A musical journey from the whimsical to the “inverted sublime”

HAYDN: Sonata No. 48 in C major, Hob. XVI
SCHUMANN: Davidsbundlertanze, Op. 6
CHOPIN: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 7, A minor
CHOPIN: Mazurka in B-flat major, Op. 7, No. 1
CHOPIN: Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 6, No. 2
CHOPIN: Mazurka in D major, B. 31
CHOPIN: Mazurka in C major, Op. 6 No. 5
CHOPIN: Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54
PADEREWSKI: 6 Humoresques de concert, Op. 14
Book I (a l’Antique)
No. 1: Menuet
No. 2: Sarabande
No. 3: Caprice (genre Scarlatti)
Book II (moderne)
No. 4: Burlesque
No. 5: Intermezzo polacco
No. 6: Cracovienne fantastique

It is sometimes said that humor is the best medicine, or that a good sense of humor can save the soul.

In this program entitled Humoresques, I explore the many faces of humor — from its commonly understood characteristic as the comical, the jest, the witty, the farce — to what the great Romantic novelist and philosopher Jean Paul Friedrich Richter termed the “inverted sublime.”

A humoresque in its most ordinary sense is a humorous musical work, filled with comical jests and unexpected turns, often in dance form. When Paderewski constructed his 6 Humoresques, he did so in two “cahiers” or notebooks: the “Cahier I. à l’Antique (Nos.1-3) and the “Cahier II. Moderne (Nos.4-6).” The three antique dances, by their very form, are something of a joke as caricatures of three great composers of the past: Mozart, Bach and Scarlatti. The inspiration behind the Menuet is of particular interest as Paderewski reported that when he was about 26 years old, an elderly respectable physician, Professor Chałubiński, often invited Paderewski to his home to make music for him. He was a great fan of Mozart’s compositions and often asked Paderewski to perform Mozart for him. Paderewski, not having much Mozart in his repertoire, decided one day to play a small joke on the professor. He worked up an original composition, a minuet in the style of Mozart and played this for him. Even before he finished playing, the doctor exclaimed: “Oh, Mozart! What a wonderful song. Tell me, my dear, would there be a composer today capable of writing something equally beautiful?” To which Paderewski answered “It’s me!” The Menuet became one of Paderewski most popular works, taking on a revised title, “Menuet célèbre.”

Joseph Haydn is credited not only with being the father of the modern symphony, but a master of musical humor. The contrasts, surprises, abrupt changes of direction and mood, and interruptions that characterize his style trace their origins to Haydn’s employment as a young man composing music for burlesques at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater in the 1750s. By that time, he had been well educated in the principles of rhetoric and their translation into musical figures, which if delivered imaginatively could induce grins and even chuckles from most concertgoers.

Since his childhood growing up in Poland, Fryderyk Chopin was known to have had an excellent sense of humor. He was able to find much to laugh about in his journeys to the Polish countryside, and these moments are colorfully described in his many letters to friends and family. Already as a young 14 year old, he had begun writing a lampoon on a well known Polish conservative newspaper, and he also was a gifted cartoonist. Later in life he enjoyed participating in pantomimes and mimicking celebrities. In this program’s set of mazurkas dating from Chopin’s teenage years, this gift for the comical is pervasive: the frequently “out-of-tune” passages, abrupt changes of mood, at one moment seemingly melancholy, the next joking lightheartedly. Chopin’s instructions at the bottom of the page of the last mazurka in the set: “da capo senza fine” (return to the beginning at repeat without end), perfectly illustrates Chopin’s enjoyment of a good joke, leaving the performer no clue as to when or how the work should finish.

The late Scherzo in E major, the fourth of four scherzos, or “jokes’, vaguely resembles Chopin’s earlier style in the florid passagework and light-hearted decorations, but now bathed in a sublime sense of joy and contentment. It is in such a work as this where the whimsical is transformed into that mysterious emotional state when tear and smile unite.

And it was such mysterious states that were of primary concern to the romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter, whose discourses on the nature of humor are of the most insightful and thought-provoking. For Jean Paul, humor was no trifling matter, but contained a trace of the very same essence of our noblest thoughts. In its very lack of higher purposiveness, in view of the follies of humankind, humor gives to our understanding something to think: a “negative infinity”, an “inverted sublime”. This is a laughter “in which both a pain and a greatness abide.”

The 18 dances of the League of David (“Davidsbündlertänze”) are assigned one by one to Schumann’s two alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius: Florestan, the impetuous, reckless, extraverted prankster, and Eusebius, the thoughtful, sensitive, introverted dreamer. The work is prefaced with an old saying:

In each and every age
Joy and sorrow are mingled:
Remain pious in joy,
And be ready for sorrow with courage.

As the set progresses towards its middle, Florestan’s lips are said to have “quivered painfully”. And in Eusebius’ final dance “great bliss spoke from his eyes.” In that strange and ghostly admixture of pleasure and pain, humor fulfills its function as “annihilator of the infinite idea” and expresses in its superfluousness the negative infinity of the inverted sublime.

Kevin Kenner