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Lost in Translation
16 Jan 2012
Inside the Classics

Musicians are forever making up lyrics to go along with famous bits of music. This is partly because we’re incorrigible class clowns who never grew up properly, but mostly because, on your 138th trip through Handel’s Messiah, it helps you stay focused if you can remember the alternate lyrics to There Were Shepherds.

(Now you’re curious, right? Fine: “There were shepherds imbibing in the fields, drinking scotch over the rocks by night.”)

There are a few pieces, like Messiah, where a single set of lyrics is known far and wide, but it’s far more common for individual interpretations to become legend within a single city or ensemble. One former MN Orch violinist had some truly epic words to go with the first half-page or so of the last movement of the Sibelius concerto, and I once worked at a summer camp with a guy who had scripted more or less the entire Mendelssohn octet with lyrics so filthy that I can’t think of a single sentence I can reprint here.

But I have to say, British comedian Rainer Hersch has pretty much cornered the market on this little game. Who knew the Queen of the Night was on Ecstasy?

Brilliant. And presenting the lyrics in play-by-play fashion definitely ups the comedic value exponentially. Actually, hearing Hersch calling the Queen’s big number as a live event reminded me of one of my very favorite old PDQ Bach bits…

I’ve been laughing at that Peter Schickele voiceover since I was 8 years old. My favorite part is the flustered, incredulous overreaction to the six-second oboe cadenza in the development. And I’ve been waiting my entire career for a horn player to kack that particular note in the exposition – it hasn’t happened yet, but I carry a bright yellow penalty flag with me at all times just in case it ever does. (Any self-respecting horn player would, of course, have me killed for throwing the flag, but it would be worth it.)

And hey, as long as this post has become a generalized music/comedy mishmash, let’s wrap it up with Victor Borge and some Muppets, shall we? Happy Monday, all…

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