Monday, January 4, 2016

Comedic Classical Music


Some of my favorite musical discoveries over the past few years have been classical music performances that have some sort of comedic element. It's amazing how many different musicians and groups have done this. Maybe purists would feel that they are being gimmicky, trying a little too hard to make classical music entertaining to a new audience. Then again, maybe these musicians are just being creative, wanting to do something new instead of performing a piece in the same traditional way. I think it's fun. King Solomon writes in Proverbs that "Laughter doeth good like a medicine," so here is your prescription for the day. I hope it uplifts you and boosts your mood.

I suppose making light of classical music is nothing new. Those of us who grew up watching Looney Tunes got an education in classical music from some episodes without really knowing it. This Elmer Fudd "Kill Da Wabbit" solo, to the tune of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," is mentioned in my mystery comedy, Action Men with Silly Putty. I won't tell you the context, because that might be a spoiler!

As a child, I remember listening to a record we had of Saint-Saens'* Carnival of the Animals. I thought it was a kiddie album, because it had dressed animals carrying instrument cases on the cover. This particular recording also had silly poetry by Ogden Nash to introduce each piece, such as this one ...

 "Camille Saint-Saens*
 Was wracked with pains
When people addressed him 
As Saint Sanes
He held the human race to blame,
Because it could not pronounce his name.
So, he turned with metronome and fife,
To glorify other kinds of life.
Be quiet please -- for here begins
His salute to feathers, fur and fins."

The poetry added to the feeling that it was both humorous and child-friendly. Even the actual compositions sound whimsical and humorous. The 2000 Disney Fantasia movie brought more whimsy to the "Finale" of Carnival of the Animals with animated flamingos. The clip below supposedly answers the age old question of what would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos.

One unique musician that seems to fall into his own niche is Victor Borge, (1909 - 2000.) He was both a great pianist and a comedian. Sometimes, watching clips, I am frustrated that he does more clowning than playing, but below is one of my favorite routines that is a good mix of both. He and his duet partner seem to play both a kind of Twister game and musical chairs while playing Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2."

I love the King's Singers. This diverse men's acappella group often incorporates some humor into their performances. Here they are singing words to Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," supposedly telling the story of Bach's writer's, er, composer's block. Well, it starts out as Bach's "Toccata ..." but also has samples of other Bach pieces such as "Badinerie" and "Brandenberg Concerto No. 2."

Swingle Singers is another interesting acappella group that uses jazz scat singing techniques to sing classical instrumental pieces. In this performance of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," their body language and facial expressions are humorous at times, and it gets sillier and sillier towards the end, when it becomes necessary to imitate sounds of bombs and firecrackers and church bells. This performance is from the 80s. (I think one of the women is wearing a banana clip.) The group still exists but is made up of different singers.

This Italian string quartet, Paganini, is a new discovery of mine. They seem to use comedy in all of their song performances. This is a funny rendition of Pachelbel's "Canon in D." When the violinists dance off the stage, it becomes more glaringly obvious that the cellist has a comparatively boring part to play, repeatedly playing the same eight notes. He changes that up by using some plucking techniques and improvisation midway. They then change up styles to bluegrass fiddling, tango, and then some sort of gypsy/klezmer style, all with a lot of physical comedy and dancing.

This reminds me of another creative interpretation of "Canon in D" by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. I even love the punny name, "Pachelbel's 'Loose' Canon." I couldn't embed the video for some reason, but it would be worthwhile to go to the link. The guitar quartet also deviates off into multiple styles of variations on the theme, including Latin jazz, bluegrass, varying jazz styles, Spanish guitar, etc. If it doesn't exactly make you laugh out loud throughout, it is, at least, fun, and you may laugh like I did when they make an attempt to be pseudo-heavy metal and shout "Pachelbel!"

This Polish string quartet, the MozART group, are another recent discovery of mine, and they are quite entertaining. This clip shows the use of unusual instruments, a balloon, for one, and a ping pong ball and paddle as a rhythm instrument. They also have a little fun with an audience member.

I don't know if the next two pieces are classical pieces in the strictest terms. They are disco songs performed in a classical style. The Piano Guys have a punny title for their performance, "I Want You Bach," and seems to play around with the idea of what if Bach was inspired by the Jackson Five? It's as fun visually as it is auditorily.

When I first saw Igudesman & Joo's version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," I watched it over again three times and laughed out loud each time. I showed it to my father who didn't find it nearly so hilarious, perhaps because he wasn't familiar with the original song they were parodying. I left my father at the computer and returned some time later to see him laughing until tears came to his eyes at another routine of theirs, "The Piano Teacher." This is "I Will Survive" as a kind of Russian folk song style. I especially like the melodramatic spoken part.

I discovered I like the composer Leroy Anderson and his light orchestra pieces. "The Typewriter" may not make you fall out of your chair laughing, but it is whimsical and fun. 

And so is his "Sandpaper Ballet" with some interesting sandpaper block rhythm.

How about a new classical style piece inspired by technological sounds, "The Microsoft Windows Waltz?"

This last one is more of a performance of Rowan Atkinson's physical antics, as he has some highly unorthodox style of conducting Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony." At times, he seems to enact scenarios inspired by the music and finds unusual uses for his conductor's baton, using it for sword fighting and air golf.


I hope this puts you in a light and happy mood, as well as possibly introduces you to new performances and groups.

* I tried to get the umlaut over the E in Saint-Saens, but I didn't know how to do this without copying and pasting. Copying and pasting caused all sorts of havoc with my formatting, so I removed it, although I know the umlaut should be there.


  1. I love it! I didn't know there was such a thing. I do love Straight No Chaser--an a cappella group that does humorous songs. It's great that there are so many innovative musicians coming up with ways to make us all smile.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed this post. :) I like Straight No Chaser also and appreciate their humor. I guess I like acapella music. The King's Singers do a wide range of styles from Renaissance madrigal type songs to Beatles, Beach Boys, Billy Joel, etc.