Gerard Hoffnung, Victor Borge, Dudley Moore, even Morecambe and Wise - all have shown us the funny side of classical music. Now comedian Rainer Hersch appears at the Purcell Room in All Classical Music Explained, a series of new gags on familiar subjects such as crazy conductors, fat sopranos, percussionists with a pint under the timpani, and many other revered musical institutions.
Hersch describes himself as a stand-up comic first and a musician second. He plays the piano well, he says, but it was never his aim to be a musician. After reading economics and accountancy at Lancaster University, Hersch worked in the music business for several years, most recently as touring manager of the London Festival Orchestra. An interest in comedy started at university, after which he progressed via pubs and clubs to bigger venues in London and abroad. The classical music show was a success this year at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Comparisons with Victor Borge are inevitable. "I think my show is more accessible," he says, admitting his surprise at finding the grand old man of comedy performing in Stockholm at the age of 87. He elaborates. "My aim is to take the pomp out of classical music. My show is as much for those who don't listen to classical music or who are put off by it as those who do."
But would someone who knows nothing about classical music understand the innuendos? Hersch replies that he uses only the most obvious music, such as Vivaldi's Four Seasons, The Messiah and Beethoven's Fifth, and that no extracts are longer than five seconds. "Classical music can seem like a sea of names and composers. I place them in history, and the comedy comes by messing around with bits of music."
Because Hersch has a horror of classical music being seen as "something you sit through and then switch off", he makes sure there is plenty to look at on stage. As well as an array of instruments, including a piano, violin and recorder, he uses slides and sound cues from advertisements to liven up the proceedings. No music is allowed to take itself too seriously. He is particularly hard on opera ("It took people a long time to get used to sitting still for hours"). And of contemporary classical music he says: "It can seem so terribly obscure to people who rarely go to concerts. I'm sure there was second rate baroque music written but it hasn't survived."
The audience is very much part of Hersch's act. Audience participation is not the norm in the Purcell Room, but he regards this as a challenge. Although he is passionate about popularising the classics ("making people see that classical music is really about great tunes"), his main aim is to send his audience away with a joke - "laughing while you learn", as he calls it. "If the show inspires the audience to go and listen to classical music then so much the better."
Rainer Hersch appears at the Purcell Room on December 5, 6 and 7 at 8pm.