Pavane for an infantile sense of humour

Now listen carefully. I’m about to give away a secret about orchestral musicians – something you probably haven’t noticed when you’re in the audience at a concert.

There we are on stage, dressed up in tails and tiaras, looking for all the world as though we’re taking things very seriously indeed. This is an illusion, a musical trompe l’oeil. Because actually, at any given time, most of us are a hemidemisemiquaver away from a helpless, hysterical fit of the giggles. Snorts of laughter. Uncontrollable guffaws.

Now you could, if you were being nice about it, put this down to the pressure of performance. The nerve-racking precision required to play classical music well. The constant looking-over-your-shoulder worry that there’s someone out there who’s better than you – and they want your job. Yeah yeah, yada yada. It’s got nothing to do with this.

It’s because our collective sense of humour is that of a 3 year old.

For starters, let’s take the opening of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. The sombre, funereal introduction – the narrative paradigm of per aspera ad astra which manifests as an overall tonal trajectory of E minor to E major,  “a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate”.  Bollocks. This is what musicians hear at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s 5th:

Who’s got the keys to the shithouse?

Name virtually any piece of classical music, anything at all. You can bet that we’ll have made up rude words to it.

I’m not going to reveal all our offensive lyrics here because there are just too many. Well OK, maybe a couple – but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Scheherezade (“Oh my god, I’ve had a wet dream again”); the famous solo at the beginning of Till Eulenspiegel (“This French horn player, this French horn player, this French horn player, will be lucky if she doesn’t fuck it up”).

Anyway, you get the picture. Childish.

Not that I’m making excuses or anything, but I think our perilous proximity to hysterics is down to a dichotomy. OK, that sounds pretentious. Let me explain. Basically, classical music is taken very seriously. Therefore it’s extremely funny when it goes wrong.

You know that bit in the Verdi Requiem? The beginning of the Dies Irae, when the percussion player bashes the life out of an enormously huge bass drum? It’s dramatic. One of those genuinely terrifying ‘Day of Wrath’ classical moments. In other words, it’s serious. Have you guessed where I’m going with this?


Apparently, the drum wasn’t properly secured to its stand.

It didn’t make it past the second bash. Following the percussionist’s enthusiastic run-up, it rolled magnificently and unstoppably through the entire orchestra. Gradually picking up speed as it went, the bass drum left a trail of felled musicians who utterly failed to contain their glee.

Next time you go to a concert, pay close attention to the orchestra. At least one of us will be laughing.