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April Fool's...Classical Style!

Black and white photos of musical comedians from the 20th century.
Courtesy of the artist: P.D.Q. Bach; NBC Television: Moore & Borge; Ashley Famous Agency: Russell
Clockwise from top left: P.D.Q. Bach, Dudley Moore, Anna Russell, Victor Borge

Life is too short not to enjoy a good laugh, and in fact, it has been said that “laughter is the best medicine!” As winter ends and spring unfolds, what better time than this to lighten the mood? Let’s enjoy a collection of clips from some of the greats of “classical music humor!”

First up, a man who was known as “The Clown Prince of Denmark.” Danish-American classical pianist Victor Borge made a whole career of delighting audiences with humor, some of it directed at himself and some to the classical composers and pieces that a wide audience would know. This is the act he did as a guest on the Dean Martin Show:

And here he is another time explaining a scene from a Mozart opera:

In addition to his stage and screen comedy routine, Borge also wrote several books: an autobiography in the Danish language, translated to The Smile is the Shortest Distance; My Favorite Intervals, which contained stories on the lives of famous composers; and both My Favorite Intermissions, and My Favorite Comedies in Music with co-author Robert Sherman.

Anna Russell was another classical musician who made singing opera, madrigals, lieder, and other vocal music the core of her comedy. She was trained at the Royal College of Music as an opera singer, but claimed on a British talk show that while she knew how to sing, she couldn’t really make the sounds necessary to have a singing career. She turned to comedy instead. Here she is explaining Wagner’s The Ring, Part 1:

Like Borge, Russell also wrote several books, including her 1985 autobiography, I’m Not Making this Up, You Know, as well as her 1955 The Power of Being a Positive Stinker and The Anna Russell Song Book, from 1960.

English actress and comedian Patricia Routledge, who you might remember as starring in the sit-com Keeping Up Appearances as Hyacinth Bucket ("that's Bouquet, dear"), sings “I Want to Sing Opera!”

Even the great Beethoven can’t escape the touch of the comic’s hand. And like the three comic greats mentioned above, American composer and music educator Peter Schickele, who was also known as his character, P.D.Q. Bach (“the 21st of Bach’s 20 children!”), had decades of live and recorded skits. One of his most famous was treating Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 as if it were a football game! Schickele and a co-host here do play-by-play and color announcing at a live concert:

Schickele’s recordings won four consecutive Grammys for “Best Comedy Album.” Because his comedy career is how most people knew him, they were always surprised to hear that he also wrote original songs for folk artist Joan Baez, as well as over 100 works for symphony orchestras, chamber groups, and even school bands.

What happens when you pair a comedic actor/musician with an Academy Award winning actor remembered mostly for his serious roles? Dudley Moore and Peter Ustinov teamed up here to “improvise” opera:

In case you were wondering, neither one of them is actually singing Italian, or any known language. All those sounds were made up!

Almost 29 years ago, four graduates of prestigious music academies in Poland formed MozART, with a mission to present classical music without much, if any, talking, but in a humorous way. Here’s their 2017 skit titled “How to Impress a Woman!”

MozART tours the world presenting what they call “musical cabarets,” always to sell-out audiences.

The comedy duo of Igudesman & Joo (violinist Alexsey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-ki Joo) also has fun with classical music. They met as 12-year-olds attending the Yehudi Menuhin Music School in England and have been friends ever since. Their first musical comedy show was in 2004, and over the last 20 years they’ve performed all over the world, bringing together classical and pop culture fans. Here’s their rendition of the 1978 song Gloria Gaynor made famous, “I Will Survive,” but played through the lens of Mozart, Beethoven, Pachelbel and Chopin.

You never know who will join them on stage. Igudesman & Joo have surprised audiences with their collaboration partners ranging from Roger Moore to Billy Joel, and Emanuel Ax to Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees.

We may never know the true origins of April Fool’s Day, with research pointing to ancient Rome, Chaucer’s 1390 “Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and a 1508 French poem about someone who gets pranked on April 1st. Regardless of where it began, generations of classical musicians are happy to join in the fun.

CODA: OK, one more. Not by professional musician-comedians, but this time by a high school group performing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah. Sorta. Here are the Silent Monks:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.