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.


4 thoughts on “Pavane for an infantile sense of humour

  1. I am all too familiar with this! My favourite story along this line is when I was playing with my Youth Orchestra in Japan. We had a very important concert to finish the tour and it opened with the overture to Wagner’s Rienzi, which started with me playing one long note. Luckily it was concert A, so I tried to keep it in my head after tuning to help me pitch it correctly. On seeing this my fellow trumpets all started playing (very quietly) many different notes in order to put me off. All because they thought it would be amusing. I’d probably have done the same if I was in their place!

  2. Two to add to the ‘words to music’ list:
    Bartered Bride overture (from bar 8): Fuck. Fuck a duck. Fuck another duck. Fuck another fucking duck. ETC.
    Brahms 4, 1st movement: Fuck you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you ETC.
    In case you were in any doubt, conductors can be just as childish as orchestral players.

  3. Dear Helen,

    An amusing blog. Please write more often.

    I was told by a bassoonist many years ago, that when playing the principal theme of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture there’s a useful phrase, that if mouthed while playing the bassoon, opens up the oral cavity to best effect: “My dog’s got a hard-on!”

    I can find no evidence of this on the Internet (please don’t go Googling it as I did; the results are not nice!), and some twenty to twenty-five years later, I became re-acquainted with that bassoonist, but she denies all knowledge of the phrase (hardly one you’d forget, is it?) As a horn player (manqué—as so many of us are), I find the use of this phrase completely plausible, as we horns also change the size of the cavity by opening the throat and lowering the lower jaw to play in the profound depths of our instrument’s range.

    Now, my wife (who I had amused with this phrase, and the same Bartered Bride one to which Lev refers) accuses me of making it up! (I should be so inventive!) So would you confirm whether this is part of bassoonist’s lore, please?



    • Dear Joe,

      Thank you for reminding me. I’d forgotten about the link between the Hebrides, the dog and his appendage.

      As for the oral cavity thing… sadly not. It wouldn’t help much. But it’s useful to have the phrase in your head. It helps reduce the terror of the piano F#, which on most bassoons comes out like a fog horn.

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