Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Humor in Music

 Last night, I had the privilege to attend Carole Blankenship's faculty recital at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.  I came to know Carole during my graduate work and have always respected her musicality and thorough attention to detail.  This performance certainly met my expectations and provided an exhilerating evening of music.

I was intrigued by the program from the outset due to the inclusion of a work by Libby Larson that I was not familiar with.  The cycle Me was conceived for soprano and piano based on the writings of Brenda Ueland.  The cycle traces one woman's development from childhood, through her awkward teen years and the devastation of a failed marriage and the death of her parent.  With lots of humor provided for both the soprano and pianist, the song cycle takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride until its final "goodbye".  

Perhaps it is due to my personal mindset at the moment, but while I find the cycle as a whole to be quite successful, I think it is the humorous settings that hold the entire work together.  As concert goers, we anticipate hearing music that is serious in nature at classical performances.  However, when we attend, we are not always hoping to find deep answers to life's questions; we are hoping to be entertained.  For me, humor is a key element to personal entertainment.

One of my most pleasing experiences as a soloist involved my discovery of music's humor.  At Pepperdine University, I was assigned Haydn's Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50.  I vividly remember my struggles with the opening single-note staccato theme in my desperate attempt to "say" something with my music.  I was especially perplexed when I began to work through the open pedal passages that occur later in the work.  

After confirming that notes and rhythms were solidly under control, my professor wisely told me to simply have fun with the piece and to allow "Haydn to help me laugh."  As I began to see the sonata's humor, I experienced success with the piece and learned a valuable lesson:  in order to have merit, music does not have to be "serious" and "mature."  Now I find myself returning over and over again to explore works filled with bubbling laughter and those that poke fun at the musical establishment.

What pieces do you go to when you need a good laugh? I'm ready to have my funny bone tickled again by the strains of beautiful music.