What's the difference between a viola and a trampoline?

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Peter Shickele, aka “P.D.Q Bach”

You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

Art expresses our deepest emotions. Ecstasy and grief, tranquility, bustle, anger, even frustration - all are grist for the mill to the painter, sculptor, choreographer, auteur, and poet. Yet one emotion is particularly challenging to represent in music: humor.

The first example that pops into my head are the brilliant parodies of Peter Shickele, aka “P.D.Q Bach” (1807 - 1742), such as his cantata “Iphegenia in Brooklyn” or “A Fanfare for the Common Cold.” Earlier examples include sections of Bartók’s fifth string quartet and Mozart’s horn quintet “The Village Musicians” where both composers imitate hapless local players botching their parts. Even Schoenberg got in on the action in his second quartet with a jaw-dropping non-sequitur when he introduces a familiar children’s song seemingly out of the blue.

The irrepressible Chico Marx at the piano

There is a history of actual musical comedians from Victor Borge and Dudley Moore to the contemporary Igudesman & Joo but the Funniest Composer Award would have to go to Haydn, whose music consistently defies conventions in unexpected ways. Haydn even wrote a string quartet nicknamed “The Joke” at the end of which, after several painfully long pauses, he finishes the work - only to add an extra measure designed to trip up the audience to applaud prematurely.  

Haydn: String Quartet Op. 33, No. 2
IV: Finale

Then there is the seriously silly waltz from otherwise über-serious composer György Kurtág in “Signs, Games, Messages.”

Kurtág: “Hommage a Ranky Gyorgy”
from “Signs. Games, Messages”

Which reminds me of a joke. Violists, as some of you may know, are often the laughing stock of the string section. I’ll touch upon the reasons in a subsequent post, but for now, I’ll send you off with a few examples of this cruel, unwarranted, and completely unjust sub-genre in classical music humor: the viola joke.

What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?
A violist.

Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola?
It saves time.

A conductor and a violist are standing in the middle of the road. which one do you run over first, and why?
The conductor. Business before pleasure.

David Yang, Artistic Director


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