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Thinking through comedy from Fey to Feo

By Keith Johnston


Comedy is having a bit of a cultural moment. Everywhere you turn people seem to be writing seriously about comedians and the art of comedy. Tina Fey and Caitlin Moran are credited with setting the agenda for pop feminism, Marc Maron is hailed as a pioneer of new media journalism, Louis CK is mentioned in the same breath as Truffaut, and Tig Notaro is regarded as an “icon” for speaking honestly about disease, grief, and resilience. Aristotle famously said that comedy is the “imitation of inferior persons” and tragedy the “imitation of an action that is serious.” We seem to be living in a world upside down: comedians are the sage dispensers of human wisdom; tragedians are fodder for tabloid journalism.

Could it be that these are exceptional times? Has some new species of comedian sprouted from the lowly sod of the comic earth? I am skeptical. New media has allowed us, in some ways for the first time, to listen in as comedians and humourists talk about their craft. The care, hard work, and thoughtfulness with which they go about their work are impressive. (See Marc Maron’s intimate podcast interviews, or video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining his writing process, via the New York Times.) But if we look closely I think it’s clear that in essence comedy has always been a serious thing.

For early modern scholars — and particularly for music historians — the task of uncovering the inner workings of comedies that haven’t been performed in over 200 years is sometimes a difficult one. Librettists and composers rarely recorded their thoughts about such works (at least in media that survive). Critics and scholars did. But what they had to say about comedy was often less than flattering.

Italian theatre scholars were particularly savage. Ludovico Antonio Muratori, for one, remarked in 1706 that comedy “has put itself in the grip of those who do not know how to make us laugh — not with their harmful words and not with indecent misunderstandings and ideas that are foolish, worthless, and shameful” (si è la Commedia data in preda a chi non sa farci ridere, se non con isconci motti, con disonesti equivochi, e con invenzioni sciocche, ridicole, e vergognose).

Many librettists agreed and expurgated comedy from opera around the turn of the eighteenth century. However, the comic impulse could not be suppressed. The very same year that Muratori published his scathing critique musical comedy re-emerged in the form of the comic intermezzo — a short work performed in between the acts of a serious opera. Many of the most popular composers of the day, from Francesco Feo to Johann Adolph Hasse, to Leonardo Vinci, began their careers writing intermezzos.

Thanks to the work of Gordana Lazarevich, Ortrun Landmann, Irène Mamczarz, Michael Talbot, Charles Troy, and others, the history of the intermezzo is well-documented and there are fine performing editions of some works. Intermezzo specialists Kathleen and Peter Van De Graaf have even recreated the phenomenon of the travelling husband-and-wife performance duo. Intermezzo comedy is still very much alive and well for those that seek it out.

Frontispiece and titlepage from a 1688 edition of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, or “The Middle-class Nobleman”, by Moliere.
Frontispiece and titlepage from a 1688 edition of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, or “The Middle-class Nobleman”, by Moliere.

A few years ago the Vinci scholar Kurt Markstrom generously shared with me the libretto and score for the intermezzo Albino e Plautilla da pedante. This isn’t the sort of work that you’ll read about in a general history of music. It was performed in Naples in the fall of 1723, after which it was consigned to the archive shelf. Reading through the words and notes I found myself laughing at a scene that seemed oddly familiar. The ambitious but uncouth Albino was getting a lesson in the pronunciation of vowels from his female servant disguised as a philosopher. Molière! Monsieur Jourdain received the same lesson in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670).

These kinds of discoveries have a way of sending you on unexpected adventures. As I dug further it became clear that this silly lesson was inextricably bound up with the New Philosophy of Descartes and perhaps its promotion in Naples by Giuseppa Eleonora Barbapiccola. French plays, Cartesian treatises, female philosophers — Albino was a musical farce that seemed to tackle some remarkably weighty subject matter. How many other intermezzos might touch upon a raw cultural nerve?

When it comes to comic works of the present we eagerly seek the deeper truth behind the punch line. But when it comes to works of the past we too often look only for earnestness in drama and hilarity in comedy. As Man Booker-winner Howard Jacobson points out, “we have created a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness.”

Studying the humour of the comic intermezzo has made me a believer. Comedy at its best, regardless of when it was written, provides keen insight into the convictions, insecurities, terrors, and joys of its moment in time. And musical comedy in particular can communicate the nuance of experience in immediate and affecting ways. In short, the intermezzo has the potential to be a better record of history than any diary or treatise. Early modern comedy is perhaps an imitation of inferior persons, but surely also a keeper of profound truth.

Keith Johnston is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music History and Theory at Stony Brook University. He principally investigates comedy in Italian operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His research explores two complementary aspects of comic theatre: the shared compositional structures that underpin musical, written, and improvised material; and the cultural, philosophical, and political forces that shaped the selection and adaptation of that material. His article in Music & Letters“Molière, Descartes, and the Practice of Comedy in the Intermezzo” — is available to read for free for a limited time.

Music & Letters is a leading international journal of musical scholarship, publishing articles on topics ranging from antiquity to the present day and embracing musics from classical, popular, and world traditions. Since its foundation in the 1920s, Music & Letters has especially encouraged fruitful dialogue between musicology and other disciplines.

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Image credit: Frontispiece and titlepage from a 1688 edition of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, “The Middle-class Nobleman”, by Moliere., 1688. From the Private Collection of S. Whitehead. Moliere and Henri Wetstein. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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