Tag Archives: Humor

Chopin on Schumann

chopin-schumann

Robert Schumann’s celebrated assessment of Frédéric Chopin—“Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie!” (Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!)—appeared in his 1831 review of Chopin’s variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano, op. 2. This rhapsodic description, cast as a conversation between imaginary characters, somehow reached Chopin’s hands. While relations between the two composers were cordial, a letter from Chopin to a friend hints at his unvarnished reaction:

“I received a few days ago a ten-page review from a German in Kassel who is full of enthusiasm for [the variations]. After a long-winded preface he proceeds to analyze them bar by bar, explaining that they are not ordinary variations but a fantastic tableau. In the second variation he says that Don Giovanni runs around with Leporello; in the third he kisses Zerlina while Massetto’s rage is pictured in the left hand—and in the fifth bar of the Adagio he declares that Don Giovanni kisses Zerlina on the D-flat…I could die of laughing at this German’s imagination.”

This according to “Schumann and Chopin: from Carnaval to Kreisleriana” by Judith Chernaik (The musical times CLVII/1934 [spring 2016] pp. 67–78). This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Below, Alice Burla performs the work in question.

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The Rutles and rock mockumentaries

 

the-rutles

Rock mockumentaries like The Rutles: All you need is cash lampoon the notion of high art and satirize the image of the solitary, suffering genius in an attempt to recuperate the carnivalesque heart of the music.

All you need is cash offers a complex and subtle relationship to the documentary tradition and the history of rock and roll. Its target is not simply The Beatles themselves, but the mythology that surrounded them and that they alternately promoted and assaulted. The film also targets the solemn documentary and critical tradition that upholds the mythology.

While the mythology needs to be challenged and the kings dethroned, the parodic elements of the carnival also affirm and create. Rock and roll documentaries need their uncanny doubles: Mockumentaries remind us of the music’s power, and remind us that behind any domesticated narrative we find a potentially transgressive force—one that is, in this case, unleashed through laughter.

This according to “The circus is in town: Rock mockumentaries and the carnivalesque” by Jeffrey Roessner, an essay included in The music documentary: Acid rock to electropop (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 159–70).

Above and below, The Rutles in their heyday.

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Virgil Thomson and “Four saints in three acts”

Four Saints

Virgil Thomson first met Gertrude Stein in the winter of 1925–26. Early in 1927 he asked her to write an opera libretto, and the plans for Four saints in three acts began to take shape; the text was completed in June of that year and the music was finished in July 1928.

The opera concerns two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, who are surrounded by groups of young religious figures. In fact the work has four acts and over 30 saints. A compère and commère introduce the characters and announce the progress of the action. The strangely haunting and at times repetitive poetry of Stein is declaimed by the singers in a musical language derived from many sources, including Gregorian and Anglican chant, children’s songs, and Sunday School hymn singing, with a harmonious accompaniment for small orchestra. Although the setting of the words is deceptively simple and direct, there are considerable subtleties in the music to parallel the implied imagery of the words.

Four saints in three acts was first heard in Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1934, produced by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the production moved to New York City it created theatrical history with its all-black cast. The opera received over 60 performances within a year, and Thomson’s reputation was made almost overnight.

This according to “Thomson, Virgil Garnett” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [Abington: Routledge, 2005] pp. 456–59); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Thomson’s 120th birthday! Above, the 1934 New York production; below, the opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s 2006 production.

BONUS: A brief documentary with archival footage from 1934, including the voice of Gertrude Stein.

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

A pipe organ for a vaudevillian

charles-herbert-barritt-memorial

Charles Herbert Barritt (1869–1929, more generally known as Clifton Barritt) spent much of his life as a vaudevillian and music hall entertainer and his last years as a London publican.

Born in Manchester, Barritt was already treading the boards in his early twenties. Local newspaper notices chart a twelve-year career that took him from Ulster to the Isle of Man, Reigate to Grantham, and all points in between—there seems hardly a pier or stage that did not feature Barritt’s mellow baritone and perfect comic timing at some time between 1892 and 1904. One of his many favorable reviews praised his ability to imitate the styles of various composers, performers, and instruments, adding that he was “always funny, but without being vulgar.”

Barritt remains a notable figure to this day, as his funerary monument in London’s Hampstead Cemetery replicates the form of a life-size pipe organ (he was not known to play the organ at all).

This according to “‘Always funny, but without being vulgar’: Charles Herbert ‘Clifton’ Barritt (1869–1929), Hampstead Cemetery” by David Bingham (The London dead, 25 February 2015). Above, the monument in question.

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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 performed on 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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English modernism and rabid youth

In its 1 May 1925 issue The musical times included the following notice in “The amateurs’ exchange”, a regular column that printed free announcements by amateur musicians wishing to collaborate with others:

“A very young man wishes to meet another very young man who has violently ultra-modern tendencies in all four creative arts. M.J. Howe, 185 Marlbro’ Avenue, Hull”

The anonymous editor of the column (perhaps Harvey Grace, who was then the Editor of The musical times) appended a note:

“The above announcement is somewhat beyond the scope of this column. We feel, however, that if this extremely young man has a prototype anywhere, the two should meet, in order that they may go through their artistic scarlet fever together.”

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 English modernist Roger Fry’s portrait of the English modernist poet Edith Sitwell. Below, Gustav Holst’s Mars, the bringer of war from The planets, an early English modernist work.

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Indie pop and kitsch

Stephin Merritt

Indie pop has had a complicated relationship with mass culture—it simultaneously depends upon and deconstructs notions of authenticity and truth, and it is especially adept at generating personal authenticity.

It is useful to turn to the concept of kitsch, understood as an aesthetic and not a synonym for bad. Kitsch functions to cultivate personal attachment in the face of impersonal mass culture; it is this aesthetic that indie pop has cultivated through its lo-fi and often nostalgic sound world and through its dissemination, which has relied upon dedicated collectors.

The honesty of indie pop does not arise from an illusion of unmediated communication, but instead from the emphasis on the process of mediation, which stresses the materiality of the music and the actual experience of listening.

This according to “‘…This little ukulele tells the truth’: Indie pop and kitsch authenticity” by Emily I. Dolan (Popular music XXIX/3 [October 2010] pp. 457-469).

Above and below, Stephin Merritt, whose music and career serve as a case study in the article.

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Meeting the Simpsons

The Simpsons

The one-minute opening of The Simpsons, a luscious symphonic overture complete with sound effects, introduces the five family characters plus the small-town suburban culture that surrounds them.

Inscribed within Hollywood’s cinematographic language, the music is a powerful generic marker often projecting absurdity and irony. Notwithstanding the pantomimic effect, these comedic contradictions address the dysfunctional life of the Simpsons, defining the American Dream in ways distinct from other television shows from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

This according to “Trope and irony in The Simpsons’ overture” by Martin Kutnowski (Popular music and society XXXI/5 [December 2008] pp. 599–616). Below, the sequence in question.

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Punk’s sacred clowns

Captain Sensible - The Damned

In his classic Subculture: The meaning of style (London: Methuen, 1979) Dick Hebdige addressed the first wave of 1970s punk rock aesthetics in Britain, discussing the contours of a movement that was somewhere between a pop fad and a larger political crisis. By violating a set of social codes in their distinctive ways, said Hebdige, punks had the effect of “presenting themselves…as villainous clowns…treated at different times as threats to public order (or) as harmless buffoons.”

Other contemporaneous observers expressed their perceptions in somewhat similar language. In one of her early dispatches on punk, the British rock journalist Caroline Coon described Captain Sensible of The Damned as having “a front as benevolently mad as a village idiot’s” and the Sex PistolsJohnny Rotten as “a disgraced Angel Gabriel”. Elsewhere, Tom Carson suggested that we view The Ramones in light of “the attractiveness of the comic loser” who is “the closest thing we have to the idea of the holy fool.”

These ideas are certainly undeveloped, but they are not haphazard. They indicate brief, intuitive flashes by the authors that their subjects of concern bear a resemblance to what one could call the sacred clown—an umbrella term for a cast of cultural archetypes marked by marginalia, shame, and destitution, paradoxically expressing sanctification and profanity, stupidity and sagacity, and menace and mirth.

This according to “Reading early punk as secularized sacred clowning” by Lane Van Ham (Journal of popular culture XLII/2 [April 2009] pp. 318–338).

Above and below, Captain Sensible in action.

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Pauline Pantsdown and “Backdoor man”

Pauline Pantsdown

Although the 1997 release Backdoor man is attributed to Simon Hunt’s cabaret alter-ego Pauline Pantsdown (above), the vocals on the record (backed by looped disco grooves) are made up of snippets of speeches by the right-wing Australian politician Pauline Hanson that were cut up and re-edited.

In the song she declares, among many other things, “I’m homosexual” and “I’m a happy person because I’m a backdoor man”.

The song was a huge hit on the youth radio network Triple J, and was played almost hourly due to a massive number of requests, making it number 5 on the 1997 Hottest 100 list. However, less than a week after its release Hanson obtained a court injunction against the song, claiming that it was defamatory.

This according to “Two Paulines to choose from: An interview with Simon Hunt/Pauline Pantsdown” by Jon Stratton Perfect beat IV/4 [2000] pp. 34–44).

The complete song can be heard here. Below, an edited version with animation.

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