By Marten Noorduin
Music and humor are often a fruitful combination, as anyone who is familiar with the likes of Victor Borge will attest, and there are plenty of pieces by major composers that contain jokes, such as Shostakovich’s satirical opera The Nose, or that are in a sense jokes themselves, such as Mozart’s Musical Joke, or PDQ Bach’s entire output. However, composers and professional comedians are not the only ones to populate the tradition of musical humor, which has also manifested itself in musical periodicals, particularly those written in English. As such, it is interesting to raise the question whether these jokes have another function besides attempting to make the reader laugh, and whether they still have value for anyone other than those interested in vintage humor. The following is a brief attempt to understand the functions of musical jokes breaking them down into three partly overlapping categories.
The first category constitutes those jokes that are very short, include a clear punch line at the end, and are as such easily remembered. Furthermore, the reliance on homophones in the first example below would seem to suggest that some of these might have been expected to be read out loud to reach their full effect. Their relative brevity, as well as their thematic disconnect from the surrounding material, could be a sign that some of these were primarily used to fill up otherwise unused space on the page.
(Anon., ‘[Miscellaneous section]’, Boston Musical Gazette, Vol. 1, No. 5 (27 June 1838): 40.)
(Anon., ‘Naïveté’, Saroni’s Musical Times, Vol. 1, No. 25 (16 March, 1850): 289.)
(Anon., ‘A Joke for the End of the Season’, The Musical Times, Vol. 3, No. 52 (September 1, 1848): 46.)
The second category includes those that are somewhat longer and presented in a more complicated fashion, but which are still clearly intended as humorous anecdotes or jokes, and have clear albeit fewer memorable punch lines. These often appear in groups of two or three with a common theme, and therefore take up much more of the page than those in the previous category.
(Anon., ‘Anecdotes’, Saroni’s Musical Times, Vol. 1, No. 43 (20 July, 1850): 505.)
(Anon., ‘A Critique upon Singing’, The Musical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 5 (February 4, 1840): 79.)
(Anon., ‘Musical Jokes’, Saroni’s Musical Times, Vol. 3, No. 3 (April 12, 1851): 28.)
(Anon., ‘Foreign Musical Report’, The Harmonicon, Vol. 8, No. 5 (May 1830): 219.)
(Anon, ‘Miscellaneous’, Boston Eoliad, Vol. 1, no. 2 (17 February 1841): 14.)
(Anon., ‘Miscellaneous’, The Musical World, Vol. 1, no. 11 (27 May 1836): 178.)
A third, somewhat less populated but important category contains longer stories or articles that use humor to make a particular point. These kinds of jokes are perhaps most valuable for researchers, as the humor is largely subservient to a different goal, and used as a rhetorical device in order to make a point about the contemporary musical culture.
The first example is from a New York periodical, which appears to ridicule an unnamed English publication that had published a rather dramatic description of the musical life in New York, supposedly written by a musician who had visited the city. The original English publication introduces the letter with bombastic language, which is the cause of significant mockery on the part of the New York author. Nevertheless, the author does not seem to disagree completely with the description of the state of music in the city.
(Anon., ‘A Curiosity’, The Message Bird, Vol. I, No. 2 (15 August, 1849): 26.)
Another example of a longer joke can be found in the German-language Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, one of the most important periodicals of its time. This piece has something of a noteworthy genealogy, as it is titled Kreisleriana, after E.T.A Hoffman’s first novel about the hypochondriac genius Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, which would later go on to inspire Robert Schumann’s op. 16. Kreisler soon became a very popular character, and appeared in several other works by Hoffman, including the only relatively recently translated The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper.
The joke itself offers an interesting window into the opinions of its writer, who not only claimed that the achievements of classical opera were being squandered, but who also diagnoses the underlying conditions that are in his or her opinion the cause of this. Although it is clearly meant to be funny, the piece does provide us with valuable information of what some musicians thought of some of the musical developments of their time.
(A short contribution for the promotion of good taste.)
Question: How can one most effectively ruin the audience’s listening experience of the so-called classic operas, while simultaneously making it fond of the creations by the newer French and Italian masters?
Answer 1: One rehearses the former poorly, and takes care that the pedantic connoisseurs get so up in arms by the many mistakes that stand out clearly, so that in the end they do not want to hear these works any more.
Answer 2: One rushes through the named operas, starting at the overtures, in forced tempos—with Adagio and Andante played as if in a strong gallop—as quickly as possible, and tries in this way to avoid every clear understanding of the composer’s intention, his voice leading, and instrumentation.
Answer 3: One carefully heeds the proper staging of said operas, and avoids the purchase of new and brilliant decorations. Also, one cannot allow the text to be adapted in contemporary or witty ways. If one absolutely has to make a change, ensure that this is done by the least capable hands.
Answer 4: One ensures that no literary rooster crows, when occasionally one of these operas is actually performed at a high standard.
Answer 5: Most importantly, and as is already common practice in many places with great success, in the case of French and Italian masterworks one does exactly the opposite.
Let’s put this into practice!
(D.S., ‘Neue Kreisleriana. (Ein Scherflein zur Beförderung des guten Geschmacks)’, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Vol. 34, No. 38 (19 September 1832): 631.)
But perhaps the most curious example of all is a musical obelisk printed in a French journal in memory of the supposedly departed foreign artists ‘Violonsberg, Guitarros, Pianovitch, and Tromboni-pistonkoff’, and combines what a somewhat mocking tone with an interesting visual design.
To the perishable memory of the German, Italian, Russian and Prussian artists Violonsberg, Guitarros, Pianovitch, and Tromboni-pistonkoff, the collectors have raised this monolith, which will not go down to posterity. While waiting for that sweet moment, REST IN PEACE.
Oh you amateurs, be aware of mornings, afternoons, and musical evenings, which every winter come to your ears and bewilder you. Read ‘AUJOUR’DHUI’, and tonight you will sleep the sleep of innocence.
(Anon., ‘Musical Obelisk’, Saroni’s Musical Times, Vol. 2, No. 13 (21 December 1850): 124.)
So in summary, although some of these are clearly identified as jokes or anecdotes by the publications in which they appear, this is not always the case, and several of the shorter examples above appear amidst more serious material. In general, humor in musical periodicals in this period seem to have two functions: the shorter and medium-length jokes and anecdotes appear to be straightforward attempts to make the reader laugh, and perhaps also fill space on the page. The much longer pieces, on the other hand, are used to make some sort of larger point about the musical culture of the time, and are as such valuable sources for research on musical practice and culture.
Search tip: RIPM’s Retrospective Index & Online Archive also allows you to search for a particular kind of content, such as reviews, advertisements, and a variety of other kinds of content. Try it out!