Humour in Haydn

May 26, 2020, 6:11 PM · Hey,
Most of us know that Haydn is known for his little jokes and things in his music. But does anyone have any suggestions of any books or articles about said subject matter? I am learning Haydn's c major piano sonata at the moment and I went through the Haydn G major concerto with my teacher today in our first online Zoom lesson (a whole other story haha). So I'd like some info on this topic so I can try and inform my interpretation for both pieces and any future ones I may play (hopefully all of it ^_^)
Thanks in advance!

Replies (17)

May 26, 2020, 6:27 PM · This is an article by the great pianist Andreas schiff

May 26, 2020, 6:42 PM · I like that haha
May 26, 2020, 10:18 PM · You're doing the G Major Violin concerto? On the viola?
May 26, 2020, 10:48 PM · No haha. I didn't realise my teacher didn't have the viola music, so he suggested we do the Haydn instead (I sent a recording of myself playing it a little while ago)
May 27, 2020, 10:43 AM · Haydn maybe wrote a thousand Minuet & Trio movements in all of his chamber music and symphonies. One would think that he wore out the form, got boring, but in every one that I have heard, there is something clever, surprising, humorous. Haydn may have been the most mentally healthy of the great composers; there is positive, balanced mood to everything, even the sturm -und -drang middle symphonies.
May 27, 2020, 3:41 PM · Haydn wasn't above using folk tunes. A good example is the opening of the 3rd movement (rondo) of his D maj cello concerto, which bears a startling resemblance to an English folk song "Here we go gathering nuts in May" (there may be versions of this tune elsewhere on the European subcontinent).
Edited: May 27, 2020, 6:24 PM · Most baroque-era music that wasn't based on a particular dance music rhythm (most of it) was based on Renaissance counterpoint. A piece would usually begin, develop, and conclude in basically the same texture and rhythm. One of the radical departures from this in the developing classical style was to think of music as discourse, a conversation. Haydn was one of the pioneers of this style, where a theme of a piece could begin with a phrase in one texture, and a response in a contrasting texture. As if the you were saying, "I'm here to tell you something important," and the response could be, "That's outrageous!" It's one reason why Mozart operas are better than those written in the baroque era. Haydn could write a nice little dance tune, too, of course, but his style usually demonstrates a delight in contrast, where one thing could be instantly followed by a surprising response. This is a basic feature of humor, and why Haydn's music (and Mozart's, and Beethoven's...) can seem humorous, IMO.
May 27, 2020, 6:31 PM · This is funny because I had actually just gotten music to play Haydn Joke quartet No.2.. You could look at that too but it's not necessarily a article or video :/
May 27, 2020, 7:33 PM · Paul, the reason why Mozart operas are better than those written in the baroque era is that Mozart was a greater composer than those who wrote operas in the baroque era - but not all baroque operas are without operatic dialogue. The lines
- "By all that's good ..."
- "All that's good you have forsworn!"
were perfectly set by the baroque composer in question.
Edited: May 27, 2020, 11:48 PM · John, we disagree about the quality of composition in the baroque and classical eras, but that wasn't the point of my comparison. Composers in the baroque were wonderful, but the classical style was far better suited to dramatic conversation. Mozart is not necessarily a "better" composer than Purcell or whoever, my point ("one reason...") was that he was given an entirely different set of tools, mainly from his teachers, including Haydn and J. C. Bach, among others. In any case, humor--responding to the OP--is far more easily expressed in the classical style than the baroque style.
Edited: May 28, 2020, 10:29 AM · Baroque composers could find ways to be humorous or funny if they felt the need; their style did not prevent that. Bach has a cantata about the supposed dangers of coffee-drinking, another about the manners of peasants (which we probably don't find as humorous as Bach's contemporaries did). I heard a cantata by Telemann once, titled "Der Schulmeister" (the teacher) where the teacher tries to make his students sing a fugue...

Mozart's "Musikalischer Spass" on the other hand is not funny, it is arrogant and contemptuous, though brilliant. And for once the arrogance was entirely justified.

May 28, 2020, 10:54 AM · Yes, Albrecht, anyone can make a joke, and classical era composers can write serious music. The OP was discussing classical style--you know, the actual notes on the page--and how it creates humor.


I didn't realize that answering the OP's actual question, using details of the material that Haydn taught Mozart and Beethoven, would be controversial for some of you. Go listen to some string quartets or something. This shouldn't be hard to understand.

May 28, 2020, 12:45 PM · Paul I get exactly what you mean. The reason I ask is that I was watching a Robert Levin piano masterclass on a Haydn sonata, so it got me thinking about it in other places. the only one I knew of was at the end of his Op.33 no 2 (The Joke) which I have actually played I think
Edited: May 28, 2020, 2:56 PM · Paul, excuse me, if someone writes "but the classical style was far better suited to dramatic conversation" in a post about musical humor it is not a sign of illiteracy to point out that baroque composers could do humor as well if they chose.

As to specific examples of Haydn's humor off the top of my head two examples: Quartet op. 64/1 in C, last movement: This is a rondo with a theme that sounds a bit like someone knocking at a door. The theme is played with in contrapuntal sections and the knock-knock keeps appearing in all voices, eventually even off beat. Or quartet op. 64/6 E flat: Again in the last movement towards the end. The music seems to stall a bit, 4 G.P.s in fairly short order. Then the rondo-theme at half tempo with rests between all the notes (like a stutter): OH MY GOD. I FORGOT THE THEME! And from there the theme at full tempo and off into a short coda.

The two most famous examples of Haydn's humor are of course the symphonies "Surprise" and "Farewell" though in the latter case I am not sure it is a joke. The chamber music ending fits the symphony so perfectly and is really quite sad in mood. Haydn's humor is not always this overt, in many places one smiles, one does not laugh out loud.

Beethoven BTW also often used humor: Trio op.1/1 finale with its huge jumps in the theme is hilarious throughout. In quartet op. 18/6 last movement the "malinconia"-introduction is meant sarcastically IMO and in the movement itself Beethoven keeps "forgetting" which key he is in.

May 29, 2020, 1:39 PM · I'm not sure that Beethoven was being sarcastic about malinconia: the word originally incorporated all stages of the bipolar condition (see, including the manic phase.
May 30, 2020, 11:39 AM · I know I am not stating majority opinion on malinconia. The section just seems to me overdone for effect rather than serious. But it is also true that the adagio from that quartet is very serious; maybe the most impressive slow movement in the entire set.

I didn't know the (historic) medical use of the term, just the everyday meaning which I checked once in an Italian dictionary. But bipolar could apply to that last movement if we take malinconia seriously...

Edited: May 30, 2020, 1:11 PM · Beethoven didn't coin the term "scherzo" but he is I think the most humourous composer of them all. The Malinconia I'd say is stage-tragic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not as much as his so-called "quartetto serioso" Op.95 which ends like a comic opera. His very last two string quartet movements (the Op.135 and Op.130 finales - the last he ever completed?) are full of high spirits that make me smile - played appropriately the Op.135 can even make me LOL!

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