Monday, July 11, 2011

The Humor of Classical Music

I see that, after considerable absence, Jeremy Denk returned to this think denk blog with a post intended to take on a Guardian article by Tom Service questioning whether classical music can be funny.  Along the lines of my recent article entitled “Those who seek mathematics in music probably don’t understand mathematics,” it seems to me that those most obsessed with whether or not there is humor in classical music tend to be those with little, if any, sense of humor.  I realize that this runs the risk that, merely by responding to Service, Denk betrayed his own lacking sense of humor;  but, between his writing and those approaches to repertoire I have been fortunate enough to experience, I am pretty sure that this is not the case.  On the other hand the rather astounding length of his post left me wondering why he took the trouble to use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

One reason may be that he chose to write about humor in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.  This was a great way to make his point, particularly since there is such a strong societal inclination to treat Beethoven as a monument to “heroic tragedy,” rather than a particularly skilled performer just interested in making music that was better than his colleagues.  The last time I cited Beethoven as a source of wit was in May, when I was writing about Peter Grunberg’s performance of the Opus 78 piano sonata in F-sharp minor.  Denk makes his case with much earlier music, the Opus 31 piano sonatas from 1802;  however, like my own example, these compositions postdate the Heiligenstadt Testament, taken by those in the popular culture set as the beginning to Beethoven’s tragic turn.  Indeed, if Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s chronology is to believed, the Opus 31 sonatas come only a short period of time after Heiligenstadt.

As I see it, the point is that Beethoven had a sense of humor for most of his life.  If he was not born with it, he probably picked up through his studies of the music of Joseph Haydn, which may have inspired his efforts to outdo Haydn at this game.  Yes, Beethoven had a serious side;  but my guess is that, if you pick any year from Thayer’s biography, you will find at least one humorous composition lurking among the works composed in that year.  Notwithstanding the length of Denk’s rebuttal, that is really all that needs to be said about Beethoven’s sense of humor!


Jeremy Denk said...


Delighted you read my post and honored you linked to it.

I agree with your contention that I took a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. I also wondered "is it really worth debunking this humor post which was anyway just a throwaway little post?" but then I talked to a few non-musician friends, one of whom said "Beethoven was a humorous composer?!?" incredulously ... and then I was visited by recollections of scores of students playing this Sonata (and others) and looking stupefied by the idea that something in it was a joke.

It got me thinking, and that became an excuse to write a (very long, mea culpa) love-letter to a particular piece ... to examine the nature of the humor in it, to revel in it, tease it out! Is there anything wrong with that?:) In this Twitter age I guess it's a sin to blather on!

Respectfully! I don't agree with you (obviously) that having found one humorous composition from every year of Beethoven's life, that's "all that needs to be said." Actually I think my point was more that the whole language of the Mozart-Haydn-Beethoven cluster is dependent on the fusing of the comic with the serious, that the humor is not limited to "humorous compositions" but that it informs a vast portion of the repertoire, and that it moreover humanizes it. I think I tried to make a large distinction between that approach and that of the Romantics, who often seem to feel something must be serious, or not.

The point, for me, is not "that Beethoven had a sense of humor," but that humor is essential to, inseparable from, what he had to express. (Same goes for Mozart, Haydn, etc.)

I love how Shakespeare always has the sarcastic jester or the fool commenting on his tragic heroes ... I think Beethoven's wit, like Shakespeare's, is inexhaustible, you can never run out of things to say about it, because it is wonderful, profound, wide-ranging, essential, the foil which defines. I think it is also under-discussed, perhaps because discussing humor often becomes very unhumorous (like this comment haha).


Jeremy Denk

Stephen Smoliar said...

For those curious about such matters, the sledgehammer metaphor was not original. I picked it up from Claude Berge, who was using it to describe a particular mathematical proof. (Shifting the metaphor from mathematics to music seemed to make far more sense to me than looking for permutation groups in the scores of Arnold Schoenberg!)

Lord knows, I have never felt inhibited about writing at great length about personal favorite subjects. Over on I did this twice in the last two days, and Mozart was involved both times. The first had to do with "character turning points" in his operas, and the second involved his ability to synthesize reflection and action in his opera arias. The very thought of tweeting about either listening to or performing music just makes my blood run cold!

I definitely take Jeremy's point of disagreement. For all that Charles Rosen crammed into The Classical Style, he never got around to that way in which Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all could negotiate that Hegelian synthesis of the comic and the serious. (My copy of Hegel's Aesthetics has an editor's footnote about Beethoven. Apparently, Hegel did not think much of his music and had much strong preference for Rossini!) I am not sure that the Romantics were quite so black-and-white about the distinction, though; and I think there are ways in which the nineteenth century was when irony finally made its first forays into music.