MUSIC: Dudley Moore Was The Greatest Classical-Music Parodist Of All Time

I haven’t done a music post in a while, but I don’t have time to write a long post, so as always in a pinch, I’ll rely on YouTube to do much of my work for me. Doing a parody of so-called “serious” music is a tricky thing. Some of it is so esoteric that only musicians would get it, and some of it is so dumbed-down that it has no connection to what it’s parodying (if you see an opera parody with a fat lady carrying a spear and wearing a helmet, and it’s not a parody of Wagner, you know that the parodist has never seen an opera in his life). The greatest parodist of classical music, the one who struck the best balance between parodies for the “learned” and parodies that anybody could get, was Dudley Moore.

You know the late Dudley Moore from his movies, and you may know that he was a trained musician; he frequently played musicians and composed the music score for his first starring film, Bedazzled. But when he was with the famous Beyond the Fringe troupe (consisting of himself, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, and the annoying Jonathan Miller, who is kind of the Ringo of the group), his specialty was doing classical-music parodies at the piano — parodies that were so accurate that they almost went beyond parody and into the realm of musical criticism: he used parody to make points about the style of whatever composer he was making fun of.

His most famous routine, and the essential classical-music parody of the 20th century, was “Little Miss Britten,” his sendup of England’s most famous composer, Benjamin Britten. Britten was one of the most famous living composers in the world at the time; he’d written many operas including at least two that are still in the repertory of most opera companies (Peter Grimes and Billy Budd). He was also a fine pianist and conductor who gave many performances of his own works and others’. And most of his performances were with his significant other and close collaborator, tenor Peter Pears, a very well-regarded and intelligent singer with a voice that could be described as typically English: for some reason many English tenors cultivate a pale, slightly strangulated voice and weird pronunciation of certain words. Anyway, Britten’s music was written for Pears’ specific voice and range, and anyone who liked Britten’s music (I’m a big fan) learned to accept and even love Pears’s voice because it was so much a part of that music and how it came to be.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t make fun of it. Dudley Moore admired both Britten and Pears, but he came up with a parody so dead-on that Britten, one of the touchiest men in the arts world and a man who held lifelong grudges, was reportedly furious about it. (Pears, a more good-natured person, was said to find it funny.) “Little Miss Britten” is specifically a parody of Britten’s arrangements of English folk songs, which he and Pears frequently performed. Here are Britten and Pears performing Britten’s arrangement of an old English folk song, “O Waly, Waly,” with Pears doing the introduction:

And now here’s Dudley Moore’s parody of Britten and Pears (with Miller introducing it). In one minute and a half he nails both the performer and the composer: he has Pears’ vocal mannerisms and weird consonants (pronouncing “muffet” as “muvved”), and he has Britten’s repetitive accompaniments, melismas, repetitions and foghorn-like extended high notes. Anyone who was familiar with Britten — and he was a big celebrity in the England of the early ’60s, so much of the audience probably did know his stuff a little — finds it hilarious, but even those who aren’t can appreciate Moore’s parody of the nasal English tenor and the “scholarly” rearrangement of old folk songs.

For more, here’s Moore’s parody of Beethoven sonatas (and the over-emphatic pianists who play them), where he arranges and develops the “Colonel Bogey March” in Beethoven style, including an extended, never-ending ending.