Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The old jokes are the best ones

Heard the one about the lutenist who spent longer tuning his instrument than he did playing it? Thought so. Fresh, witty, apt. Not bad for a joke that's been around for almost three hundred years.

Johann Mattheson in his Neu-eröffnete Orchestre from 1713 wrote: ‘Denn wenn ein Lauteniste 80. Jahr alt wird / so hat er gewiβ 60. Jahr gestimmet.’ (When a lutenist reaches the age of 80, he must surely have spend 60 years tuning.) To which he added: ‘Das ärgste ist / daβ unter 100. insonderheit Liebhabern / die keine Profession davon machen / kaum 2. capable sind / recht reine zu stimmen.’ (The worst is that among 100 amateurs, those that do not make a profession of it, hardly two will be able to tune really well.)

Goethe repeats the joke, at the expense of his dad Johann Caspar Goethe (1710-1782) who was a keen lutenist. In "Dichtung und Wahrheit", Buch 8, he writes:
"mein Vater ... stimmte seine Laute länger, als er darauf spielte." (my father ... tuned his lute for longer than he played it).

To be fair, by this late stage in the lute's development it was a multi-string monster. A thirteen-course German baroque lute has 26 strings.