Serious Music To Amuse
For some peculiar reason the British are very fond of being silly around classical music. This dates back to the artist and musician Gerard Hoffnung (I posted a little about him four years ago). In 1956 Hoffnung mounted the first of his Hoffnung Festivals in London, during which classical music was spoofed for comic effect, with contributions from many eminent musicians.
Hoffnung had taken part in the popular April Fool’s concerts in in Liverpool and presented a similar, larger-scale, concert at the Festival Hall. It played to a sell-out audience. The success led to two more Hoffnung Festivals, the third of them presented as a tribute after his death. DonaldSwann revised Haydn’s Surprise Symphony to make it considerably more surprising. Malcolm Arnold wrote A Grand, Grand Overture, scored for orchestra and vacuum cleaners, the Concerto Popolare featured a battle between the soloist, playing the Grieg Piano Concerto and the orchestra, determinedly playing Tchaikovsky. Even Dame Edith Evans had fun with a dreadful poem set to music.
The tradition was carried on by the Danish musician and comedian Victor Borge, who played a ‘Fur Elise’ that transformed into Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ because ‘It’s impossible to remember how everything goes’, and an inverse William Tell overture with the score upside down.
Barry Humphries, who staged similar events with a full orchestra at the Albert Hall, told a history of Australia in music and a novel version of ‘Peter and the Wolf’. Les Ballets Trockedero are currently playing again in London (although balletomanes with a sense of humour must constitute a narrow demographic) and of course Tim Minchin’s unexpectedly twisted lyrics always go down a storm in the UK.
It was once said that a music lover was someone who could listen to Rossini’s William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. I have hideous memories of the Portsmouth Symphonia playing that overture at the wrong speed, turning it into a painfully lopsided dirge. The Portsmouth orchestra comprised a group of players some of whom were highly proficient musicians, others who had never played before – the result was two hilarious albums. Incredibly, some people took them seriously and complained!
The classical puns and jokes of concerts are now becoming a bit of a lost art. One musician friend of mine blames the widening class gap; classical music once had a reach far beyond a narrow band of wealthy music lovers – WWII limited people’s musical choice but brought simple classical concerts to everyone, and even my father, who had no interest in music, had favourite composers afterwards.
The closest we have now to making fun of classics is ‘Shitfaced Shakespeare’, the company that gets one of its troupe drunk nightly before performances of the Bard.