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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Form-functional and topical sources of humour in classical instrumental music Palmer, James K. N.


Most of us can recall chuckling, or even laughing out loud, at a humorous musical passage and perhaps recalling how much that experience increased our enjoyment of the music. This study focuses on humour in the instrumental works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven: composers who have been singled out by contemporary and modern scholars for their ingenuity and mastery of the Classical style. In the most general sense, musical humour arises when composers play with established conventions of musical discourse by writing something incongruous according to the stylistic context. Chapter 1 demonstrates how historical critics understood the role of contrast in examples of musical humour and wit. It then surveys many recent music-theoretical discussions of musical humour, before briefly introducing how elements of contrast, “valence shifts,” and “opposition” are involved in musical humour from the Classical period. This study’s analytical and theoretical approach to musical humour draws on recent studies of musical humour, form, and communication in the Classical style, as well as concepts from recent linguistic theories of humour. Chapter 2 introduces the two primary strategies Classical instrumental composers employed to create musical humour: “opposition” and “excess.” Chapters 3 and 4 discuss a wide range of musical examples to explore how composers deployed formal functions and musical topics to produce humour. These discussions provide a sense of the wide range of effects that fall under the umbrellas of opposition and excess. Chapter 5 concludes by briefly examining some performance applications of this study and suggesting some further potential sources of musical humour.

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