Musical Fun and Jokes
Some people imagine that classical music is always serious, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! Lots of composers have sneaked jokes and fun into their music, from famous historical composers like Joseph Haydn, all the way up to composers who are writing today!
The “Joke” Quartet, Op. 33 no. 2, by Joseph Haydn
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was a composer, pianist and conductor. He worked for a Hungarian prince who had his own orchestra on staff (sounds wild, but how else was the prince supposed to listen to music without ICAN?) Haydn’s orchestra members loved him so much that they called him “Papa Haydn.”
Haydn loved musical jokes: he wrote a symphony with random blasts of sound called the “Surprise” Symphony, and a string quartet which is called the “Joke” Quartet because …. well, you wouldn’t want me to spoil the punchline, now would you? You’ll have to listen for yourself…make sure to pay attention to the ending!
Here’s a question for you: if Haydn’s orchestra called him “Papa Haydn,” and he wrote a “Joke” Quartet, does that make the quartet a “Dad joke?”
The “Musical Joke,” K. 522, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
One of Joseph Haydn’s good friends was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Mozart was a jokester too, who liked to poke fun at his musical buddies with off-the-wall jokes. For example, whenever his friend Franz Xaver Süssmayr would get confused while working with Mozart, Mozart told him, “There you stand like a duck in a thunderstorm!” He said it more than once, too.
One of Mozart’s funniest pieces is his Musical Joke, K. 522. The original title in German is Ein musikalischer Spaß, which could also be translated as “Some Musical Fun.” The piece has a goofy tone throughout: Mozart wrote the music to make it sound like the musicians are very confused. Wait for the end to hear it really go off the rails!
“Rage Over a Lost Penny,” Op. 129, by Ludwig van Beethoven
Have you ever gotten frustrated about something silly, then laughed at yourself afterward for it? Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) put that feeling into music in a piano piece called Rage Over a Lost Penny, Op. 129. Beethoven’s apartment was usually a huge mess, so I imagine that if he dropped a coin, he’d have a pretty hard time finding it, and he might even have the type of goofy tantrum you can hear in this piano piece, as he rushed around to search every corner of his living room!
Scherzo: Music-Speak for “Joke”
Did you know that there’s a musical term that means “joke?” Since the Renaissance, composers and poets have used the German word Scherz and the Italian word Scherzo to mean light, fun works of art. Both Scherz and scherzo translate as “joke!”
Scherzos have been a popular ingredient in symphonies ever since Beethoven started using them. In Beethoven’s time, a symphony was supposed to include a stately, old-fashioned dance called a minuet, but Beethoven kept putting in a section of fast, wild music instead. When he did that, he called that section, or movement, a scherzo!
Scherzo in d minor, Op. 10, by Clara Schumann
Thanks to Beethoven, scherzos have been popular among classical composers for a couple hundred years! Sometimes scherzos are pure humor, sometimes they’re written in a light and fun style, and sometimes they’re more of an excuse to for performers to show off without having to be too serious.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896) composed this piano scherzo in 1838, when she was about 19 years old. It has a lot of unexpected changes in texture and sudden shifts between loud and soft. You never know what to expect with this scherzo!
The Scherzo from Florence Price’s Symphony No. 4
This scherzo comes from the Fourth Symphony by American composer Florence Price (1887-1953). Like Clara Schumann’s scherzo, this one has a lot of surprising twists and turns. It takes inspiration from Beethoven’s fast and wild scherzos for orchestra. No stodgy minuets here, thank you very much!
“Humor” from the Afro-American Symphony by William Grant Still
In 1930, William Grant Still (1895-1978) wrote a symphony called The Afro-American Symphony. Each movement in his symphony is named after a mood. In place of a scherzo, he wrote a movement called “Humor”! By using an English word instead of an Italian one, Still made sure we’d expect some really fun music!
John Williams’s “Scherzo for X-Wings”
The scherzo is still going strong in music today! One recent scherzo was written by John Williams (b. 1932) for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This piece is called Scherzo for X-Wings!