A Mosh Pit for Carnegie Hall

Something was lost in the music of the 19th Century, and that something was laughter. Haydn and Beethoven composed with wit and self-conscious parody. Their audiences–royalty and proletarians–frequently laughed out loud. Some time in the mid-19th Century, the Wagners and Listzs of the world made this into a travesty. Classical music became a solemn affair, and people in concert halls had to pretend they were in church.

Then, in the 20th Century, the witty surprises of the Classical era that made listeners smile were stretched past the point where they were funny. Humor dissolved into intellectual irony, tragicomedy, and then theater of the absurd in musical guise. Audiences stopped laughing and began to wince. I would trace neoclassicism to Mahler, and by the time of the Great War, Stravinsky was no longer breaking the expected classical forms for comic relief, but was slashing and burning. If these composers hadn’t been such superb musicians, they never could have done so much damage to their genre. La vie est une tragédie pour celui qui sent, et une comédie pour celui qui pense. And in the 20th Century, pensé was exactly that on which music was overdosing.

Actually, my thoughts above began with a birthday tribute to Alfred Brendel, 88 years old today. Brendel is a public intellectual, a poet (in English, his third language, or perhaps his fourth), a painter, and one of the great pianists of the 20th Century. Listen to his Cambridge lecture on humor in music.

Brendel plays long excerpts from Beethoven’s Sonata #16, which I had always dismissed as pedantic, overblown writing. He opened my eyes to the obvious–that Beethoven is not so incompetent after all, and the whole sonata is a joke.

Buddhas and Santas, by Alfred Brendel

In front of tourists 
they contrive to keep still 
practising thirty-three varieties of ecstasy 
a thousand aspiring Buddhas 
At night though 
when no one’s looking 
they stretch their limbs 
become restless 
and pant 
a latent powder-keg 
to burn to ashes 
the wooden shrine 

Perhaps they only bicker 
because they all covet the front row 
to be scrutinized in close-up 
But in all likelihood 
they are just fed up 
with standing there like ornamental plants 
lined-up lookalikes 
rivals in the hothouse of holiness 
how they spy on each other 
clandestinely counting up the golden arms 
as befits a true Buddha 
sprout from their bodies 


In the recent football match 
between the Buddhas and the Texan Santas 
the Buddhas 
truly excelled themselves 
With undreamt-of sprightliness 
they laid siege to their opponents’ half 
and scored 
their corpulence notwithstanding 
several magnificent goals 
After their defeat 
the red-capped benefactors of children 
can be heard singing Jingle Bells 
and observed 
out of remorse 
to be scaling the giant Christmas trees 
with which the island 
its pedestrians 
at every turn 
in late autumn 


have of late occupied the temples 
Singing heartily 
they swarm over the balustrades 
wade through the waterlilies 
suddenly silent 
play hide-and-seek 
in the rockery 
Astonished monks 
watch them vanish 
behind the boulders 
There they huddle 
hiding their heads 
little realizing 
that the tails of their red and white cloaks 
shoot into the air like arrows 


As I stepped on stage 
the orchestra played a fanfare 
Then the loudspeakers announced me to be 
the one millionth Father Christmas 
Roared on by the crowd 
I was presented with a clone 
we embraced 
the clone and I 
and sang Silent Night in unison 
At home 
he lives in the attic 
When I travel 
he deputizes for me 
in the marital bed 
Sometimes we talk to each other 
in monologue 
Just once 
when a mouse ran up his leg 
he turned nasty 
Since then we compete in swearing 
he in Hungarian 
I in Croatian 
of course 
not in front of the children 

More poems of Alfred Brendel

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