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Classical music – (No) laughing matter

"Do you know any funny music?" the composer Franz Schubert is reported to have asked his fellow composer Josef Dessauer. Admittedly Schubert's short life was overshadowed by poverty and illness, but he might have encountered the two Haydn symphony movements featured here: from "Il distratto" (No.60), where an absent-minded string section needs to retune in mid-movement, and from the "Farewell" Symphony (No.45), where two-by-two the musicians blow out their candles, pick up their music stands and leave the venue – in this recording Hermann Scherchen heightens the tension by having them say "Auf Wiedersehen".Read more…

Schubert may also have known 'Ein musikalischer Spaß' (A Musical Joke), in which Mozart mercilessly lampoons composers and performers less gifted than himself. Beethoven hardly intended his "Battle Symphony" as a joke, but to present-day ears its themes have unexpected, indeed comical, associations. Fauré and Messager wrote quadrilles for piano duet on themes from 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' jettisoning any Germanic metaphysical ballast they may have found in Wagner's cycle of operas – and Wagner was still alive when the pieces were written! Nearer the present day, Haydn as musical prankster found a worthy successor in Gerard Hoffnung (1925-59). Still unsurpassed as a musical caricaturist and raconteur, he organized two legendary "humorous" concerts at London's Royal Festival Hall for which he commissioned works such as Reizenstein's 'Concerto Popolare – a Piano Concerto to end all Piano Concertos': the orchestra strikes up the Tchaikovsky, the pianist answers with the Grieg and both tackle Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue', Addinsell's 'Warsaw Concerto', "Pop goes the Weasel" and "Roll out the Barrel" along the way.

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