Musical humour: Beethoven’s Op.95 Quartet

June 22, 2020

Humour in music is a tricky thing. Funny songs have been written, of course, but here I am thinking of purely musical humour, not relying on words for its effect. There are a few outright jokes in the history of music: Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet, Mozart’s “Musical Joke” are two. Certain composers, like Haydn, or Stravinsky, are aptly described as “witty” — think of the “Farewell” Symphony, or those funny harpsichord bits in The Rake’s Progress  — but it’s relatively rare, I’d say, for one to get a good belly-laugh in the middle of a piece of music.

I got one recently, though! This year I’ve been listening through Beethoven’s string quartets, and I’ve arrived at his Quartet No.11, Op.95 — the so-called “Serioso” quartet, which, given our topic, is itself a humorous irony. The joke occurs on the very first page:


Click to enlarge, if you wish. In the first bar, all four instruments play a motif in unison, and then, after a few bars of more free writing, there is a pause and the music is ready to repeat — except that only one of the instruments, the cello, does the expected repeat! The others embark on new material. Beethoven writes a rapid diminuendo, as though the cellist is embarrassed by his mistake. In the very next bar he’s transitioned to playing what the others are playing.

We can listen to it here. The passage in question is just a few seconds in.

Is this funny? It is to me, even though the quartet in this example doesn’t point up the humour very well. One often hears a quartet described as a “conversation” between four personalities, and this is a great example of how a composer could have fun with that idea. Who hasn’t blurted out something belated and inappropriate just as the conversation was turning to a different topic?

3 Responses to “Musical humour: Beethoven’s Op.95 Quartet”

  1. Troy Says:

    I would say that Beethoven uses rhythmic sarcasm and melodic/harmonic irony here and there. I don’t have my scores in front of me but there’s a ridiculous intro to maybe the first symphony and a piano sonata (duet) that is impossible to play together, ensemble wise, because of the absurd rhythms. Loads of fun. Really.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I’m sure you’re right about this. Humour comes in gradations, from a wry smile to a full belly laugh, and I’m sure there are many composers who’ve worked various shades of comedy into their music. I’d like to see a discussion of this topic from a knowledgeable person.

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