James Gaffigan, Chefdirigent
Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Sinfonie Nr. 60 C-Dur «Il Distratto»
Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924)
«Romanza e Scherzoso» f-Moll op. 54 für Klavier und Orchester
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)
Burleske d-Moll für Klavier und Orchester
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Sinfonie Nr. 5 B-Dur D 485
Humor is a high-wire act. Many actors have said that comedy requires a level of virtuosity that surpasses romance or tragedy. And bringing off comedy, farce, burlesque on the musical stage is every bit as difficult as standing up in a cellar club and telling jokes.
This may be particularly true when dealing with Austrian humor—and all of the composers on the program spent significant compositional moments in Austria. Austrian humor is such a rare bird that it receives its own explanation both from Wikipedia and the Austrian Tourist Board. Perhaps better, therefore, to examine that theme and its variations as they run through works from Haydn to Busoni.
Although he was a talented boy soprano, Haydn got a musical kick in the pants when he cut off the pigtail of a fellow chorister and was caned and ejected from the choir of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Turning to composition, his first opera was called The Limping Devil, written for one of the top comedians of the day. Unfortunately, the censor closed the opera soon after it opened in 1753 for its offensive remarks. Nevertheless, within a career that included 106 symphonies, Haydn managed to maintain his reputation as a jokester, most notably with his «Surprise» Symphony and the opening of the Finale of his Symphony No. 60, named Il Distratto only because Haydn recycled themes he had used as incidental music to the French play Le Distrait earlier in 1775.
Though not as broadly humorous as the Haydn, Schubert’s Fifth Symphony partakes of the end of the humorous spectrum known as «wit». Light and airy, it was written by the 19-year old Schubert in 1816 in a paroxysm of infatuation with the music of Mozart, who had been both an occasional pupil and chamber music buddy of Haydn’s. «O Mozart! immortal Mozart! what countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls!» Schubert wrote in his diary as he was working on the symphony. Fortunately, the earnestness of his adulation has evaporated over time, leaving only the wit.
Italian-born Ferruccio Busoni was another admirer of Mozart. Over the course of a career that took him to Berlin, Switzerland, and the United States, Busoni transcribed many of the works of Bach for the piano, as well as several symphonies and concerti of Mozart’s. As with Schubert’s homage to Mozart, Busoni’s Scherzoso is more witty than jokey, light humor rather than broad burlesque.
«Burlesque» itself is a word that has a variety of meanings, from «parody» to «farce» to «bawdy obscenity» with a number of eye-brow raising variations along the spectrum. When the 21-year old Richard Strauss wrote his Burleske in 1885, he initially gave it the title Scherzo or joke. Hans von Bülow, however, the pianist and conductor for whom Strauss wrote Burleske, found nothing funny about the piece. «A complicated piece of nonsense,» is what he called it, and refused to play it. Some say that von Bülow’s opposition came from the technical demands on the pianist—von Bülow’s hands were famously small and could barely span an octave. Von Bülow eventually acknowledged some genius in the work, however, and conducted it. And indeed, it was the final work that Strauss himself conducted in 1947 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The composer had the last laugh.