A tortoise’s Can-Can and other musical jokes for April Fools’ Day

Light relief: Camille Saint-Saëns

George Hamilton

Back in 1582, the calendar was changed by papal decree. An extra day was introduced every four years to keep things in tune with astronomical reality. And the new year, which had been celebrated around the time of the spring equinox at the beginning of April, was moved to January 1.

The story goes, there were some who didn’t fall into line and carried on with the traditional celebration. They became known as April fools. Musicians haven’t been averse to making jokes at others’ expense either.

The most obvious is Mozart’s little suite, Ein Musikalischer Spass — some musical fun. This makes a mockery of the kind of sub-standard compositions that would pad out performances in his day. Clumsy orchestration, repetitious phrasing, a bit of a laugh, really. Great guffaws greet the climax — final chords that simply do not rhyme.

Joseph Haydn was another with a sense of humour, most evident at the end of his Symphony No 45, ‘The Farewell’. It got its nickname because of the way it ends, the musicians playing little solos in turn, then walking off the stage.

There was method in Haydn’s madness, though. This was his way of letting his patron, Prince Esterházy, know that the orchestra was ready to go home after the long season at the summer residence. Esterházy got the message. The court moved back the next day.

Of all the musical jokes, surely The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns deserves pride of place. He first thought of it as a bit of fun for his students at the school for church music in Paris where he taught, but he didn’t get around to finishing it until about 20 years after he’d left the conservatory, as a bit of light relief from some serious work.

The suite depicts a whole menagerie — there’s a lion, an elephant, some kangaroos, an aquarium full of exotic fish, and a whole variety of feathered friends, most notably the swan.

The part depicting tortoises is a wonderful take-off of Jacques Offenbach’s exuberant Can-Can, the same tune but played painfully slowly, just the way a tortoise would make measured, unhurried progress.

Saint-Saëns didn’t mean for it to be taken seriously, and he expressly instructed that it wasn’t to be performed in public until after his death. Since his passing in 1921, it’s become one of the most loved of his compositions.

George Hamilton presents ‘The Hamilton Scores’ on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday