I think most of us need a bit of a giggle right now, as we squelch through ongoing developments on the world stage, both political and pugilistic. The problem is that, on the face of it, classical music doesn’t seem a likely source of humour, either for giggles, grins or guffaws. Some of you will be a step ahead of me, sensing that I’m probably going to get help on the launch pad for this week’s blog from our most reliable source of musical humour: viola jokes. And you’d be correct.
Q. What’s the difference between a viola and an onion?
A. No one cries when you chop up a viola.
An immediate peace offering to all violists, as we point out that one of Naxos’ December releases is a wonderful disc of viola music by the eclectic Spanish composer Ramón Paús (8.573602). More of that later.
Prior to Handel (1685–1759), the industry of Italian opera that was fashionable in continental Europe found no foothold in England. Henry Purcell (1659-95) wrote only one opera, Dido and Aeneas (8.553108) which was staged at a boarding school for young ladies in Chelsea, London, the venue hinting at the general profile the genre enjoyed. Semi-opera, however, was another matter—a mixture of acting and singing performed by different artists. From Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (8.550660-61), here’s part of the Scene of the Drunken Poet, in which the tipsy mortal is given a real runaround by a flutter of mischievous fairies.
Q. What’s the difference between a radio and a viola?
A. A radio plays music.
Completed in 1818, Beethoven’s so-called Hammerklavier Sonata Op. 106 (8.550234) is a remarkable work for piano solo that makes enormous technical demands on the player during its 40-plus minutes. Despite being among the most difficult pieces in the classical piano repertoire, Beethoven splashes unexpected witticisms around the second-movement. Wit isn’t normally associated with the glowering portraits that usually represent the composer, but those familiar with his output will no doubt readily point to numerous places where unexpected flightiness flows from the master’s quill. Here’s the closing section of the Hammerklavier’s scherzo, tailor-made for at least a broad grin.
Q. What do a viola and a lawsuit have in common?
A. Everyone is happy when the case is closed.
Haydn’s Op. 33 string quartets date from 1781. The composer’s general output is shot through with such good-humoured temperament that it’s impossible to listen to much of it without wearing a half-smile. His String Quartet Op. 33, No. 2 (8.550788) goes a crinkle further. It gets its nickname—The Joke—from the last movement. Dominated by a cheerful principal theme, the music’s progress is briefly interrupted by a sudden change of speed and a coda that plays jokes on the listener with a series of silences and a whispered ending.
Q. What is the longest viola joke?
A. Harold in Italy
One usually doesn’t associate the music of Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) with having a giggle. But do you think he was having a laugh at the very end of his Polymorphia (8.557980), written in 1961? It’s written in the uncompromising style of his early works, for strings only, and has the upper strings indulging in a range of glissando techniques as the music’s texture and dynamic level intensify. And then, at the very end, comes his coup de théâtre…
Q. What’s another name for viola auditions?
A. Scratch lottery.
Now seen as possibly Germany’s first boy band, the Comedy Harmonists (8.120613) were a class act, musically polished, comprising a vocal quintet and a pianist. They were a household name by the late 1920s, with a unique blend of talent, musicality, personality and vocal adaptability, all cemented by an appetite for hard work that helped them achieve European stardom. If you’re reading this on a Sunday evening, dreading the thought of that Monday-morning-back-at-the-office feeling, then listen to this clip from their version of Whistle While You Work. I’m confident you won’t stay in the doldrums for long.
Q. Why did the violist marry the accordion player?
A. Upward mobility.
Let’s end by righting the ribaldry of those jokes in listening to an extract from a work included on the disc referred to at the start of our blog (8.573602). It features violist Yuval Gotlibovich and the Catalan Chamber Orchestra in a beautiful performance of Cobalto azul, en tránsito (Cobalt blue, in transit) by Ramón Paús.