It's a Punderful World

John Robert Brown

For someone with a pun-track mind, a top-notch pun is its own reword.

One of the surprises in the life of a freelance music journalist is to discover, always after publication, what clever words have been placed above one's piece. Journalists writing for newspapers and magazines do not compose their own headlines. These are written by those men and women who make the headlines every day, the sub-editors.

The ingenuity of the headline varies with the publication, because headline writing often involves puns, those 'two strings of thought tied with an acoustic knot,' in Arthur Koestler's definition. My local evening newspaper, punning on empty, wages witty wordplay for many music stories, hit or myth. While many headlines are witty, some are threadbare, unfortunately. Performing kids always play on the upbeat, hit high notes, or prove their mettle in the rock world. This style, recently christened 'The Marcel Duchamp School of headline writing' by one wit, uses ready-made phrases. However, most national dailies, though quite capable of trumpeting 'Music business on a downbeat,' can also come up with more ingenious headlines. The best are both clever and funny, and encourage you to read what follows.

'A tune full of succour helps the Mendelssohn go down,' announced the Independent in its reviews section recently. 'She took her viola to France and ... Voilà!' came from the Newark (USA) Star Ledger. Neither of these was quite as inspired as the Sun's May 2003 headline when Inverness Caledonian Thistle upset Celtic: 'Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious', or the (unattributed) one remembered by the an editor colleague who recalls the time when an ailing Gloria Swanson was being moved between hospitals and the papers announced: 'Sick Gloria In Transit Monday.'

Headlines and puns can be aides-memoires. How many musicians today could recall where Sir Malcolm Sargent travelled after the Second World War, save for the old story about Sir Thomas Beecham's punning wit? Beecham always called Sargent 'Flash'. He was told that Sargent had gone to Tokyo.

'Good God,' Beecham replied, 'Malcolm in Tokyo! What is he doing there?' 'Conducting: he's having an amazing success,' he was told.'I see,' said Beecham, 'Flash in Ja-pan.'

Critics frequently pan for gold beneath headlines such as 'Back to bassists,' 'Fiddling with Beethoven', or disparage birthday celebrations, as in: 'The Anniversary Schmaltz.' More ingenious – the 'write angle', in headline language - was the recent Yorkshire Post story about Ampleforth College establishing a girls' choir to sing with the monks in the abbey church: 'College adopts gentler type of peace and choir', they said. Leaving little to chants, I guess. Better still was the New York Times old groaner when the Spice Girls were breaking up: 'Girls on borrowed thyme'. Truly, a pun is its own reword.

The pun also rises among childrens' authors. A Sesame Street CD features the Birdapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Birdseed, with piano soloist Barbara F. Seville. Such puns dwell in that no-man's-land between immaturity and adulthood. I suspect that musical pun(s)ters are often targeting adults, rather than the once-a-pun-a-time world of children. My suspicion is reinforced when the reporter's name is Amanda Lynn.

Rhymes such as 'More woe at ENO,' or 'Opera's fix on Baroque work clicks,' and mangled Spoonerisms such as: 'The blight of the humble fee' are pressed into service to make us smile. So are homophones: 'Bow jests' was Houston Chronicle's caption to a picture of a comedian with violin. Some double meanings get through before anyone notices: 'Organ festival ends in smashing climax,' 'Stolen clarinet found by tree,' 'Dealers will hear piano talk at noon,' 'Future of satellite radio up in the air,' and 'Drunk gets nine months in violin case.' Puns pad out a silly story on a quiet news day. A little item about dumped dogs being treated to classical music on CD was inflated into a third leader in The Independent recently. 'Vivaldi's PAW Seasons and Beethoven's Cannine-th symphony helped calm the dogs,' they reported. The headline was: 'Hound of Music'.

'Aix and Pains for Rattle's Ring' was the 2006 headline for a review of the Aix Festival by Hugh Canning in the Sunday Times. More recently, the implementation of the Scottish version of the Venezuelan El Sistema, a national network of youth orchestras, earned the headline: 'Sterling sink estate children go Caracas as orchestra takes off.'

In 2007 two removal men in Devon lost their grip on a £45,000 Bösendorfer. The delivery crew found that unloading a piano 'wasn't their forte' - according to the Daily Mail. In the Irish Independent it was a 'crashendo'. 'Sliding scales' said an internet account. And I loved the Observer headline about a laboured version of an opera based on Euripedes' Ion, which asked: 'What's it all about, Delphi?'

In the wake of Daniel Barenboim's Festival Hall performances of Beethoven sonatas, the New York Times reported a claim by Barry Cooper, the chairman of the music faculty at Manchester University that there are really 35 Beethoven piano sonatas, not 32. The story appeared under the headline: 'Settling Old Scores by Beethoven'.

Be warned. While some say that the pun is mightier than the sword, others believe that people who make them deserve pun-ishment. I love puns; I say mock not, lest ye be accused of envy. As composer and pianist Oscar Levant observed years ago: 'A pun is the lowest form of wit, especially if you didn't think of it first.'

Published in Pianist magazine, number 46, February/March 2009. Used by permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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