Composition and the Art of Punning

What ho dear reader, glad you could be back with us so soon. Since my last post I have had a flash of inspiration. I will compose a piece for a solo instrument about the European discovery of the Americas and, specifically, potatoes. It shall be called ‘The Political Tuba’ (interested tuber players please email me

If the truth be told (and if not on the internet then where can you tell the truth?) I’m quietly quite proud of this idea and I feel its various layers are worth unpacking. It  starts with a pun and finish with something more serious. It touches on the mundane but does so in a way that reminds us of how different life must have been before potatoes were brought to Europe. Can you even imagine what dinner would be like without chips, mash, baked potatoes, waffles, shepherd’s pie, fries, croquet potatoes, sautied potatoes, hash browns, fritters, crisps, etc. Just think, William Byrd probably never ate a potato!

For me, the idea of a piece for solo tuba borders on the comical and I would very much like to get past that to something more profound and soulful (as Adam Gorb’s piece for tuba Straitjacket does superbly).

Moreover, I think there may be more than a superficial relationship between composition and the noble art of the pun. The humour in a pun usually comes from changing a noun or an adjective into a verb or visa versa by changing its context. I think music often works in much the same way. A motif or idea is presented, which is then repeated in different ways. Even if the essential elements remain unchanged there is a perceptible change in musical meaning. Beethoven’s Appassionata is a good case in point, also the 1st subject of his 5th Symphony as it returns in the finale. One might even use this to describe all of Bach’s fugues or perhaps the entire output of Palestrina, and if variation form be considered we might include a good deal more than that. But music doesn’t stop there. We normally think of a pun as something lighthearted; but in his 1st Symphony Gustav Mahler shows us how poignant the altered quotation of a nursery rhyme can be, and that just one small change can turn it from peaceful innocence to deep and desperate grief.

In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if composition is in fact the natural home of The Pun and that the little jokes on birthday cards are not just piggy-backing on a much more profound cultural phenomena. Perhaps for all this time we’ve had things the wrong way round and its actually music that is more of a loadstone in our culture than standup comedy. Oh for the golden age of classical music…

To be honest I doubt it. Most people get puns. It takes rather longer to ‘get’ Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra or Webern’s Variations for Piano. But perhaps puns might offer a way in for the less musically familiar; a small handle with which to grab hold of a very enigmatic kind of art. After all, there’re few things more  earthy and ‘democratic’ than a good pun.


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