Friday, March 22, 2019

No Laughing Matter

We spent yesterday in our Beethoven class talking about humor. Specifically how Beethoven was a funny guy.

Seriously, he was! I'm not kidding.

Well, sometimes he was funny, anyway. And while I told my students very sternly not to invoke my name as reason for their unruly behavior the next time they visit Heinz Hall, it is permissible, I think, to actually laugh out loud if the composer gives you reason for doing so. As if you could help it.

But the biggest obstacle to all that is that classical music isn't supposed to be funny. We've even got a synonym for it. We sometimes call classical music serious music.

Which simply means serious in its intent. That doesn't mean it can't be comic in its expression. I mean, Shakespeare wrote comedies. It's not like it has to be Vaudeville.

But jokes are in the ear of the beholder. And I think you'll agree that good comedy is in the timing. One person can tell a joke and have you rolling on the ground. Another will tell you something that ought to be hilarious in a way that seems completely unfunny. Why?

As a performer, I would submit that it takes talent. But first, you have to be looking for humor. If you assume always that Beethoven, that great lion of the concert hall, would never stoop to be funny, you'll play him that way. Here's exhibit A:

It's a video that someone posted (probably illegally) on Youtube of a terrific pianist playing a strange little piece of music. Now, I don't have a real problem with suggesting this fellow may have an insufficiency, though I don't like to pan other pianists online, because when you hear him play you'll note that one thing he does not have a shortage of is technical ability. It's astonishing. Jaw-dropping. The guy can play really, really, fast. And cleanly.

But that's sort of my point. I think his take on this piece was that it is a vehicle for virtuosity. Or, perhaps, he thought fast WAS funny. And maybe for some of you it is.

The piece he is playing is something that I had been considering playing in class yesterday on the piano, but time didn't permit. I ran out of time to learn new music (a half dozen sonatas later) and besides, the thing is really long. We had a good time listening to two symphonic movement and three movements from piano sonatas.

This piece is called a "capriccio" which is a whimsical kind of piece (think of a caprice). And it has a posthumously parceled out program, too. The story is that good old stormy, moody Beethoven lost a penny somewhere in his apartment and went ransacking the place to find it. That is supposed to be where the humor comes in. Obviously Beethoven didn't coin the title (sorry). But it is evident from the way that he suddenly shifts from key to key, or throws in those smashed notes (or chords for the full fist) or turns the theme upside down and practically throttles it, that he was having a pretty good time writing it. Not in rage, but in fun. At least, that's my take.

Our pianist, whose video is on youtube, may have been thinking more of rage than humor, or maybe he was just thinking he needed to show his pianistic prowess, which he has plenty of.

Anyhow, have a listen. It will certainly be worth your time.

Grigory Sokolov is the pianist, in the Rondo a Capriccio, op. 129, the so-called "Rage over a lost penny" by Ludwig van Beethoven here on Youtube

p.s. the program notes are worth reading, too.

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