The Real Doctor and I went to see a lecture/demonstration by Alfred Brendel on the last night of October. Brendel no longer gives concerts; his fingers no longer have the agility or stamina needed to live up to his standards. However, his mind is still sharp and overflowing with wit and scholarship, so he gives lectures punctuated by short musical excerpts. The subject of this lecture was humor in music.
It’s good practice in argument, as in war, to dictate the field of action to suit your own strengths. Brendel did this. Although he has an extensive recorded repertoire, from Bach to Schoenberg and beyond, he has made his name as a cerebral master of the Viennese classics, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. So, he chose to define humor in such a way that it can only really be found in the high Classical style (and perhaps Ligeti).
Humor can be found in music where we see foiled harmonic expectations, pratfalls where expertise fails, the simulation of laughter, inappropriate or contradictory expressions, and the like. The bottom line is that, by his definition, humor basically requires expectations—expectations that can be created by the relatively structured nature of the Classical style. (Though I’m not sure Brendel would approve, this is exactly what PDQ Bach and Victor Borge take advantage of.) Having set up his argument, Brendel easily carried it off, dismissing any opposition. When Schumann writes a piece with the marking “mit humor,” the piece itself is not funny, it’s pervaded by a humorous mood. When Bartok lampoons Shostakovich in the Concerto for Orchestra, it’s not humorous, it’s grotesque. Scherzos—“jokes”—from Chopin to Rachmaninoff? Not really funny funny, again, more grotesque. Bach? Not funny at all.
You might imagine that an evening watching an elderly German guy dissect and analyze humor would be deadly. It was actually quite entertaining. Though he’s not as strong at the piano as he used to be, Brendel illustrated his rather narrow argument with excellent examples. The humor in a Haydn sonata was intensified when Brendel played the same piece drained of all humor by hewing to expectations. A riotous Beethoven Bagatelle that incongruously juxtaposes a jaunty mood with a minor key was made funnier when Brendel played it in the major, turning it into an icky puddle of sap. Beethoven (who is for my money the funniest composer out there) received the most attention, especially the Diabelli variations. Interestingly, for Brendel, Mozart and Schubert are pretty much without humor. Their music is so concerned with beauty and singing that humor just didn’t seem to interest them.
There was an element of gentle polemic to the evening as well. Brendel is intellectual, but he is also a vigorous advocate of humor. Why, he wondered, is coughing permitted in concert halls, but laughing banned? Why do some players do their best to suppress humor? He concluded, somewhat sadly, that some people just don’t get it. It’s like being color blind. It’s not their fault.
In his role as humor advocate, Brendel does come across differently from Brendel as concert artist. He satirized the humorless Haydn player by sitting at the piano and charging right into a witty sonata movement—then playing it as it should be played: sitting at the piano, pausing to arch one eyebrow above his glasses at the audience, and then launching into the joke. On the whole, he was much more facially involved than I had ever seen him, emphasizing jokes and contrasts with a degree of mugging that I found surprising. So, although he had a sound intellectual argument as the foundation of the evening, Brendel left me with another question.
Music is about communication by sound, and the role of the performer is to communicate the sounds the composer specified (plus some of his or her own interpretation) to the listener. There definitely is humor in music; I can listen to a recording of the Diabelli Variations or Bagatelles in a dark room and still get a laugh. But when we are dealing with humor—or pathos, or whatever emotion is needed—how much of the performer’s job is visual? And, did Brendel’s face answer this question in a way that his intellect would approve of?