Too Much Tchaikovsky

Are We Having Fun Yet?

A word of explanation: My next column will be devoted entirely to music by György Kurtág (b. 1926), the Last Man Standing of 20th-century avant-garde music—serious avant-garde, that is. As his friend and colleague Reinbert de Leeuw says, “Kurtág is of the generation of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Maderna, Cage, Ligeti, and Kagel,” but he “developed his own voice in relative seclusion and much later than his contemporaries.”

Partly because I was otherwise engaged, I never welcomed Kurtág into my personal pantheon of modern greats. Next month, however, ECM will release an expertly performed new collection of his music, giving us a chance to reassess his work. Is he a major creative figure? If so, why? Should he turn up on your Bucket Listening List?

In the meantime, another big question comes via Dwight Garner, who recently called Richard Poirer’s 1967 critique of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band an “anthology of delights” (Poirer’s essay, not necessarily Sgt. Pepper):

The Beatles, [Poirer] writes, should make literary and academic grown-ups “begin to ask some childlike and therefore some extremely difficult questions about particular works: Is this any fun? How and where is it any fun? And if it isn’t why bother?”

Are we having fun yet? What is fun, anyway? I rather suspect Mr. Kurtág’s idea of fun is not yours or mine, hence this preemptive strike.

Here’s some fun I did have recently, courtesy of the usual suspects—Joseph Haydn, Elliott Carter et al. First, Haydn. Long before he became “Papa” and left us with The Creation (which also contains fun—see below), he kept busy running his prince’s three-ring operatic circus at Eszterháza. This meant programming, casting, and music-directing a stream of comic operas and farces, including not only his own works but those of Mozart, Cimarosa, and their contemporaries. For Le Distrait, a play by Jean-Francois Regnard (1655–1709), Haydn wrote some incidental music which he later recycled into Symphony No. 60 “Il distratto.” It’s full of gags. Some are obvious, like this one:

A few bars into the finale, the violins apparently realize they’ve forgotten to tune. They stop, fiddle with their fourth strings, then start again. Bah-dah-bump. At the other end of Haydn’s humor scale lie his thematic comments: first, a comic contrast between a charming Andante tune (which probably describes Isabelle, the ingénue of the play) and a pompous little military belch (perhaps Madame Grognac, not an ingénue):

Then there’s the first-movement theme that chugs into a corner and can’t get out; reminds me of those cheap wind-up toys that skitter across the floor (delightful!) right into a wall (less delightful!):

With apologies to Seinfeld, I guess you could categorize these bits as observational humor. In each of them, a bemused observer describes Strange Human Tricks in such a way that we laugh, or at least smile.

But fun comes in more than one disguise. Another is the sheer cleverness of the inventions on display. When you hear such music, you can be dazzled, depending on how clever the music is. The opening sections of Elliott Carter’s 1996 Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra certainly dazzled me:

It’s just counterpoint. And a Fabergé egg is just a hunk of enameled, jewel-encrusted metal. The surprising ways in which the clarinet weaves and bobs, ducks and punches, dodging the orchestra’s odd little fusillades and forays? That makes it fun, just like this drier bit of wit from Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (which I’ve shared with you before):

Observational humor and technical wizardry in music share a common aesthetic value, something that separates them from much of the classical music now held in high esteem: they do not use art primarily to monumentalize personal emotion. Read that sentence four or five times until it really sinks in. (Or see how Holland Cotter plays with this idea in another context.) From Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to Mahler to Shostakovich, we have valorized composers who focused on personal emotion, who universalized it so that it felt like our feelings too.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that (heh heh). But it makes fun less likely. The bitter humor we find in Mahler or Shostakovich doesn’t necessarily lift our spirits. That’s okay; those composers bring us other gifts.

Still, I’ll just close by mentioning a couple of other fun sources. One is good old high spirits, e.g., something fast and folk-like:

That’s why the last movement of many a Classic or Romantic symphony goes like the wind. Helps us let our hair down. Even people wearing (virtual) powdered wigs need that.

And then there’s cute. I hate to admit it, but cute can be fun. The naïve nature-painting in Haydn’s Creation is charming, especially because he doesn’t let it go on too long. Here, in quick succession, are his roaring lion, bounding tiger, proud stag, galloping horse, grazing cattle and sheep, swarms of insects, and (finally) the creeping worm. Too bad he couldn’t work bunny rabbits into the list.

When cute goes on a little too long, you may end up with annoying. (Think of Amélie.) These days I find myself slightly impatient with, for example, John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, which appropriates the energy of old animated cartoon shorts (he is said to have been inspired by the Ren & Stimpy cartoons his children were watching) and adds some stiff Schoenberg-isms to it:


Is this fun? Twenty years ago, when I first heard it, it was. So maybe it’s not Adams, it’s me. A new recording of this work and its sequel, Son of Chamber Symphony, has been released by Alarm Will Sound, an accomplished young chamber ensemble who—in a further attempt to lighten the proceedings—supply no liner notes but rather two substantial podcasts featuring conversations with the composer, with various members of the group, and with historian Walter Frisch, always a fun guy to have around when it comes to Schoenberg and his times. Those podcasts may work nicely for you; give ‘em a try.

And so ends our brief romp through the amusement-park end of classical music. We’ll return; it’s hard to stay away from cotton candy and roller coasters. Ultimately your fun quotient may be contingent on the thrill of discovery—as it was for me twenty years ago with Adams’ Chamber Symphony. Keep hunting out surprises; you’ll have more fun that way.