My remarks at the beginning of the second of 13 concerts of Beethoven’s complete piano music played by New England Conservatory students during 2020.
Let me tell you… I almost never do stand-up comedy on a Thursday night.
Friday is better. Sometimes even Tuesday can be good.
I mean not a Thursday though… tonight is a Thursday right — and you see what I mean. You can see how this is going, already.
Tuesday night is particularly good in Cambridge, on the other side. You know, the other side of the Charles… the river. This guy here, he got it. Over there though, you seem confused sir. There’s a river? Yup, it separates Boston and Cambridge. Brah, take that Number 1 Bus, look out the window, get off your phone. There’s a big river! A big river. You need to get off your phone, get a boat!
My comedy is good in Cambridge, and over around Porter Square in particular. Over around Porter Square, that is if you can even find anybody who’s still awake there after 8 p.m.
So, in truth, my comedy focuses on classical music — music like Beethoven’s. And I’m telling you, Beethoven gets a wrong spin in the classical music world. You know our statue out in the lobby. When they were making that thing the artist was going to portray Beethoven laughing, give him a big smile, even have the teeth showing.
But then, they had a focus group. (Yes, they already had focus groups back in the 19th Century.) So, they asked a lot of people about it, people in the focus group, and it had to be — nope, no, no smile for Beethoven! Beethoven gets a scowl, or at least a frown. So there he is, for all time lookin’ serious. (But he is holding a copy of the “Ode to Joy” — in case you need a copy of that.) And that darn statue isn’t shiny anymore, by the way. Used to be shiny metal, bronze. Now it’s tastefully covered with elegant “patina”!
I am certain Beethoven was a funny guy.
The evidence, the jokes are all over the music. We often focus on the C-minor Beethoven, the music of drama and power.
But there’s that song by Beethoven, “The Flea.” In the piano part, Beethoven gives a fingering, as the notes go jumping down the keyboard. Thumb-thumb, thumb-thumb, thumb-thumb. It’s pretty clear — the pianist is killing a bug!
So there’s physical comedy in Beethoven’s music. Think Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
In the Opus 54 Piano Sonata, the pianist’s right hand is playing melodically in the high register of the piano, and then makes comic leaps far down, just to play three notes. It’s silly!
In the Variations on a theme by Salieri, that you will hear tonight, the music keeps bumping up against the end of the piano, rising up to the last of the high notes that were available on Viennese pianos. The high F. That’s a game that Beethoven seems to love. Get up there, and then what?
In the Sonata, Opus 31, No. 1, there is a series of jokes. It’s a veritable stand-up routine that sonata. The piece begins with what might be a depiction of some musicians who can’t play together. The right hand is always early, or the left hand is always late. The conventions of music, and especially the conventions of opera are parodied. There are fast, run-on nonsense passages that go on, and on. And in the slow movement, there are melody trills that just won’t seem to end… at all, ever. I believe there was an old Victor Borge routine, the pianist-comedian Victor Borge — it was a routine in which Borge would play a trill on the piano, rapidly alternating two fingers, and then lift his hand into the air, fingers still trilling. He might put his hand back on the piano, and take it off again, a few times.
The celebrated pianist Claudio Arrau, renowned for playing Beethoven’s music, said in an interview that there’s no humor in Beethoven’s music, no humor in any instrumental music. Only words can convey humor, Arrau said.
Pianist Alfred Brendel, on the other hand, advised that when a pianist was performing some especially funny passages in Beethoven’s music, if the audience didn’t laugh out loud — well then the pianist should consider a new career… as an organist!
I do believe we could have settled this whole matter of humor in Beethoven’s music. If only Claudio Arrau had taken the Number 1 Bus with me and Mr. Brendel to Cambridge… on a Tuesday!