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Young People's Concert

Humor in Music

Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 28 February 1959


How do you all do? On our last program if you remember, which was about Classical Music, you remember we were playing part of a symphony by Haydn, and we were learning something about the way he gets humor into his music — Humor was part of that 18th century elegance and fun we were talking about. Now since that program we've had so many letters and requests for more about the subject of humor in music that I've decided to spend a whole program on it. It's a fun subject, but it's a hard subject. What makes music funny?

That's an easier question to ask than to answer. The main trouble seems to be that the minute you explain why something is funny, it isn't so funny anymore. For instance, take a joke — any old joke: like this shaggy story about the elephant who was making fun of a mouse because the mouse was so tiny. And the elephant said: "Huh, look at you, you little shrimp, you peanut, you're not even as big as my left toenail!" and the mouse said, "Well listen, I've been sick."

Well, what's so funny about that? I mean, it always gets a laugh; maybe we can explain why: because the answer is so unexpected and shocking. You see, there has to be that element of surprise and shock in every joke — the thing that's called the twist, or the gimmick, or the punch, or the topper, or the tag-line, or the gag line; but whatever you call it, it's got to be a surprise, a shock, and that's what makes you laugh. For instance, who would have expected that the mouse would try to excuse his smallness by saying he'd been sick? But once we've explained that fact you don't laugh anymore; the joke may have been funny, but the explanation isn't. We all know people, unfortunately, who insist on telling you a joke and then explaining to you why it's funny. I know my father has that awful habit. There's nothing worse. They just kill the joke. The other trouble with trying to explain humor is that it's such a big subject — there are so many different kinds of humor: there's wit, satire, parody, caricature, burlesque, and just plain clowning around. And all those different kinds of humor can be found in music.

But there's one very important thing we have to know about humor in music: it's got to be funny for musical reasons. You see, music can't make jokes about anything except itself; it can make fun of itself, or of other pieces of music; but it sure can't make jokes about that elephant and that mouse. And when music is funny, it's funny in the same way that a joke is funny: it does something shocking, surprising, unexpected, absurd; it puts two things together that don't belong together, which are, to use a very hard word, incongruous. Now that's a word you ought to try to learn and remember. Incongruous means, for example, Alice in Wonderland, when she gets all mixed up in that strange new world of hers, and can't remember anything right; so she suddenly begins to recite:

Twinkle twinkle, little bat
How I wonder what you're at
Up above the world so high
Like a tea-tray in the sky.

Incongruous. Tea-trays have nothing to do with the sky; they have nothing to do with bats either. Incongruous things are things that don't make sense; and that's how we get nonsense. Nonsense is the loveliest thing there is because it makes us laugh — and boy, nothing feels so good as laughing.

Now of course some music does make certain jokes that aren't about music; but then they're not musical jokes. For instance, if you take that great parade part of the ballet, "The Incredible Flutist", by the American composer, Walter Piston.

[ORCH: Piston - The Incredible Flutist]

Now what was so funny about that? What was funny? Tell me. What was so funny about that? Hm? It's gay. Yes, but that doesn't make you laugh; not because it's gay. What's funny? Why'd you laugh? You tell me. It's what? It's loud. I don't think you'd laugh at Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and that's pretty loud. That's not the reason. Does anyone have a good reason why this is so funny? Tell me. It's unexpected? That's one thing. Tell me why this particular piece is funny. Why? Topsy-turvy? Well, now you're getting close. That was kind of topsy-turvy. Can you tell me why? It's out of place. Now you're coming to it. You see, actually there are two things that are funny, two reasons why you laugh. First of all, you have a symphony orchestra sitting here imitating a brass band. That's incongruous. (That's that word again.) And the second is the fact that everybody began cheering and yelling in the orchestra, just as they do at a parade. And what makes you laugh is that the people yelling are not at a parade; they're serious Philharmonic musicians at a concert yelling their heads off. And that's incongruous too. But that yelling is not music; so it's not funny for musical reasons. You see what I mean? I'll give you another example. It's the same with that little "Mosquito Dance" by another American composer, Paul White. Maybe you've heard that. It goes like this

[ORCH: Paul White - Mosquito Dance]

OK, what's the big laugh of that piece? Yes? There's a whole big orchestra and there's practically nobody playing? Oh, that's one good reason. What's your reason? A big what? A big bang. Sure. It's that slap at the end of course when the mosquito gets slapped. If you have this thing buzzing around you for a minute and you catch him. But the slap, again, isn't music. It's a noise, not a musical noise either. And the same is true in Gershwin's "American in Paris" when you hear these taxi horns; they give you an amusing idea of the city of Paris, with its millions of cars and taxis rushing around and honking away, but they're a separate thing from the music: they're a noise. Just listen to this:

[ORCH: Gershwin - An American in Paris]

You see what I mean? But that's enough about musical jokes that are not musical. Now we're going to look at music that has humor in it without using slaps and horns and yelling — music that makes its jokes with notes, plain old fashioned notes.

The first and simplest way that music can be amusing is by simply imitating nature. It's one of the oldest ways of making you laugh — by imitating things or people. It's like comedians who do impersonations of famous stars: Like impersonating Greta Garbo (I vant to be alone) or impersonating Katherine Hepburn (Oh, it's lovely, it's just lovely). But the way music does this is by imitating sounds, sounds we all know, like mosquitos, or trains, or ox-carts, or little chickens, or a big sneeze. Did you ever hear that great musical sneeze that the Hungarian composer Kodaly wrote in his Hary Janos suite? The whole suite begins with that sneeze. It goes like this.

[ORCH: Kodaly - Hary Janos Suite]

Isn't that just like a sneeze — the way it winds up slowly [IMITATE] and then explodes — chaa! — in 50 different directions? Now this business of imitating goes way back to the earliest composers, like the old French composer, Rameau, who wrote all kinds of pieces for the harpsichord that imitated cuckoo-birds, and roosters, and what-not. Here's one by Rameau that imitates a hen going "co-co-co-co-co-co-dai":

[PLAY: Rameau - Le Poulet]

Does that sound like a hen? But that's now enough of imitations. Let's get down to the real heart of the matter: wit. I'm sure you remember what we said last time about Haydn's wit: how he surprises you all the time; how he gets fun into his music through sudden pauses, and sudden louds and sudden softs; and how he makes humor through using those fast, scurrying themes that reminded us, you remember, of a little Dachshund puppy skittering all over the floor.

Now, speed has been one of the main things about wit always; fast and funny — that's the rule for jokes. That's why those tongue-twister songs of Gilbert and Sullivan are so funny — they go at an impossible speed. Like do you know this one from the Pirates of Penzance:

[SING: Gilbert & Sullivan - Pirates of Penzance]

That's a mouthful. Well, the same is true of Haydn's humor; he uses just plain speed to get the same sort of humorous effect.

Today we're going to play you a movement from another Haydn Symphony — this one the last movement of his 88th symphony — and while it won't make you laugh out loud, I think you'll see what I mean when I call it witty. It's like a bag-full of tricks, coming at you so fast you can almost not follow them — always something new and eye-opening — like magic.

[ORCH: Haydn - Symphony no. 88]


Now we come to a new department of humor, called satire. Now this is in itself a pretty big department, because satire includes all those other words like parody, caricature, cartoon, burlesque, and so on. They all mean roughly the same thing — making fun of something, by exaggerating it, or twisting it around in some way.

But still, there's a difference between satire and these other words. Satire makes fun of things in order to say something new and possibly even beautiful; in other words, it has a real purpose of its own; but parody, for instance, makes fun of things just for the fun of making fun of them. Is that too hard to understand? I think it all will be clearer when you actually hear music that shows the difference.

For instance, one of the best musical satires ever written is by the Russian composer Prokofieff; it's his Classical Symphony. This is a perfect jewel of a symphony, an out-and-out imitation of Haydn; only it exaggerates the surprises, the sudden louds and sudden softs, and stops and pauses, and elegant tunes, and all the rest; but every so often something very peculiar sneaks in — a little wrong note, or one beat too many, or one beat too few; but then it goes right on again with a dead-pan face, as though nothing strange had happened at all. So it's this combination of exaggerating, which is always funny, plus the little peculiar hints of modern music that keep popping up — which is incongruous in this 18th century type of music — it's that combination that makes you laugh or at least makes it funny. I think this is the only piece I've ever laughed at out loud myself. I remember like yesterday hearing it for the first time on the radio when I was 15 years old. I remember lying on the floor and laughing 'til I was crying. I didn't know what the piece was. I'd never heard of Prokofieff; I only know there was something very peculiar and funny and beautiful going on. Now we're going to play you the first movement of the Classical Symphony by Prokofieff, and I don't expect you to fall down on the floor and cry with laughter. But I do hope you get at least some of the fun out of it that I got when I was 15.

[ORCH: Prokofieff - Classical Symphony]

That's pure satire; and also it's a beautiful piece. That's what makes it satire instead of parody; it's beautiful. Just as one of the great satires of literature is a book called Gulliver's Travels, which is also a beautiful book. Now let's listen to the third movement of this same little symphony, by Prokofieff, which is a delicious gavotte — a gavotte is an elegant 18th century dance. And the satire here is in the way Prokofieff keeps switching the key on you like this:

[PLAY: Prokofieff - Classical Symphony]

In that first phrase he's already been in three different keys. Imagine. And then, in the last phrase, he makes a musical pun. Imagine that. You all know what a pun is: it's playing with a word — making it have two meanings at once, or giving it one meaning when you expect the other. It's like saying to your friend, "Give me a ring sometime, won't you?" and so he takes off his ring and gives it to you. That's a pun. That's just what Prokofieff does in this phrase:

[PLAY: Prokofieff - Classical Symphony]

You see, he leads you to expect this at the end:

[PLAY: Prokofieff - Classical Symphony]

and instead, he slips one over on you and does this:

[PLAY: Prokofieff - Classical Symphony]

It's like "Shave and a Haircut" with "two bits" in the wrong key. You see how neatly he made the pun? Now listen to the orchestra play this movement, and I hope you enjoy this beautiful, elegant joke:

[ORCH: Prokofieff - Classical Symphony]

Now that gavotte, that gavotte brings up that nasty old word again, incongruous, because that old-fashioned gavotte and these peculiar, punning harmonies just don't go together; when you put them side by side they make a comical pair, like Mutt and Jeff. But maybe the most incongruous piece of music ever written is by Mahler, who actually made a whole movement out of his First Symphony, in his First Symphony, out of Frere Jacques, that famous round that we all love to sing

[SING: Frere Jacques]

I don't have to sing that to you I'm sure. What Mahler did was to put it into the minor, which makes that happy little tune suddenly very gloomy and sad, like this:

[SING: Frere Jacques]

Now that's incongruous, isn't it? Do you suppose you could sing it in the minor, the way I just did? Let's try; see how gloomy we can make it sound.

[AUDIENCE: Frere Jacques]

Fine. Gloomier! Gloomier! Weep!

Oh, you're going to have me in tears in a minute. It's become such a sad tune. Now what Mahler did was to make it even sadder and gloomier (and therefore more incongruous) by putting it into a funeral march tempo. And then giving it first to a solo double bass, which is a very gloomy instrument indeed, and then to all the other gloomiest instruments he could think of. And so, it comes out sounding like this:

[ORCH: Mahler - First Symphony]

Weeping. It does seem very strange to say that such a gloomy old funeral march is funny, but it is funny, because we know it's really our jolly friend, Frere Jacques, hiding there in that black gloomy disguise; and the two things together are incongruous.

But now we're beginning to slip from satire down into parody; into making musical fun just for the fun of it. That is what caricatures do; when you see a cartoon of a famous person in the newspaper — like General Eisenhower, President Eisenhower, or General de Gaulle is what I meant to say, or Van Cliburn — or anybody, a cartoon with all their features exaggerated, and looking comical — you don't suppose those cartoons were drawn to make beautiful pictures, or to insult the famous people, or any such serious purpose like that? They were done just to have fun, and it's the same with caricature in music. That's another reason why Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas are so funny; they caricature the style of serious opera, but they're not serious operas. And all their characters are just silly cartoon-people, and so the serious operatic style of the music seems ridiculous and funny.

For instance, you take that old battle-axe in the Mikado — you know the Mikado, you know the husky, hatchet-faced, deep-voiced lady named Katisha, who is suddenly deserted by her lover, and sings an operatic recitative of despair and agony that has to make you laugh, because she's such a phony old ham that you can't take her seriously, even though she's singing music that's supposed to be as serious as Mendelssohn or Schubert of anybody else.

[SING: Gilbert & Sullivan - Mikado Recitative to "Oh Living I"]

Well see? This is a very tragic moment in this lady's life but she's a cartoon lady. And therefore, the moment turns out to be funny instead of tragic.

Now a really great example of this kind of parody is the beginning of Richard Strauss' opera "Der Rosenkavalier," in which he is describing passionate love, but in a comic way. So he makes a parody of the most famous passionate love-music in history — which is naturally from Wagner's opera, "Tristan and Isolde." I'm sure you must have heard that music of Tristan with its exciting rising sequences — you remember that word, sequences from our program about development? It goes like this:

[ORCH: Wagner - Tristan and Isolde]

Now listen, now listen to how Strauss parodies those exciting rising sequences in his opera, "Der Rosenkavalier."

[ORCH: Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier]

Now we started out this whole discussion on a very high plane of musical humor — Haydn, Prokofieff and Mahler, all the highest type of satire; and we've slowly been sinking lower and lower into the forms of parody and caricature. But we can go even lower, and arrive at something called burlesque — which is just plain clowning. This is the kind of humor that some of us like the best: real low-down stuff, like watching a man slipping on a banana peel. You know that's still the funniest gag in show business. Why should it be? Why should we laugh when someone falls down? Here we come to the central point of all humor: that all jokes have to be at the expense of something or someone; something has to be hurt or even destroyed to make you laugh — a man's dignity, or an idea, or a word, or logic itself.

Something has to go, and it's usually sense that goes first. Which is why, as we said before, we have nonsense. We go to the circus, for instance, and see a clown catch on fire and douse himself with water. That's funny; we allow ourselves to laugh at him at his expense because we know it's just a trick, and that the clown isn't really in any danger. Or in the same circus, we see a little automobile and out comes a clown followed by another one and then another and then three more and then twelve more, endlessly. How did they all get in that little car? It seems impossible. We laugh louder and louder as more and more clowns keep coming out of the car; riotously funny, but again it's at the expense of logic. It's not logical, that's all, and logic has been destroyed. That's why we've laughed for years at Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Because they make a hash of logic — they destroy sense, and we laugh our heads off, just as we do at the man slipping on a banana peel.

Now how does this destroying, this destructive element in humor apply to music? Well, you can destroy sense in music just as easily as you can in the circus ring or in the movies. Mozart did it many, many years ago, in his famous "Musical Joke." I wonder if you know it? It ends up with all the instruments playing ghastly wrong notes like this:

[ORCH: Mozart - Musical Joke]

Now you may be surprised; Mozart really wrote that piece. It's funny, but at the expense of musical logic. It's exactly how that piece should not end, except that Mozart was purposely writing a joke-piece. Ever since that Mozart joke, all kinds of composers have been doing the same thing. Wrong notes are, of course, the best way of getting a laugh in music; only they have to be written side by side with right notes, in order to have them sound wrong, you. You remember on our last program we played "Shave and a Haircut, with "Two Bits" in the wrong key. That's the idea. Again, it's the business of being incongruous. And it takes a composer with a real sense of humor to do it well, and make it funny. The modern Russian composer, Shostakovich, is a master of this kind of wrong-note joke. So let us play you a little polka of his; and notice how he makes it even funnier by giving those cuckoo notes to very exaggerated instruments, like way down in the tuba and way up high in the xylophone and piccolo. It makes the piece sound even cuckoo-er.

[ORCH: Shostakovich: Polka from the Golden Age Suite]

Now that's, that is a real cuckoo piece, Now do you see what I mean by destroying sense in order to create humor? Now here's another modern composer, an American named Aaron Copland, again making us giggle through his way of destroying logic and sense. This is a piece from his suite, Music for the Theatre. It is called, appropriately enough, Burlesque, and notice, as we play it, how what he is busy destroying is not so much the right notes like Shostakovich as the right rhythms. Because just when you expect the music to be even, symmetrical, equal — it loses its balance, sort of like a clown pretending to be drunk, or misses a step, like a movie about the army with Jerry Lewis trying to march in time. This music of Copland is constantly falling down and picking itself up again, and at the very end, it slips for the last time, and just stays there, with a very puzzled look on its face.

[ORCH: Copland - Music for the Theatre: Burlesque]

That's really a burlesque. It's like a vaudeville act at the Paramount Theatre. Of course, part of the humor in that piece of Copland is due to those low, rude noises made by the low strings and trombone, but mostly by the bassoon. The bassoon has always been called the clown of the orchestra. I don't know why. He looks pretty gloomy to me. But perhaps the most famous case is that awfully well-known tune in The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Dukas. I'm sure you know it.

[BASSOON: Dukas - The Sorcerer's Apprentice]

Not so funny. However, ever since that Sorcerer tune was written for the bassoon, composers have been calling on their bassoons like mad to burp out the jokes every time they need comic effects in a TV score, or in a background movie score. That's what has produced a new art called Mickey-Mousing, which makes the music follow the action exactly, step by step. You've all seen it in cartoons on TV or in the movies: like whenever Pluto suddenly crashes into a tree, you're likely to hear something like this:


or then suddenly Donald Duck is shot out of a cannon you'll hear something like this:

[VIOLINS: glissando]

But it's not only in Mickey-Mouse music: it's in grown-up movies as well. Take a man trying to sneak home late at night holding his shoes in his hands, and dollars to doughnuts you'll be hearing that comic bassoon again.

[BASSOON: Dukas - The Sorcerer's Apprentice]

I'm sure you recognize it. It is an art — an art of imitating, like that Rameau piece about the hen we played before: but it's not a very high art.

Well, now that we've sunk about as low as we can go in musical humor, let's pull ourselves up again, and finish by playing a piece of great symphonic humor. And the great piece we're going to play is not going to be funny at all, nor is it supposed to be funny. But all humor doesn't necessarily have to be funny, of course; there's such a thing as just plain good humor which means simply being in a good mood.

So the piece we're going to play for you now is not a funny piece but a piece which is just filled with good humor. It's the third movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, known as the scherzo of the symphony. Now actually this Italian word scherzo means a joke; but in music it has come to mean any piece that is playful, or light-hearted, or humorous in any way. Now there have been types of scherzos ever since they were invented in the 18th century. Beethoven changed them and Brahms changed what Beethoven had done. You could hear scherzos in 3/4 time, 2/4 time, in 6/8. It's usually the third movement, although even sometimes it's the second. In any case, we're going to play you the scherzo from Brahms' Fourth Symphony, which is in 2/4 time, and doesn't sound anything like any scherzo ever written before that time.

The only thing that makes it a scherzo is that it is the third movement, it is playful, full of energy, it's — as all scherzos should be — full of good humor. Which only goes to prove that there are all kinds of humor in the world, as well as in music; and that all humor doesn't have to be a joke, or make you laugh. Humor, in or out of music, can be strong and important like Gulliver's Travels, for instance. It can make you even have deep emotions, but it's still humor; because it makes you feel good inside. And that's what music is for.

[ORCH: Brahms - Fourth Symphony]


© 1959, Amberson Holdings LLC.
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