Category Archives: Humor

One finger too many

 

The classical music world knows Alfred Brendel as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Far fewer people know him as a poet, with two books of poetry in German and one—One finger too many—in English translation (New York: Random House, 1999).

The collection’s title poem concerns a pianist who developed a third index finger “not to play the piano with/though it sometimes did intervene/discreetly/in tricky passages/but to point things out/when both hands were busy.”

While some of Brendel’s poems are serious, many are light-hearted. He explains, “At one stage in my life I didn’t laugh enough…some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue.” The title of another poem, “Not Brahms again”, points to a humorous but therapeutic reflection that he describes as “a little revenge for the perversity of the B♭ concerto…the passages which, as they stand, are literally unplayable.”

This according to “The poet speaks” by Michael Church (BBC music magazine, VII/3 [November 1998], pp. 32–33; RILM 1998-4729).

Today is Maestro Brendel’s 90th birthday! Below, Brendel plays Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 899 (op. 90).

BONUS: Cover half of Brendel’s face in the above photograph, then the other half, to see two completely different expressions.

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Famous Victorians in a toy symphony

toy-symphony

An event billed as A concert for the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, held in London on 14 May 1880, featured a performance of Bernhard Romberg’s Toy symphony in which prominent London musicians appeared performing with various mechanical birds and toy instruments; all but two of the musicians in the ensemble played instruments other than those that they were accustomed to performing on.

The evening also included performances of the Chœur des soldats from Gounod’s Faust and several children’s songs by a kazoo ensemble conducted by the operatic contralto Zelia Trebelli-Bettini.

This according to “Famous Victorians in a toy symphony” by Herbert Thompson (The musical times LXIX/1026 [1 August 1926] pp. 701–702. This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above, the participants at a rehearsal; below, a more recent performance of the featured work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor

Frank Zappa and classical music

 

Although he was best known as the guitarist and leader of The Mothers of Invention and other rock bands, Frank Zappa grew up with a keen interest in 20th-century concert music and aspired to be an orchestral composer as well; his scores have been recorded by Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and others.

Appropriate listening strategies for Zappa’s pieces for acoustic concert ensembles should be based primarily on models developed from his more abundant commercially successful output, and less so on the music of early–20th-century composers, such as Stravinsky and Varèse, whose music he admired.

This according to “Listening to Zappa” by Jonathan W. Bernard (Contemporary music review XVIII/4 [2000] pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts 1999-44563).

Today would have been Zappa’s 80th birthday! Below, conducting his G-spot tornado in 1992 with Ensemble Modern and dancers Louise Lecavalier and Donald Weikert.

Related article: Frank Zappa and Uncle Meat

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Beethoven and Peanuts

Having once considered himself “one of the staunchest opponents of classical music”, Charles Schultz (1922–2000) discovered the symphonies of Beethoven in 1946 and became an avid fan of classical music with a prodigious record collection. He also created the piano-playing Schroeder, a Beethoven fanatic, for his comic strip Peanuts.

A well-worn 1951 LP in Schultz’s collection by the pianist Friedrich Gulda of the Hammerklavier sonata, op. 106, may have inspired a series of strips from the early 1950s in which Schroeder is seen playing this work. The one reproduced above is the only one in which the piece is named, though it still relies on the reader to read music—and German!—for a full identification. Note Schultz’s imitation of German Fraktur script for both the work title and his signature.

This according to “Michaelis’ Schulz, Schulz’s Beethoven, and the construction of biography” by William Meredith (The Beethoven journal XXV/2 [winter 2008], pp. 79–91; RILM Abstracts 2008-8914).

Today is Beethoven’s 250th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter celebrates with the Hammerklavier sonata.

Related articles: Beethoven in Bibliolore

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Salieri’s wit

 

Unlike the troubled fictional character of stage and screen, the real Antonio Salieri was described by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the master librettist of Mozart’s operas, as “a most cultivated and intelligent man…whom I loved and esteemed both out of gratitude and by inclination…more than a friend, a brother to me.” He also had a nimble wit and enjoyed jokes at his own expense.

Salieri wrote a memoir that is now lost, but some quotations from it have survived. In one particularly winning anecdote, Salieri is recounting the première, in 1770, of his second opera, Le donne letterate. The applause is vigorous, and the young composer follows the audience out into the street, hoping to soak up more praise. He overhears a group of operagoers:

“The opera is not bad” said one. “It pleased me right well” said a second (that man I could have kissed). “For a pair of beginners, it is no small thing” said the third. “For my part” said the fourth, “I found it very tedious.” At these words, I struck off into another street for fear of hearing something still worse.

This according to “Salieri’s revenge:  He was falsely cast as music’s sorest loser, and he’s now getting a fresh hearing” by Alex Ross (The New Yorker XCV/15 [3 June 2019] 26–31; RILM Abstracts 2019-6047).

Today is Salieri’s 270th birthday! Above, a portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler; below, excerpts from Axur, re d’Ormus, one of Salieri’s collaborations with Da Ponte.

BONUS: The finale of Axur as depicted in the film Amadeus.

Related article: Telemann’s wit

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Zao and “champagne socialism”

 

 

In the mid-1980s Congo-Brazzaville was chafing under the heel of a military regime that fed its impoverished people irrelevant political slogans while the elite dined on champagne and caviar. Zao, a humorous band led by Casimir Zoba, a former schoolteacher in a comical pseudo-military uniform singing in an extravagant mixture of Senegalese French and local slang, seemed to pose no real threat to the authorities.

But Zoba was no ordinary humorist or village idiot, and underneath his buffoonish image was a hard-edged political and social critic. While Zao’s music was tolerated as comic relief, the group delivered sharp critiques of bureaucracy, corruption, gender relations, and abuse of power in the “champagne socialism” of the military dictatorship.

This according to “Couching political criticism in humor: The case of musical parodies of the military in Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville” by Lyombe S. Eko, an essay included in Music and messaging in the African political arena (Hershey: IGI Global, 2019, 87–107; RILM Abstracts 2019-16663).

Below, Ancien combattant, Zao’s most popular song, and a case study in the article.

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Filed under Humor, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Lady Gaga and Weird Al

 

Parody is often filled with internal contradictions at both the level of the critique of the original artwork and the level of the quality of the parodied performance. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic is not the only artist creating parodies of Lady Gaga, and she is not his only target.

Even Lady Gaga herself creates parody as she borrows from the pop stars of earlier eras and comments on their work. Critics suggest that her success is due, in part, to her quotations from other artists, but her work goes beyond simple imitation. On the level of performance, her self-conscious employment of parody is partly responsible for her success.

As a self-professed performance artist, Lady Gaga becomes a nexus of imitation in which she both showcases and expands the limits and the understanding of both parody and performance. Through his own parodies of Gaga’s parodic work, “Weird Al” highlights this reality.

This according to “Performing pop: Lady Gaga, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and parodied performance” by Matthew R. Turner, an article included in The performance identities of Lady Gaga: Critical essays (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012, pp. 188–202).

Above and below, Yankovic’s Perform this way, a parody of Lady Gaga’s Born this way.

 

Above, Perform this way: Weird Al Yankovic at Edgefield by Paul Riismandel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Harvey Pekar and jazz

Harvey Pekar, author of the autobiographical comic series American splendor, was also a jazz fan, an obsessive record collector, a prolific jazz critic, and a tireless supporter of experimental music; he often worked these enthusiasms into his comic strips.

These comic-book treatments of jazz can be viewed as extensions and developments of his prose criticism in publications such as The jazz review and DownBeat. In these comic strips, Pekar was experimenting with the form of jazz criticism itself, and was developing its language and impact.

This according to “Comics as criticism: Harvey Pekar, jazz writer” by Nicolas Pillai, an essay included in The Routledge companion to jazz studies (New New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 433–41).

Today would have been Harvey Pekar’s 80th birthday! Above, Robert Crumb’s depiction of Pekar and himself for an American splendor cover; below, a promo clip for Harvey Pekar’s world of jazz.

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Filed under Humor, Jazz and blues, Visual art

Cathy Berberian and pop art

 

In the 1950s and 1960s the musical avant-garde developed a new type of vocal composition that incorporated everyday vocal sounds, such as gestural utterances or expressions of affect, into aesthetic parameters. Cathy Berberian took center stage in this development thanks to the extraordinary range of her vocal capabilities; she inspired numerous composers to write in this emerging style, and was herself engaged in the creative process.

Berberian’s composition Stripsody (1966), a sounding glossary of typical onomatopoeia of comic strips, can be understood as a musical pendant to the paintings of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Her creative process was closely intertwined with input from the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, who was a close friend of Berberian and her former husband, the composer Luciano Berio. Eco encouraged her to create a composition out of her interest for comic onomatopoeia, and he acquainted her with the Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, who created the first visual transformation of her vocal glossary.

The connection to pop art, however, is not restricted to the aesthetic approach; in form and content, Berberian and her Stripsody relate to pop art characteristics on several levels: (1) with her appearance, performances, and image, Berberian stylized herself as a pop icon; (2) with Stripsody, she took exactly the same path that Umberto Eco described in Apocalypse postponed, from avant-garde music through pop art to comic strips; (3) several components of Stripsody allude directly to typical popular themes that can also be found in the works of contemporaneous pop artists; and (4) the work directly quotes comics that enjoyed pop-icon status.

This according to “Musical pop art: Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody (1966)” by Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, an essay included in Music and figurative arts in the twentieth century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016, pp. 150–65).

Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing Stripsody.

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Drink, song, and disorder

 

“For a simple urban boy like me, the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell.”

Thus declared the government minister Kim Howells during a debate in the British Parliament, as he responded to arguments predicting a decrease in musicians’ employment opportunities as a result of his plan to make all performances of music on premises where alcohol was sold subject to licensing by agencies of the State.

The plan that Howells introduced came to fruition in the form of the Licensing Act 2003. While this Act was presented by its proponents as a modernizing piece of legislation, it can be placed in a long history of British attempts to rein in the unruly side of music making, alcohol consumption, and the conjunction of the two—a history that has been marked by regulation in the name of public order and moral improvement.

This according to “Drink, song and disorder: The sorry saga of the Licensing Act 2003” by Dave Laing (Popular music XXXV/2 [May 2016] pp. 265–69).

Above and below, The Wurzels—three Somerset folk singers whose song I am a cider drinker was a number three hit in Britain in 1976.

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