Playing the fool

April Fool’s Day occurs each year on 1 April and although the day has been marked for many centuries in different cultures, its exact origin is difficult to pin down. One speculation links it to the move by France in 1582 to move from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, effectively moving the start of the year to 1 January from the last week in March through to 1 April. People who were slow off the mark as regards this development, and continued to mark the transition in the run-up to 1 April, became the butt of jokes and hoaxes. In France they are known as a poisson d’Avril (April fish) when the prank of having a paper fish placed on their backs is played on them.

This week’s blog, then, comprises a selection of entries in the Naxos catalogue that feature fools. We’ll hear some shorter examples by way of starters, and gradually work our way to a group of more substantial items.

Our opening number is an arrangement of a song written in 1944 by the major author, but lesser known composer, Paul Bowles (1910-1999). April Fool Baby is a nonsensically comical poem by the American author Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), who was a major influence on Bowles. The dotty text is well matched by Bowles’ jaunty rhythms. This arrangement of the song for piano duet is by Andrey Kasparov. Here’s the text of Stein’s poem:

It seems to be a note to she the sweet sweetie
But actually it’s April Fool to tender she
My sweetie
She is all me my sweetie

April full of fool which is me for my sweetie
Dear April which made she to be
All to he
April Fool to his sweetie which is she
Tenderly excessively sweetily
My April Fool baby

April Fool Baby (8.559786)


Next, we have a quick nod to the folly of alcohol addiction in a song by the 19th-century Russian composer, Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev. Its title, Kak naladidi: durak, translates as ‘They keep calling me a fool’ and appears in a collection of ten songs from 1895-96. The sardonic poem urges a drunkard to turn from ‘green wine’ (vodka) to water, whatever the likely consequences.


They keep calling me a fool (8.572218)


From Balakirev to The Beatles now in a song arranged by Peter Breiner in 1993 as part of his ever popular first volume of Beatles Go Baroque. Arranged for chamber orchestra in the style of a Handel concerto grosso, Fool on the Hill describes the fool of the title as a solitary figure, misunderstood by others, but actually a person of wisdom:

Day after day
Alone on a hill
The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him
They can see that he’s just a fool
And he never gives an answer

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning ‘round

Fool on the Hill (8.990050)


Sibelius’ output of incidental music for the theatre began in 1898 with King Christian II, a historical drama written by his friend, the Swedish dramatist Adolf Paul. Although the play was a great success at the time, it has now disappeared from the repertory, with only the music surviving the test of time. The narrative centres around the love of Christian II (whose rule extended over all three Scandinavian countries) for a Dutch girl from a humble background. The music originally consisted of only four movements, although Sibelius was later encouraged to add a further three. We’ll hear the last of those original four movements, titled Fool’s Song of The Spider. You can follow this link to contemplate the complete text. Meanwhile, here are the words of the first verse in translation:

In the green field behind a wild hedge,
under the brooding heat of the sun,
Crouches a spider so black and so fat,
in the grass and fixes her gaze.
Then sunlight catches her and she begins to
thread and to twist and spin it until it is dark,
and she weaves herself a web, so strong and so dense,
so light and so airy,
in which to catch and torment every soul
until it lies dead in the threads.

Fool’s Song of The Spider (8.573299)


Now to a scene from David Schiff’s opera, Gimpel the Fool. Schiff recalls the genesis of the work, dating from the time when he was a graduate student in music composition at the Manhattan School of Music.

“One of my courses was Opera Composition. For our final assignment we had to write the libretto for a short opera. I decided then to write a libretto for an opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s most famous story, Gimpel the Fool. I went to a reading that Singer was giving of his stories and asked him afterwards if he would give me permission to write such an opera; he said that he was sure there would be no problem.”

At the opening of Act I we find Elka, Gimpel’s wife of twenty years, on her deathbed. She confesses that their six children are not his. Stunned and shocked, Gimpel tries to understand how he let himself be deceived. From his earliest childhood he had always believed everyone. He was an orphan and given to the baker as an apprentice. The townspeople of Frampol told him that the Czar was coming, that the moon had fallen down, even that the Messiah was coming to town – and he believed them. The rabbi advised him that those who told him lies were the fools, not Gimpel, for they would lose the world to come.

Once we saw how easy it was to fool Gimpel… (8.669010-11)


Gustav Holst composed his one-act comic opera The Perfect Fool between 1918 and 1922; it parodies the conventions of romantic grand opera, especially Verdi and Wagner. It did not prove a success and all that remains in the current repertory is the music for the opening ballet, performed as a separate suite. The fact that audiences found the story confusing probably accounts for its failure. The part of the Fool, for example, consists of only one word. A possible symbolic interpretation of the work posits that the role of the Princess symbolises the world of opera, while the Fool represents the British public. Whatever, Holst’s colourful score for the dance sequence is irresistible and is cast in the following structure:

Andante (invocation)
Dance of Spirits of Earth (Moderato – Andante)
Dance of Spirits of Water (Allegro)
Dance of Spirits of Fire (Allegro moderato – Andante)

The Perfect Fool (9.80222)


When Stalin died in 1953 the conditions for film-making in the Soviet Union changed almost overnight. Censorship and supervision eased, and new party directives demanded at least 150 productions annually. Among the directors active at the time was Grigori Kosintsev, better known in western countries for his fine Shakespeare adaptations of Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1970). During pre-production for the latter, Kosintsev sent a memo to Shostakovich, who had been commissioned to write the film score: “There should be no stylisation of antiquity. It should be the language of contemporary art which you use to express the contemporary world.”

The Ten Songs of the Fool from the incidental music that Shostakovich wrote for a stage production of King Lear in 1930 certainly seemed to anticipate that concept. Our final audio extract is taken from a volume that includes the music for both the stage and screen versions. Writing about that recording, Classical Net wrote:

“The CD contains the music for a stage production done in the 1930s as well as for the 1970 film. The tone of the two scores differs wildly. The earlier production grins like a skull, with the heavy satire idiosyncratic to Shostakovich. For example, at one point the Fool breaks out into “Jingle Bells”, to different words, of course.”

Ten Songs of the Fool (C10397)


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