Musica Sacra

The Joke's On...

Saturday May 14, 2016 at 8:00 PM

Choral Music to Tickle Your Funny Bone!

The Joke's On...

P.D.Q. Bach's Madrigals, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's El Hambo, Charles-Valentin Alkan's Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot, Eric Whitacre Animal Crackers, Rossini's Duet for Two Cats, as well as music by Pinkham, Banchieri, Davies, Sjolund and others.

The Boston Globe recently featured The Joke's On... in their spring Arts section: 'All told, Beekman says, "we're going to play this for laughs!"'

Read the full article here

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Concert Program Notes

Welcome to our final concert of the season, The Joke's On...... A lighthearted program seems appropriate for the time of year, and I've always wanted to do a program filled with jokes and witty texts.

We start the evening with compositions by the first name that comes to mind when thinking of funny choral music: PDQ Bach. The alias of Peter Schickele—a composer in his own right—PDQ purports to be, as attested in the biography on his web page, "Sebastian's last and least offspring" and "a pimple on the face of music." Schickele understands the style of the English madrigal perfectly and bends it towards a humorous slant through his use of text that is in the style of Elizabethan poetry, but with ridiculous modifications. Thus, a text Thomas Morley used, My bonny lass she smileth, becomes corrupted into My bonny lass she smelleth, complete with Fa la la refrain. Schickele understands the compositional devices of the period well; as with many Elizabethan madrigals, he inserts a change of meter from duple to triple, and even adds a hemiola, a redistribution of rhythmic emphases within six beats from two groups of three to three groups of two. His other madrigal heard tonight demonstrates Schickele's gift for beautiful melody and harmony, even if the Fa la las get transmuted into Oy vey for the sake of a laugh. If some of the humor seems more obvious than clever, well, that is characteristic of most of PDQ Bach's output, and perhaps reflects its age.

The two selections by Italian Renaissance composers Banchieri and Lassus demonstrate that even 500 years ago composers had a wonderful sense of humor. Lasso's madrigal illustrates the reactions of one hearing his every phrase echoed. We hear, as the piece goes on, the change from wonder and delight at the repetition, to annoyance and, finally, anger and exasperation. Banchieri uses the sound of animals to accompany a nonsense Latin text, thereby making fun of erudition and seriousness. We may find it difficult to identify the sound for the owl in Italian—kyoo—but we have no trouble hearing the cat's meow. We follow this with the Comic duet for two cats, which is a first for us here in Musica Sacra. Although it's attributed to Rossini, another composer actually put it together, perhaps the 19th century British composer Robert Pearsall, from snippets of Rossini's opera Otello. In any event, hearing two sopranos compete for attention with only the plaintive mewing of a cat as their vehicle for expression has always provided a laugh.

Ivor Davies’ piece rounds out our feline trilogy. The text captures the dignity and hauteur associated with cats, and Davies has fun expressing those attributes with majestic tempos and stentorian chords. As the text then goes on to describe the cat's plea for help with food and dogs, Davies changes his dynamic and tone to demonstrate the cat's reluctance to admit it is not self-sufficient. The ending fugue setting the word Amen is very reminiscent of the Amen with which Handel ends The Messiah. This listener can appreciate the humor of imitating that fugue; the original concludes a 150-minute oratorio, while the imitation ends a 90 second composition. In addition, there is an irony in having the cat say an Amen that echoes a thanks for eternal life to express thanks for the extermination of his mortal enemy the dog.

The abundance of texts regarding animals attests to the rich trove of humor they provide. Ogden Nash wrote some doggerel, as it were, on animals, and Eric Whitacre has made brief settings of some of them. Despite the text's humor, Whitacre seriously captures the nature of two of the creatures described. Hence the panther's music is alternately quiet and forte with unexpected rhythms, all to capture the panther's stealth, power, and sudden attacks. Similarly, the music setting The Firefly has a vivacious and busily arpeggiated accompaniment to describe the nature of that insect. The same cannot be said for The Cow, however; there, Whitacre goes for the laugh by extracting the word "moo" and having the basses sing it in falsetto on a rising octave. Only the lethargic tempo alludes to the nature of the beast, such that one imagines it standing placidly in the field chewing its cud, as cows are wont to do.

The limerick is a form of doggerel popularized by Edward Lear, and we include a setting of one of these by Goffredo Petrassi, who set quite a few of them in Italian. We sing it in its original English, so that you can appreciate the soporific mood, created by the exceedingly slow tempo and the intersection of rising and falling fifths, inspired by the text. Petrassi even works in some yawns for the singers to make, including the direction to cover the mouth. For me, the pièce de résistance of the piece, however, follows upon the altos intoning 'Til he died there of despair. At that point, the male voices sing the Dies irae plainchant in parallel minor chords. Dating back to the 13th century, this chant will be familiar to many of you versed in choral music, for many composers directly quote it in their Requiem masses to great dramatic effect, since it sets the text referring to the Day of Judgment in Christian theology.

Clearly the Victorian British writers enjoyed their humorous verse, as evinced not only by the Lear limericks, but also by the wonderful poems that appear in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books. The Massachusetts composer Irving Fine set six of them in two series, and we perform the first of them, in which all three poems set come from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. As a conductor, I enjoy performing these immensely, mostly because of the opportunities for interpretation, which, for me, involve a lot of poetic license. Thus you will hear, I hope, a stuffy British accent for The Lobster Quadrille, a stern Julia Child-like voice for Lullaby of the Duchess, and a bratty nasal voice for the child speaking in Father William. This last came to me by listening to the middle section of the work, in which Fine uses a melodic line similar to that used to taunt children in schoolyards everywhere. I direct the women to give a dark tonal quality to their voices in order to represent the stern and cruel Duchess, a quality that Fine recognizes and exploits in his setting, with its fearsome accompaniment and melodramatic solo. He honors the quadrille dance form in the first piece, setting it in various duple meters, as characterizes the form. Somehow the stuffy English accent feels appropriate for the sea creatures in their absurd conversation.

We end the first half of the program with the the inspiration for tonight's program, the supremely ridiculous Funeral march for a dead parrot, a piece introduced to me by our accompanist, Terry Halco. What makes it ridiculous? For one thing, it's scored for three oboes and a bassoon, and it is hard to interpret the lugubrious accompaniment by these instruments as anything else. For another, the text consists of two questions only. Their English equivalents are Polly want a cracker? and, in modern modes of communication, WT*? These two phrases frame a middle section consisting of imitative falling chromatic lines on the sound Ah to represent the keening wail of the owner of the non-responsive parrot. The initial section alternates between despair and hope, as Alkan alternates between the minor and major tonalities. As I told the singers in preparation for this piece: imagine the owner in a studio apartment that has the accumulated dust of thirty years on his/her furniture and windows, thirty years in which the parrot has provided his/her only companionship. That allows you to come along on Alkan's journey of the narrator's alternating curiosity, wishful thinking, and distress.

In the second half of our program, three of the five selections have their genesis in Cambridge. Pinkham, although born in Lynn, spent most of his life in Cambridge after having graduated from Harvard; Irving Fine wrote his McCord's Menagerie for the Harvard Glee Club; and Terry Halco, wrote his arrangement of Teddy Bear's Picnic for the Cambridge based group Musica Sacra—oh, wait, that's us! Terry actually arranged this at my request in 1985, because I had loved that song as a child and had discovered that there were no choral arrangements of it. As you will hear—or have heard, since it has become our signature encore—Terry outdid himself. He quotes Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice in the accompaniment, as well as Winnie-the-Pooh in the Tiddley pom accompaniments, and has a wonderful staccato section where this listener audiates (hears in her mind) tap dancing as accompaniment. My favorite moments are two: there's a sequence towards the end, where the altos sing Lovely, lovely teddy bears on a rising scale that calls to my mind an old Hollywood movie, where someone, perhaps Maurice Chevalier, is in a Busby Berkeley-type review saying, "Girls, girls, girls!" The other moment occurs at the end, where the sopranos sing the final utterance of Because they're tired little teddy bears very loudly and high in their tessitura, as if to say, "Enough already with the teddy bears!"

Daniel Pinkham wrote choral music almost exclusively, and some of his music, such as his Christmas and Wedding Cantatas, are familiar to many of us. Musica Sacra developed a wonderful relationship with him over the years, and, as time went on, he referred us to some of his more obscure works. The Saints preserve us! falls in this category, because most of his performed works are sacred; this is not only secular, but has a witty libretto penned by Pinkham himself. He alludes to sacred music with his copious use of unison chant, either by the entire chorus, a single section, or solo intonations, the last of which introduce each movement in the way the intonation of Gloria or Credo start those movements in masses up until the Baroque era. The patron saints extolled range from St. Aquacia of the washing machine to St. Canaria of sopranos. Pinkham has great fun with this last saint: the simple chant intoned by the soprano suddenly explodes into a dramatic cadenza-like line, as though the soprano just can't help being dramatic. My favorite depiction of the text occurs on even as you gasp for air; with his irregular hesitations, Pinkham creates a musical representation of breathlessness.

Do read the texts of McCord's Menagerie before the men sing it in the second half: you won't want to miss hearing how Fine sets them, and they go by pretty quickly. The lackadaisical pace of Condor conjures up that bird's lazily sailing through the sky looking for his Donner and Blitzen to feast upon. You don't even have to know what a Jerboa is to identify it as a small mouse-like creature, since Fine writes music that jumps from furiously fast to suddenly slow in imitation of the darting and scuttling movements of a small creature. I recommend going home and checking out its appearance online, which will demonstrate the accuracy of McCord's description and Fine's faithfulness to it in his writing. The Mole text makes fun of Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of the Over-soul, perhaps because McCord was not only a graduate of Harvard College but also an editor of the Harvard Alumni Review. As such he seems to be poking fun at the esoteric knowledge of the Harvard community, which is right up our alley here in Cambridge. My personal favorite of this quartet is The Clam. McCord alludes to the similar origin of the bivalve to the biped, and Fine creates a walking bass to accompany what melody there is with sounds of Zh and Bng, meant to simulate the sounds of the harbor with its tugboats and buoys.

The other two works in the second half serve as cautionary examples of the dangers of using otherness as a basis for humor. Some of our singers found the text of the final piece in Love Lost to be demeaning towards women. As one who considers herself to be a feminist, I find the conceit within the poem to reflect any lover's dissatisfaction with aspects of the beloved, whatever the gender of either. And El Hambo mocks those of a different ethnicity, but most of us are probably unaware of that (I know I was). It's the ultimate 'dumb blonde' joke, where Mäntyjärvi, a Finn, makes fun of Swedes and Norwegians. Thus he names the piece El Hambo, which is a Swedish folk dance in 3/4, but wryly notes, this augmented hambo in 5/4 time is something of a tribute to those folk musicians whose enthusiasm much exceeds their sense of rhythm! The title, as much as the made-up vocabulary of pseudo-Swedish words with the recognizable Bork bork of the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show, targets the Finn's blonde, blue-eyed neighbors to the west. We ask you to accept these two works in the humorous spirit in which they are offered. Like Carroll's The Lullaby of the Duchess, their spirit is so outlandishly archaic and parodistic that they now serve only to amuse.

We hope that tonight's concert will allow you to keep a smile on your face for the entire evening. By finding humor in the serious topics of animals, death, love, bigotry, misogyny, religion, nonsense, and teddy bears, the power of fear and apprehension can be dispelled, and the inspirations for them, with luck, rendered powerless.

© 2016 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.