In Marian Van Til’s George Frideric Handel – A Music Lover’s Guide (thank you, Google Books), the author writes, “If Handel could be irascible, he was fundamentally kind, compassionate and generous, and had a brilliant sense of humor.” Van Til cites the following passage. from Charles Burney, as “[describing] Handel’s penchant for humor:”
His countenance, which I remember as perfectly as that of any man I saw but yesterday, was full of fire and dignity; and such as impressed ideas of superiority and genius. He was impetuous, rough, and peremptory in his manners and conversation, but totally devoid of ill nature or malevolence; indeed, there was an original humour and pleasantry in his most lively sallies of anger or impatience, which, with his broken English, were extremely risible. His natural propensity to wit and humour, and happy manner of relating common occurrences, in an uncommon way, enabled him to throw persons and things into very ridiculous attitudes. Had he been as great a master of the English language as Swift, his bons mots would have been as frequent, and somewhat of the same kind... Handel's general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humour, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly ever saw in any other.
Well, Handel may have been a funny guy, but I get the sense from Burney that he was at his wittiest when lambasting someone or something and that it was his broken English which got the most laughs.
With Haydn being the exception that proves the rule, humor is not an important component of classical music.
(It is an essential element of literature, where it appears even the least comic works – the darkest and most tragic dramas and novels and such dry non-fiction as philosophy and history. It often is used as comic relief, a leavening agent when things get too heavy. Usually, humor appears simply because something funny occurred to the author while writing which, after some deliberation, was deemed suitable for inclusion.)
Despite its minor role in classical music, every composer – except Handel – occasionally composed a humorous work or a humorous movement or a humorous passage, or at least a work, movement or passage intended to be humorous: the use of an incongruously plebian melody (Mahler’s funereal minor-key Frère Jacques in the First Symphony), a slapstick rhythm (Scarlatti’s Fugue in G Minor, L.499 which, so the legend goes, is based on the notes played by Scarlatti’s cat, Pulcinella, as she walked across the keyboard), parody (Ravel’s La Valse), self-parody (many of Beethoven’s Bagatelles), or some other comic trope.
Much of classical music humor is lost on us. Schubert’s Der Geistertanz (Ghost Dance), D.116, was a macabre hoot back in 1814, but we don’t get the joke. Both Schubert’s music and the poem he set, which describes the grotesque antics of some frolicking ghosts, chortle-making back then, seem now to be just some less distinguished examples of the predominant sensibility of early romanticism: genteel swooning.
Handel’s music can be joyous or bucolic (as in the German Arias) or bumptious or brazen or, occasionally, sweet as honey; but it is never funny. It is never intended to be funny.
(Or perhaps I am missing something. I’ll happily change my mind, if someone were to point out to me a humorous passage in Handel.)
Of course, the fact that Handel did not write any humorous music doesn’t mean that Handel’s music is never funny. It’s trenchantly funny here.
Giulio Cesare, in an early production by Peter Sellers.
(Unfortunately, for some viewers the brash humor of this production – so inimical to Handel – gets in the way of their enjoying an absolutely beautiful performance. The singers are brilliant. The countertenor who sings Caesar, Jeffrey Gall, is twice over a virtuoso – not only is his singing exquisite, his presentation of the character, Caesar, is impeccable: he is “presidential” -- present president excluded – to a T, ramping it up, just enough, with a dash of farce.)