NPR’s April Fools’ Day hoaxes (RILM Abstracts 1925-86280) is an online collection of brief articles published by The Museum of Hoaxes. Music-related entries include Orchestra steroid scandal, Ring-tone rage, and Beethoven’s 10th symphony.
Category Archives: Humor
Georg Philipp Telemann’s ability to produce high-quality works at lightning speed is well known; less remembered today is his mischievous sense of humor. He was known among his friends for writing wickedly clever satirical verses and playing musical practical jokes, as he once did with a cantor from a nearby village.
Seeking to aggrandize himself, this cantor determined that he would honor a certain festival day by performing a new sacred work by the local master. He repeatedly requested that Telemann write something for him and his choir, and, knowing that their musicianship was decidedly inferior, the composer repeatedly declined. At last the cantor made such a pest of himself that Telemann told him that he and a few friends would arrive with the new work for a rehearsal before the performance.
On the appointed day the composer handed the new work—a treacherously difficult fugue—to the cantor, whispering to his friends “Now the thieves shall confess their sins.” The singers proceeded to produce a dismal, discordant rendition as they unknowingly made fun of themselves. Telemann had set the line “Wir können nichts wider den Herrn reden” (We cannot speak against the Lord) in such a way that the hapless singers were “confessing” their ineptitude by repeating the words “Wir können nichts” (We cannot)!
The composer laughed heartily. “That certainly won’t do” he said. “Let’s see how we can remedy this.” He then took out a different composition, and he and his friends performed it—both saving the day and humiliating the presumptuous cantor.
This according to “Images of Telemann: Narratives of reception in the composer’s anecdote, 1750–1830” by Steven Zohn (The journal of musicology XXI/4  459–486; RILM Abstracts 2004-6402).
Today is Telemann’s 340th birthday! Below, a merry bit of tone-painting—“Postillion” from his Tafelmusik.
The classical music world knows Alfred Brendel as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Far fewer people know him as a poet, with two books of poetry in German and one—One finger too many—in English translation (New York: Random House, 1999).
The collection’s title poem concerns a pianist who developed a third index finger “not to play the piano with/though it sometimes did intervene/discreetly/in tricky passages/but to point things out/when both hands were busy.”
While some of Brendel’s poems are serious, many are light-hearted. He explains, “At one stage in my life I didn’t laugh enough…some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue.” The title of another poem, “Not Brahms again”, points to a humorous but therapeutic reflection that he describes as “a little revenge for the perversity of the B♭ concerto…the passages which, as they stand, are literally unplayable.”
Today is Maestro Brendel’s 90th birthday! Below, Brendel plays Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 899 (op. 90).
BONUS: Cover half of Brendel’s face in the above photograph, then the other half, to see two completely different expressions.
An event billed as A concert for the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, held in London on 14 May 1880, featured a performance of Bernhard Romberg’s Toy symphony in which prominent London musicians appeared performing with various mechanical birds and toy instruments; all but two of the musicians in the ensemble played instruments other than those that they were accustomed to performing on.
This according to “Famous Victorians in a toy symphony” by Herbert Thompson (The musical times LXIX/1026 [1 August 1926] pp. 701–702. This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, the participants at a rehearsal; below, a more recent performance of the featured work.
Although he was best known as the guitarist and leader of The Mothers of Invention and other rock bands, Frank Zappa grew up with a keen interest in 20th-century concert music and aspired to be an orchestral composer as well; his scores have been recorded by Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and others.
Appropriate listening strategies for Zappa’s pieces for acoustic concert ensembles should be based primarily on models developed from his more abundant commercially successful output, and less so on the music of early–20th-century composers, such as Stravinsky and Varèse, whose music he admired.
This according to “Listening to Zappa” by Jonathan W. Bernard (Contemporary music review XVIII/4  pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts 1999-44563).
Related article: Frank Zappa and Uncle Meat
Having once considered himself “one of the staunchest opponents of classical music”, Charles Schultz (1922–2000) discovered the symphonies of Beethoven in 1946 and became an avid fan of classical music with a prodigious record collection. He also created the piano-playing Schroeder, a Beethoven fanatic, for his comic strip Peanuts.
A well-worn 1951 LP in Schultz’s collection by the pianist Friedrich Gulda of the Hammerklavier sonata, op. 106, may have inspired a series of strips from the early 1950s in which Schroeder is seen playing this work. The one reproduced above is the only one in which the piece is named, though it still relies on the reader to read music—and German!—for a full identification. Note Schultz’s imitation of German Fraktur script for both the work title and his signature.
Today is Beethoven’s 250th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter celebrates with the Hammerklavier sonata.
Related articles: Beethoven in Bibliolore
Unlike the troubled fictional character of stage and screen, the real Antonio Salieri was described by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the master librettist of Mozart’s operas, as “a most cultivated and intelligent man…whom I loved and esteemed both out of gratitude and by inclination…more than a friend, a brother to me.” He also had a nimble wit and enjoyed jokes at his own expense.
Salieri wrote a memoir that is now lost, but some quotations from it have survived. In one particularly winning anecdote, Salieri is recounting the première, in 1770, of his second opera, Le donne letterate. The applause is vigorous, and the young composer follows the audience out into the street, hoping to soak up more praise. He overhears a group of operagoers:
“The opera is not bad” said one. “It pleased me right well” said a second (that man I could have kissed). “For a pair of beginners, it is no small thing” said the third. “For my part” said the fourth, “I found it very tedious.” At these words, I struck off into another street for fear of hearing something still worse.
This according to “Salieri’s revenge: He was falsely cast as music’s sorest loser, and he’s now getting a fresh hearing” by Alex Ross (The New Yorker XCV/15 [3 June 2019] 26–31; RILM Abstracts 2019-6047).
BONUS: The finale of Axur as depicted in the film Amadeus.
Related article: Telemann’s wit
In the mid-1980s Congo-Brazzaville was chafing under the heel of a military regime that fed its impoverished people irrelevant political slogans while the elite dined on champagne and caviar. Zao, a humorous band led by Casimir Zoba, a former schoolteacher in a comical pseudo-military uniform singing in an extravagant mixture of Senegalese French and local slang, seemed to pose no real threat to the authorities.
But Zoba was no ordinary humorist or village idiot, and underneath his buffoonish image was a hard-edged political and social critic. While Zao’s music was tolerated as comic relief, the group delivered sharp critiques of bureaucracy, corruption, gender relations, and abuse of power in the “champagne socialism” of the military dictatorship.
This according to “Couching political criticism in humor: The case of musical parodies of the military in Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville” by Lyombe S. Eko, an essay included in Music and messaging in the African political arena (Hershey: IGI Global, 2019, 87–107; RILM Abstracts 2019-16663).
Below, Ancien combattant, Zao’s most popular song, and a case study in the article.
Parody is often filled with internal contradictions at both the level of the critique of the original artwork and the level of the quality of the parodied performance. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic is not the only artist creating parodies of Lady Gaga, and she is not his only target.
Even Lady Gaga herself creates parody as she borrows from the pop stars of earlier eras and comments on their work. Critics suggest that her success is due, in part, to her quotations from other artists, but her work goes beyond simple imitation. On the level of performance, her self-conscious employment of parody is partly responsible for her success.
As a self-professed performance artist, Lady Gaga becomes a nexus of imitation in which she both showcases and expands the limits and the understanding of both parody and performance. Through his own parodies of Gaga’s parodic work, “Weird Al” highlights this reality.
This according to “Performing pop: Lady Gaga, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and parodied performance” by Matthew R. Turner, an article included in The performance identities of Lady Gaga: Critical essays (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012, pp. 188–202).
Harvey Pekar, author of the autobiographical comic series American splendor, was also a jazz fan, an obsessive record collector, a prolific jazz critic, and a tireless supporter of experimental music; he often worked these enthusiasms into his comic strips.
These comic-book treatments of jazz can be viewed as extensions and developments of his prose criticism in publications such as The jazz review and DownBeat. In these comic strips, Pekar was experimenting with the form of jazz criticism itself, and was developing its language and impact.
This according to “Comics as criticism: Harvey Pekar, jazz writer” by Nicolas Pillai, an essay included in The Routledge companion to jazz studies (New New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 433–41).
Today would have been Harvey Pekar’s 80th birthday! Above, Robert Crumb’s depiction of Pekar and himself for an American splendor cover; below, a promo clip for Harvey Pekar’s world of jazz.