-old composer’s Vienna apartment described Beethoven’s personal habits in notoriously disparaging detail—a picture curiously contrasting with the same reporter’s observations of his fastidious attention to his favorite beverage.

“For breakfast he had coffee, which he usually prepared himself in a glass machine. Coffee seems to have been his most indispensable food, which he prepared as scrupulously as the Turks. Sixty beans were calculated per cup and were often counted, especially when guests were present.”

This according to “Beethoven’s 60 coffee beans” by Leonardo Ciampa (The American organist LII/3 [March 2018] pp. 50-51).

Below, a highly caffeinated performance by Peter Schickele.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Food, Humor

Air guitar and Asian fury

Competitive air guitarists have long understood that their art form provides an ideal means for contesting the overwhelming whiteness of rock and the electric guitar, sometimes extending their critique to include gender as well.

Asian and Asian American competitors in particular have used their performances to comment ironically on the emasculation of Asian males and the infantilization of Asian females through the construct of Asian fury, helping audiences to reimagine the linkages between race and rock.

This according to “Asian fury: A tale of race, rock, and air guitar” by Sydney Hutchinson (Ethnomusicology LX/3 [fall 2016] pp. 411–33).

Above and below, David “C-Diddy” Jung, winner of the first U.S. national air guitar championship and perhaps the originator of the term Asian fury as it applies to air guitar; the video shows his award-winning performance in 2003.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Humor, Popular music

Di goldene kale

Like most newcomers to America, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1920s faced homesickness, deprivation, and language difficulty. Yiddish musicals helped them to come to terms with their environment by reminding them of home while highlighting the benefits of the New World.

Confronting the past with the present and fusing the folkloric songs, liturgical chants, dances, and theater styles of Jewish tradition with American rhythms and social topics, the genre helped to resolve onstage the conflicts in the lives of the new inhabitants. These comic and dramatic musical works chart the evolution of a community in its acculturation and eventual assimilation.

Di goldene kale (The golden bride) premiered at the 2000-seat Second Avenue Theater in New York on 9 February 1923, one of 14 Yiddish programs in the city that night. It ran for 18 weeks and was then performed throughout the U.S. and in venues in Europe and South America. The music is by Joseph Rumshinsky, the undisputed dean of Yiddish operetta composers in the U.S., who wrote the music for well over 100 such works.

Written and produced at a critical time of transition, between a law passed in May 1921 that greatly limited immigration from eastern Europe and another, in 1924, that reduced such immigration to a trickle, the work illuminates the period in which the arrival of some two million Russians and other east-Europeans in the U.S. had peaked.

A new edition and study of Di goldene kale (A-R Editions, 2017) provides multifaceted insights into the absorption, not only of Jews, but of every immigrant group, into the American mainstream

Below, excerpts from a 2016 production.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Humor, New editions, Popular music