Is humour an ancient human practice or a modern concept? Opinions differ – but either way, humour communicates something fundamental about society and what it means to be human. The Czech writer Milan Kundera describes it as a divine flash of lightning that exposes how morally ambiguous the world is, and how profoundly unsuited man is to judge others. Musical humour follows the cultural development of humour in many ways, and the programme “The Early Joke” presents a kind of mirror of humour through the ages.
From the Renaissance onward, a large quantity of music directly connected to the carnival is known – jesting dances and, perhaps more surprisingly, a considerable number of grotesque texts accompanied by music that does not, as in the pieces by Lassus, Willaert, and Gabrieli, differ noticeably from more serious compositions. The frenzied leave-taking of all things wordly before lent – “carne vale” – had its roots in the Dionysian feasts of ancient Greece, the Roman saturnalia that turned the social order upside-down, and the Christian festival of fools. The church, instead of trying to stop it, condoned the madness, feeling that it was easier to control licentious and subversive tendencies by allowing them for a brief and limited period of time. The old traditions, built on pagan rituals, were used as a safety valve through which inherent human folly could be vented. The carnival can be regarded as a two-pronged experience, in which laughter becomes an essential, liberating part of life, at the same time confirming its serious and melancholy nature.
17th century Europe suffered a constant onslaught of war, plague, and invasions.In 1673, Biber composed his “Battalia”, depicting different scenes before, during, and after a battle. Dedicating it to the god of wine, Bacchus, he employed a wide variety of humorous and experimental devices highlighting his ridicule of harsh everyday reality – with a sardonic grin.
The 18th century, in its turn, brought the Enlightenment and the emergence of a new kind of author, “the wit”. The composer Telemann wrote music in a similarly quick-witted spirit, and clever musical comments on scenes well known to the audience abound in the “Don Quixote” suite as well as in the “Schulmeister” cantata.
Alcohol and humour have always been connected, and few places have seen more playing, drinking, singing, dancing, boasting and toasting than the English alehouses and taverns. Around the mid-seventeenth century, many of them were converted into so called “musick-houses”, functioning as combined concert and drinking venues. A lot of humorous music has been composed for and performed in these public houses – or pubs, where composers like Purcell were frequent guests. It was also the English alehouse that saw the beginning of the “catch” tradition, where three or four lines of a song are given to different groups to sing and put together like a canon. Only when all the parts sing together is the song’s true – bawdy – meaning revealed.
P.D.Q. Bach is the twenty-first of Johann Sebastian’s twenty sons, according to American professor Peter Schieckele. He “discovered” P.D.Q. (which can also stand for “pretty damn quick”) in the 1960’s and has occupied himself with this “forgotten” member of the Bach family ever since. “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” parodies the rules and conventions of the baroque cantata, and “Eine kleine Nichtmusik” is a brilliant lesson in musical humour: in timing and the interplay of musical texts.
The programme “The Early Joke” has been put together by Bjarte Eike especially for Stockholm Early Music Festival 2011 and was presented by Barokksolistene and I Fagiolini.
From a text by Bjarte Eike
GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Svit i G-dur Suite in G major TVW55
II. Don Quixote’s awakening
III. His attack on the windmills
IV. Sighs of love for princess Dulcinea
V. Sancho Panza mocked
VI. Rosinante galloping
VII. The gallop of Sancho Panza’s mule
VIII. Don Quixote at rest
P.D.Q. BACH (1807-1742)
Iphigenia in Brooklyn
Cantata in G major for bargain counter tenor, trumpet mouthpiece, double reeds, wine bottle, harpsichord and string quartet
I. Trumpet involuntary
II. Aria: As Hyperion
III. Recitative: And lo
IV. Ground: Dying
V. Recitative: And in a vision
VI. Aria: Running
HEINRICH IGNAZ BIBER VON BIBERN (1644-1704)
Battaglia a 10 in D major, dedicated to Bacchus
I. The carefree troupe of musketeers
II. The march
III. The battle
IV. Lament of the wounded
Carnevale in Venice:
A. GABRIELI (1533-1585)
Anchor che col partire
Chi’nde dara la bose
G. MAINERIO (c 1530-1582)
Il Primo Libero de Balli
A. WILLAERT (c 1490-1652)
Eine kleine Nichtmusik
For strings and various wind players
An alehouse session:
HENRY PURCELL ET AL.
English 17th century music from taverns and inns, with elements of catches
GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN
Cantata for barytone, double boy’s choir, strings and basso continuo TWV 20:57