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 Examiner.com 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!