April Fools Day always brings its fair share of musical pranks – who can forget King’s College Choir in 2014 announcing the employment of helium to help hit those high notes. Classical composers have long enjoyed playing jokes on their audiences. Papa Haydn was the joker in chief, so you won’t be surprised that he crops up a few times in our playlist. But composers themselves have been subject to parody and playfulness too. I hope this selection raises a few smiles.

Joseph Haydn
© Public domain

1Haydn: Symphony no. 94 in G major, “Surprise”

Joseph Haydn enjoyed playing tricks on his audiences. The “surprise” in the slow movement of his Symphony no. 94 was designed to catch out those gentlemen who were, perhaps, nodding off after an ample supper. Think you know what’s coming? Watch out! 

2Arnold: A Grand Grand Overture

Malcolm Arnold’s Grand Grand Overture – even the title amuses – was composed for the Hoffnung Concerts held in the Royal Festival Hall. It parodies 19th-century overtures and is scored for full symphony orchestra plus three vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher and four rifles! The coda is insanely drawn out. 

3Dudley Moore: Little Miss Britten 

Dudley Moore was not only a great comedian, but a very talented pianist. Here, his parody of Britten’s writing – and Peter Pears’ vocalism – is extremely sharp, though done with much affection. 

4Haydn: Symphony no. 60 in C major, “Il distratto”

The energetic finale of Haydn’s Il distratto features an early discordant flourish which causes the violins to frantically retune.  

5Saint-Saëns: Tortoises

Saint-Saëns’ zoological fantasy The Carnival of the Animals is well known and good, clean fun. But listen to Tortoises very carefully… it is actually a very slow version of Offenbach’s Can-can! 

6Fauré & Messager: Souvenirs de Bayreuth 

Gabriel Fauré and André Messager made several trips to watch Wagner’s operas in Bayreuth, so their four-hand piano work Souvenirs de Bayreuth is less of a parody than a gentle tease… even if it is odd to hear The Ride of the Valkyries set as a quadrille!  

7Haydn: String Quartet in E flat major, Op.33 no.2, “The Joke”

The finale of this Haydn witty string quartet has a false ending, designed to catch out the audience and trick them into applauding too soon. 

8Beethoven: Rage over a lost penny

Beethoven wasn’t perhaps renowned for his sense of humour, but he certainly had one. His Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio is better known as the Rage over a lost penny, a title credited to Anton Diabelli. It’s far more humorous than angry. Robert Schumann obviously agreed: “It would be difficult to find anything merrier than this whim.”

9Mozart: A Musical Joke

Mozart parodies some less than brilliant musicians here, including plenty of discords and instruments making “wrong key” entries. The horns – as so often with Mozart – are usually the butt of the joke. 

10Kabalevsky: The Comedians

There’s no specific joke in the galop from Kabalevsky’s suite, but it is surely one of the most high spirited, fun pieces of classical music, guaranteed to brighten anyone’s spirits.