Yes, classical music can be funny. Ten thigh-slappingly good piss-takes of the noblest artform.
Do you remember chuckling at Dudley Moore’s classical music parodies on prime-time television? Or John Cage appearing on a variety show to perform his composition for bathtub and kettle, with the studio audience collapsing into hysterics? Saturday Night Live gave it their best shot recently with a Justin Timberlake/Mozart skit, but it was never aired (and wasn’t that funny anyway).
The days of Benjamin Britten impersonations being widely appreciated in popular culture are long gone, but at least YouTube keeps the comedic tradition alive. Laughter still goes a long way in the sacrosanct world of classical music, as these ten clips demonstrate.
The Brits paved the way in the art of classical spoofs, with Dudley Moore, Anna Russell, Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson getting in on the act. German composers were often the butt of the joke – we couldn’t find any examples to disprove the 2011 poll that ranked Germany as the least funny nation.
Dudley Moore: Britten’s Little Miss Muffet
An uncannily pitch-perfect impersonation of the English tenor Peter Pears and of Britten’s distinctive folksong harmonies.
Anna Russell – The Ring of the Nibelungs
“If you know the chord of E-flat major, you know the prelude to Rheingold,” legendary British-Canadian comedienne Anna Russell assures us in her deconstruction of The Ring. She takes the wind out of Wagner in this famous performance.
PDQ Bach – Playback on Beethoven’s Fifth
The Australian arts scene has a great tradition of crying poor and bemoaning the funding lavished on sports in this country. Perhaps Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach had the right idea when he combined Beethoven’s Fifth with stadium-style commentary, a referee and slow-motion replays. Certainly it takes the work out of all the thinking, experiencing and formulating of opinions we do at concerts.
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1: A Farming Club special
“Tchaikovsky: was he the tortured soul who poured out his immortal longings into dignified passages of stately music? Or was he just an old poof who wrote tunes?” Who better to turn to for the answer to this age-old question than Monty Python? This clip is zany even by Python standards, featuring Sviatoslav Richter struggling to escape from a burlap sack while playing the opening of ths First Piano Concerto.
Vera Galupe-Borszkh - Tosca: Scarpia’s death scene
This Croatian diva is the vivacious alter-ego of the Gran Scena Opera Company founder Ira Siff. She and Dame Edna should get together for high tea… Or perhaps for a pot roast, if this clip is anything to go by. One thing’s for sure: Vera Galupe-Borszkh’s Tosca rivals Maria Callas’ for sheer drama.
Rowan Atkinson – The Conductor
So much of Maestro Atkinson’s comic genius is in his facial contortions but at the podium, armed with a baton, he finds a world of expression in his hands… With a few choice dance moves and a strong golfer’s stance thrown in for good measure. The star of Blackadder and Mr Bean is certainly no Karajan, and Beethoven’s Fifth is in the wrong key. He may be a few bars behind but his comic timing is impeccable.
Igudesman and Joo – Rachmaninov’s “Big Hands”
Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-Ki Joo met at the age of 12 at the Yehudi Menuhin School and have been inseparable ever since. Bernard Haitink counts himself among their fans: “Igudesman and Joo played at my 80th birthday celebrations. I nearly died laughing.” This spoof offers a creative solution to the big stretches in Rachmaninov’s C-sharp minor Prelude.
Jerry Lewis – The Opera Singer
Jerry Lewis made his only foray into opera when he performed as part of his celebrated comedy duo with Dean Martin in the 1940s.
Victor Borge – Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody
Known as the “Clown Prince of Denmark”, this pianist and comedian had his own show on NBC in the 1940s. He performs Liszt with a twist in this classic 1968 skit. With Armenian pianist Sahan Azruni as his wingman, here he demonstrates just how crowded it can get at the piano.
Monty Python – Beethoven’s Fifth
And Monty Python takes us out with John Cleese’s high-strung Beethoven, complete with tortured frizz – frustrated in his efforts to compose the theme of his Fifth Symphony by his wife’s vaccuuming and offers of pikelets. “Gott in Himmel! Shakespeare never had this problem!” Among the countless anachronisms, note the gramophone in the corner.