It’s easy to forget, since classical music is often associated with a somewhat serious brand of artistry, that some of the funniest people on this planet were classically trained musicians. Here, in no particular order, are some of their funniest musical offerings.
1. ‘The Gas Man Cometh’ by Flanders and Swann
The stars were aligned when, in 1948, the lyricist, actor and singer Michael Flanders joined forces with the composer and pianist Donald Swann in a musical partnership. The songs and light operas that emerged from the duo rank amongst the funniest ever to come out of Britain.
This one, satirising the stereotypical British tradesman, is my personal favourite. The singer calls in the gas man to fix his gas supply; he promptly tears out the skirting boards. So, the narrator calls in a carpenter, who nails through a cable and puts out the lights.
Next in is the electrician, who puts his foot through the window while standing on a bin to reach the fuse box. When the glazier comes to fix the damage, his putty and blow torch necessitate a visit from a painter, who paints over the gas tap….and we’re back to where we started.
2. ‘Catalogue Aria’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni
As famous for its text as for its music, this darkly comic bass aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni is sung by the servant Leporello to Giovanni’s jilted lover Elvira, in an attempt to encourage her to forget his master. Against a busy and light-hearted musical background, Leporello details Giovanni’s endless sexual conquests around the world (‘In Italy, six hundred and forty; In Germany two hundred and thirty-one; A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one; But in Spain already one thousand and three)’. Anyone will do, he says, as long as she wears a skirt.
3. ‘Slander Aria’ from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
One of the highlights of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the music of Don Basilio’s aria about the power of rumour and slander ingeniously mirrors its subject matter.
It starts out slow and furtive, much like the gossip it describes. But it then gathers pace, gradually growing into a thing of formidable force. And while you’re admiring its musical inventiveness, it’s impossible not to laugh at Basilio’s ridiculous pomposity and sense of paranoia.
4. ‘Ill Wind’ by Flanders and Swann
Another Flanders and Swann classic here, this one about a pilfered horn set to the tune of the Rondo from Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4. Yes, you know the one. “I once had a whim and I had to obey it, To buy a French horn in a second-hand shop.”
With its tongue-twisting lyrics and schoolboyish charm (“My neighbour’s asleep in his bed I’ll soon make him wish he were dead I’ll take up the Tuba instead! WHA WHAAAAAAAAAA!”), it’s still as razor sharp as ever, which is impressive given that it’s now well over half a century old.
5. ‘Love Unrequited’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe
A fairy commits the crime of marrying a mortal. Twenty five years later, her half-human, half-fairy son wishes to marry a mortal – a crime punishable by death.
On the face of it, this storyline from Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1882 opera seems far removed from reality. Yet, the characters and emotions they express are immediately relatable, and nowhere more so than in this aria, describing the sleeplessness brought on by unrequited love.
“When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache, and repose is taboo’d by anxiety, I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in, without impropriety; For your brain is on fire – the bedclothes conspire of usual slumber to plunder you: First your counterpane goes, and uncovers your toes, and your sheet slips demurely from under you.” As descriptions of insomnia go, I’ve never seen a wittier one.
6. ‘I am the very Model of a Modern Major General’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance
Widely considered to be Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous song, ‘I am the very Model of a Modern Major General’ is believed by some to be a caricature of general Sir Garnet Wolseley. Who he? One of Britain’s most famous 19th century generals, who served as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces from 1895 to 1900: that’s who.
It might also be inspired by General Henry Turner, an uncle of Gilbert’s wife who Gilbert disliked. Or, indeed, it could be an amalgam of both. Whatever its origin, it is very funny.
My favourite verse: “I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies / I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes / Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s Din afore / And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.”
7. ‘The Vatican Rag’ by Tom Lehrer
Written in response to the Second Vatican Council, a meeting that proposed reforms to the Catholic Church, ‘The Vatican Rag’ shocked audiences with its ruthless swipes at Catholic rituals such as confession, the Eucharist, and Rosaries.
According to an eyewitness account, the Spanish actor Ricardo Montalbán once approached Tom Lehrer after a performance of the song, yelling: “I love my religion! I will die for my religion!”. To which Lehrer responded: “Hey, no problem, as long as you don’t fight for your religion.” Controversial or not, ‘The Vatican Rag’ is one of Lehrer’s cleverest songs, displaying the ingenuity with which he manipulated melody, rhythm and language in the service of cutting satire.
8. ‘In Uomini, in Soldati’ from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte
One of the highlights of Cosi fan Tutte, Mozart’s opera about fiancé-swapping, this naughty Act I aria finds the maid Despina advising Dorabella and Fiordiligi to take new lovers while their betrotheds are away.
Telling her mistresses that one cannot expect men, especially soldiers, to be faithful, she goes on to describe men as fickle creatures who use women only for pleasure. She concludes that women should only be faithful to themselves.
In another composer’s hands, such an aria could come across as depressingly cynical. In Mozart’s, it sparkles with humour and charm.
9. ‘Little Miss Britten’ by Dudley Moore
Benjamin Britten was allegedly so upset by this parody of his music that he refused to ever speak to Dudley Moore ever again. Which is a sure sign that it hit close to the bone.
Watch the excerpt below and you’ll notice how the musical comedian manages to send up both Britten and the tenor Peter Pears at the same time, highlighting Pears’s idiosyncratic pronunciations and nasal sound, as well as Britten’s penchant for dramatic repetition. It’s uncanny.
10. ‘Caro Nome’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto, performed by Victor Borge
Variously nicknamed ‘the Clown Prince of Denmark’, ‘the Unmelancholy Dane’ and ‘The Great Dane’, Victor Borge was widely considered to be the funniest man in classical music – and the most resourceful. This was someone who, despite not speaking a word of English when he moved to America from Denmark in 1940, managed to quickly adapt his jokes to the American audience, learning English by watching movies.
Watch the video below to get a sense of his unique comedic brand, mixing physical gags and virtuosity on the piano.