(Classical) Musical Comedy

Who knew people said ‘kiss my arse’ in the seventeenth century?


‘Have you heard the one about the comic opera that was actually funny? No, thought not.’ That’s from Philip Hensher’s Guardian piece on the unfunniness (is that a word? ‘humourlessness’ is too strong) of comic operas. Hensher is a fantastic writer, and a funny one to boot (see King of the Badgers), but he’s quite wrong on this. He even commits what should be treason by commenting that, thanks to Arthur Sullivan’s music, he finds the Gilbert and Sullivan operas ‘only half funny’!

‘Mozart’s opere buffe,’ Hensher writes, ‘are probably the greatest of the genre. What they aren’t, however, is funny.’ I saw The Magic Flute last week and found myself joining in with the laughter — though ‘joining in’ perhaps being the operative phrase. It’s not nearly as funny unless you’ve got other people to laugh with. Nevertheless, here’s one memorable scene:


Beethoven is often portrayed as the most surly of chaps. But he had a great sense of humour, and he wrote some jolly good folks songs. Among them, a drinking song: Come, fill, fill my good fellow!


One can never have too many Charles Ives anecdotes. As related by his son-in-law:

Mr. Ives’s expressions were original. I can just hear him saying, “A poor joke is better than a good one.” And he had a lot of peculiar names that he’d call people, like “Little Willie Pickleface” and “Ratneck.” Mrs. Ives tells an amusing story about one of their stays at an English hotel where there was a little kitten that Mr. Ives was playing with, and the kitten was running down the corridor. Mr. Ives came after it on his hands and knees, yelling “Little Willie Pickleface.” He didn’t realise that the kitten was leading him into one of the hotel drawing rooms where a number of other people were present. I think even Mr. Ives was a little embarrassed on that occasion.

Ives is perhaps the composer with the greatest sense of fun (which went hand-in-hand with his profound seriousness; most of life is silly and not especially serious — except for that which isn’t).

The Side Show has a stuttering waltz-like rhythm that keeps tripping itself up in alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4. Ives found that a popular comic song and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 share a common melodic theme and — being Ives — thought it would be a laugh to mix them together. The odd rhythmic pattern is derived from the 5/4 waltz in second movement of Tchaikovsky 6. But all is mostly normal until the last line, where what should be ‘Look a bit like a [clown]’, becomes:

Look a bit like a
Russian Dance, Some speak of so highly
As they do of Riley!

(There’s the Tchaikovsky reference.)


Gerald Barry’s Canada. Funniest composer alive (okay, not much competition there). Sung by the inimitable Allan Clayton.


And lastly, in the starring role, a giant nose:


I notice these have all been songs. Instrumental music can be funny too. Let’s go back to Ives. One of the great musical endings is the incredible raspberry that finishes  his Second Symphony — all the notes of the chromatic scale bar one. If you have the time, listen to the whole symphony, or at least the final movement (28:06). If not, skip to 36:30.

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