Presto agitato

Posted on: 15 April 2020, by :

Music is regularly a target for satire, especially when a tradition of public performance that from too-frequent exposure invites ridicule. But, like satire of other kinds, to work well and hit home it needs to possess both its own integrity and a hook of familiarity that makes its target recognizable. One of the best instances of musical satire in modern times must surely be this parody by the late great Dudley Moore, a fine classical and jazz pianist as well as a comedian and actor, shown here in two versions roughly thirty years apart.

The hook of familiarity given Beethovenian treatment, the military march ‘Colonel Bogey’ composed in 1914, became notorious from the lewd lyrics set to it in 1939 as British propaganda (Göring has only got one ball … Himmler has something sim’lar, etc.) and after the War became popular also with marching bands in Canada and the USA. It has since helped to mark the reconciliation between former enemies, when in 1994 it was played by the band of the German Federal Defence Forces (video here) in the farewell ceremony for allied troops leaving Berlin.

In the late 1950s Dudley Moore was tapping into the wave of widespread familiarity with the tune from its use in the movie The Bridge over the River Kwai (1957). His composition, which he must have performed dozens of times (another from the 1990s, from Noel’s House Party, is here), is not as improvisatory as it might seem from the subtle differences he liked to introduce into it. In both content and structure, it parodies the features found in certain fast movements in Beethoven’s piano sonatas: relentless, agitated pacing in fast notes, a tune exhaustingly varied, implicit but mysteriously unexplained drama, stark contrasts between passages of great force and great lyricism, exploitation of the high and low extremes of the keyboard, startling accentuation, radical changes of key and direction in the middle sections (even including a fugato passage), and exaggerated, persistent cadential phrases to close the piece down.

In his brilliantly understated way, Moore was equally satirizing the tradition of performing Beethoven sonatas that was probably reaching its peak in the 1960s: the phenomenon of the virtuoso concert pianist whose own crafted stage presence, with its repertory of gestures and grimaces, will powerfully dictate — but can equally detract from — how the music is received.

For comparison, a piece by the real Beethoven that comes close to Moore’s intentions is the final movement of the Sonata in C-sharp minor, composed in 1801. It is performed in the video below in an excellent way, without any distracting histrionics.

The Presto agitato finale of Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 (1801), played by Valentina Lisitsa in a recording from 2009.

Dudley Moore in an appearance on a show with Terry Wogan (BBC television, 1990s?).

An early version from the stage show Beyond the Fringe (1960-66).

The sheet music and a version played by Piers Lane.