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A Chicken, a Sneeze, and Greta Garbo? Bernstein on Classical Music’s Humor (Video)

A common perception of classical music is that it’s a very serious pursuit. In this Young People’s Concert, Leonard Bernstein proves that isn’t the case at all. But while explaining why something is funny is too gargantuan a task for most of us to tackle, Bernstein does it handily. It all comes down to one thing: the element of surprise.

In this video clip, Bernstein discusses one form of humor: imitation. After doing a few impressions of Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn, he uses two musical examples to illustrate his point, one in Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite, and the other in Rameau’s La Poule.

Listen to this playlist of music Bernstein referenced during this Young People’s Concert:

The rest of the concert features examples by Haydn, Gilbert & Sullivan, Prokofiev, Mahler, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mozart, Copland, Dukas, and Brahms, proving that even the most buttoned-up composers use a little humor in their music now and again.

Humor, in or out of music, can be strong and important … It can make you even have deep emotions, but it’s still humor; because it makes you feel good inside. And that’s what music is for.

We all know people, unfortunately, who insist on telling you a joke and then explaining to you why it’s funny. I know my father has that awful habit. There’s nothing worse. They just kill the joke. The other trouble with trying to explain humor is that it’s such a big subject — there are so many different kinds of humor: there’s wit, satire, parody, caricature, burlesque, and just plain clowning around.

And all those different kinds of humor can be found in music.

But there’s one very important thing we have to know about humor in music: it’s got to be funny for musical reasons. You see, music can’t make jokes about anything except itself; it can make fun of itself, or of other pieces of music … And when music is funny, it’s funny in the same way that a joke is funny: it does something shocking, surprising, unexpected, absurd; it puts two things together that don’t belong together, which are, to use a very hard word, incongruous.

– Leonard Bernstein, “Humor in Music” (1959)

Young People's Concerts Scripts: Humor in Music [pencil on yellow legal pad paper] (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
Young People’s Concerts Scripts: Humor in Music [pencil on yellow legal pad paper] (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
About this content

Bernstein conducted 53 programs of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic between 1958 and 1972. Produced and directed by Roger Englander, “Humor in Music” was originally broadcast on the CBS Television Network on February 28, 1959. Complete episode available. Video and transcripts © 1990, 1993 The Leonard Bernstein Office Inc.

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