Alfred Brendel at Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, November 2, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

The question that Alfred Brendel asks and answers is: “Can absolute music, without the assistance of words, movement, or the stage, be funny?”  His answer, articulated partly in speech—elegant and scholarly—and partly from the keyboard is—absolutely yes, though some composers are less capable of being funny than others.

Haydn and Beethoven are funny because they work within conventional forms that they love breaking. Their works offer a steady flow of the musical equivalents of an overweight, top-hatted man slipping on a banana-skin.  Mozart’s purely instrumental music could be funny because it is full of surprises, but it is not funny because he suprises us with what we expect, as opposed to Haydn who is funny because his surprises are unexpected.

Schubert’s music tends toward singing which is not in itself funny unless funny words are there. Schumann, alone among the Romantics, is good-homoured. Chopin, Liszt and Wagner are humourless, as is Dvorak despite his famous Humoresque. It is difficult to be funny if you are after the sublime. According to Brendel’s logic, ‘funny’ is the sublime in reverse.

As for modern composers, all Brendel finds funny about the music of Satie are his titles. Brendel mentions only two funny modern composers— both inclining towards grotesque humour—Gyorgy Ligeti ( Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures), and Mauricio Kagel. Despite his polemical stance supported by deep and solid scholarship, Brendel admits that ‘funny’ is personal. Personally, I find Poulenc amusing and Shostakovich hilarious.

Most of Brendel’s comic musical illustrations were from the works of Haydn and Beethoven. The third movement of Haydn’s Sonata No. 60 in C major, Hob.XVI:50 begins with ‘laughing and bouncing stacattos’, includes a wrong B chord slipped in following an inappropriate C#. These  breaches of classical order could be considered mistakes, were they not ‘veiled by apparent innocence’ and surrounded by ‘hopping and skipping staccatos’. Haydn’s final Rondos are described as ‘playful and wanton’, the product of a temperament that ‘cannot be restrained because it comes from good health’ and is supported by the classical belief that ‘the world is good or could be so.’

Brendel characterizes Beethoven’s music as a ‘steady flow of paradoxes’ coloured by ‘comic irreverance’, ‘ridicule’, jeering at emotions and forms even in minor keys. He illustrated copiously from the Diabelli Variations in which he finds ‘superiour laughter’ and every variety of comedy. Despite the impenetrable gloom that is thought to have enclosed Beethoven in later life, Brendel finds in the music a flow of humour that prevails over the darkness.

This was a privileged glimpse into the details of musical composition through the mind of a man who possesses the scholarship and practical expertise to articulate his findings so that we can share in an intimate enjoyment of the music he brings into focus. His presentation wasn’t all that funny—Victor Borge, where are you?— but I would love to read Brendel’s book when it comes out.

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