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Celebrate April Fools Day With Five Mirthful Masterpieces

Classical music has a reputation for being very, very serious stuff. These five pieces reveal that some clever composers had a few tricks up their sleeves.

Faerie's Aire and Death Waltz score

Photo: John Arthur Stump

Some musical jokes, like John Stump's "Faerie's Aire and Death Waltz", were never meant to be heard.

Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell — Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks/Don Juan/Death And Transfiguration (Sony, 1990)
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This tone-poem, an early Strauss work, follows the German folk-hero prankster “Till Eulenspiegel” through a series of crafty adventures that eventually come back to bite him. From the opening horn calls (Till knocking things over in the market square) to the sensuous violin solo (a brief love scene), the piece is full of Strauss’s usual programmatic flair.  To make for even more drama, Strauss created a new ending for Till that isn’t part of the folk legend: after a particular episode of mischief, he is captured by the authorities and sentenced to hang for his crimes. Strauss portrays this woeful moment with ominous, booming brass chords followed by a high clarinet’s cry of despair. Not to worry, though, no April Fools piece could end this tragically; Till’s spirit gets the last laugh in a jaunty postlude.

P.D.Q. Bach (Peter Schikele): "Erotica" Variations for Banned Instruments and Piano
P.D.Q. Bach — The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach (Vanguard Records, 1990)
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The joke here is not a single piece but the composer himself, the fictitious “youngest and the oddest of the twenty-odd [Bach] children” created by satirist Peter Schickele. One could choose any of P.D.Q. Bach’s works for this occasion, but the Erotica Variations (written for “banned instruments” like windbreaker, balloons, slide whistle, and a P.D.Q. staple: kazoo) is a perennial favorite.

Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G Major ("Surprise")
Heidelberger Sinfoniker, Thomas Fey — Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 104 ("London") & 94 ("Surprise"); Acide e Galatea Overture (Hanssler Classics, 2000)
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Besides his prolific output of music (104 symphonies, 68 string quartets, and 13 operas, the list goes on,) Haydn is perhaps most known for his sense of musical humor. While other pieces on this playlist are persistent in their gaiety, the “Surprise” of Haydn’s 94th symphony is a lone startling moment within an otherwise typical work. Even after being warned by their program notes, it’s typical to see a few concertgoers jump out of their seats during the second movement, especially if the orchestra sets up Haydn’s punchline well.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9
Russian National Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg — Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 9 (Pentatone, 2007)
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Ninth symphonies are known for being deep, serious, and sometimes grave — pun intended! — works of art. Beethoven’s was his magnum opus, a groundbreaking masterpiece that combined orchestra and chorus. Mahler’s served as his dark, brooding farewell to the world. Shostakovich, on the other hand, wrote a lighthearted, whimsical piece that comes as a startling contrast to his towering 7th and 8th symphonies. All five movements are bizarre in some way, but the opening is decidedly the funniest. It follows a relatively strict sonata form, but Shostakovich throws in a handful of twists and turns that would make Haydn cringe: sharply accented “wrong” notes, melodies awkwardly extended by a beat or two, and a trombone fanfare that erupts from nowhere as if the performer is totally lost. Leonard Bernstein devoted a Young Person’s Concert to all the symphony’s surprising jokes in a charming episode titled “A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich.” Check out the script for a fantastic rundown of the other movements’ jokes.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Musical Joke
The Chamber Music Society Of Lincoln Center — Mozart: Serenade K.361 - A Musical Joke K.522 (Arabesque Recordings, 2009)
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Despite having “joke” in the title, this divertimento for two horns and string quartet is actually quite subtle. Mozart, not known for being politically correct, satirizes bad composers of his time with music that is intentionally awkward over-repetitive, finally ending the piece in uncomfortable discord. He even pokes fun at performers, writing in several cacophonies for the horns that sound like missed notes. The result may not leave listeners in stitches, but the purposefully crass music certainly leaves one wondering what exactly they just heard.

Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell — Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks/Don Juan/Death And Transfiguration (Sony, 1990)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G Major ("Surprise")
Heidelberger Sinfoniker, Thomas Fey — Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 104 ("London") & 94 ("Surprise"); Acide e Galatea Overture (Hanssler Classics, 2000)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9
Russian National Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg — Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 9 (Pentatone, 2007)
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album cover
P.D.Q. Bach (Peter Schikele): "Erotica" Variations for Banned Instruments and Piano
P.D.Q. Bach — The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach (Vanguard Records, 1990)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Musical Joke
The Chamber Music Society Of Lincoln Center — Mozart: Serenade K.361 - A Musical Joke K.522 (Arabesque Recordings, 2009)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Sam Callahan

Sam Callahan graduated from IU in 2013 with degrees in Trumpet Performance and Economics. He is now a student at Harvard Law School.

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