Just Foolin’ Around

“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”

-Louis Armstrong

It’s April Fools Day! We could all use a laugh, now more than ever. Classical musicians like to play practical jokes as much as anyone, and several composers even wrote jokes into their works.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) composed two works in particular that have entertained audiences for centuries with their humorous nature. His famous “Surprise” Symphony shocks sleepy audience members to attention with the loud chord near the opening of the 2nd movement. Warning: don’t fall asleep next time you attend an orchestra concert, or you might be rudely awakened!

Haydn wrote the “Farewell Symphony” (1772) because he and his fellow musicians were forced to play unexpected overtime at their patron’s summer home. To make a statement about their unfair working conditions, the musicians left the stage one by one at the end of the symphony, blowing out their candles as they exited, until no one remained.

Marina Shifrin’s 2013 “I Quit” video is a 21st-Century equivalent to the 18th Century “Farewell Symphony.” In Shifrin’s video, which takes place at 4:30 a.m., she complained that she was never allowed to leave her job. As a protest to her video production boss, she recorded herself dancing to Kanye West’s song “Gone.” The video ends when she turns out the lights and quits her job. What a Haydn ripoff!

Another work I find entertaining (and insanely challenging to play) is Eugene Ysaÿe’s “Obsession” from Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 27 #2. Ysaÿe wrote a collection of Six Sonatas for Solo Violin in 1923 and attributed each to a different violinist. He dedicated the second sonata to French violinist Jacques Thibaud.

The work begins like Bach’s Preludio from Partita No. 3 in E Major, then shifts to a 20th century improvisational passage, followed by more Bach. This pattern continues throughout the movement. The shifting between Bach and Ysaÿe passages parodies Thibaud’s frequent memory slips. Supposedly, the French violinist always worried that he’d forget his place when playing Bach. As a result, Ysaÿe wrote the piece for him in which the whole movement mimics memory slips. Perhaps next time I lose my place while playing Bach, I’ll add my own improvisation and claim Ysaÿe as my inspiration!

As musicians, we’re all inspired by role models that help us develop into the artists we are today. Ysaÿe built on the legacy of Bach. Shifrin unknowingly followed in the witty vein of Haydn. Before we decide which artist to imitate, however, we should make sure they’re a good fit. Otherwise we might resemble Brett Yang from TwoSetViolin in his Lindsey Stirling parody. Then we’d really look like fools!

Adapted from original post, April 1, 2016

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