A Musical Joke

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A Musical Joke (in German: Ein musikalischer Spaß) K. 522, (Divertimento for two horns and string quartet) is a composition by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the composer entered it in his Verzeichnis aller meiner Werke (catalogue of all my works) on June 14, 1787. The music is intentionally written to be funny, being liberally sprinkled with obtrusively clumsy, mechanical and over-repetitive composition, together with passages evidently designed to mimic the effects of inaccurate notation and inept performance. Commentators have opined that the piece's purpose is satirical – that "[its] harmonic and rhythmic gaffes serve to parody the work of incompetent composers"[1] – though Mozart himself is not known to have revealed his actual intentions.

Structure and intention[edit]

Mozart's exercise in polytonality, from the end of the piece About this sound Play 

The piece consists of four movements, using forms shared with many other classical divertimenti:

  1. Allegro (in sonata form)
  2. Menuetto and Trio
  3. Adagio cantabile
  4. Presto (sonata rondo form)

Compositorial comedic devices include:

  • use of asymmetrical phrasing, or not phrasing by groups of four measures, at the beginning of the first movement, which is uncommon for the classical period;
  • use of secondary dominants where subdominant chords are required;
  • the use of discords in the horns, satirizing the incompetence of the copyist, or the hornist grabbing the wrong crook;
  • use of a whole tone scale in the violinist's high register, probably to imitate the player's floundering at the high positions.

The piece is also notable for the earliest known use of polytonality, creating the gesture of complete collapse at the finale. This may be intended to produce the impression of grossly out-of-tune string playing, since the horns alone conclude in the movement's tonic key: the lower strings behave as if the tonic has suddenly become B-flat, while the violins and violas switch to G major, A major and E-flat major respectively.

The use of asymmetrical phrasing, whole-tone scales, and multitonality is quite foreign to music of the classical era. However, these techniques became common for early 20th-century composers like Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, who were searching for a new musical language. In this later context, these conventions were seen as legitimate new techniques in serious music. In Mozart's time, however, these non-classical elements give the piece its comedy and express the composer's sense of musical humor.


The English title A Musical Joke is a poor rendering of the German original: Spaß does not strongly connote the jocular, for which the word Scherz would normally be used. In Fritz Spiegl's view, a more accurate translation would be Some Musical Fun.[2]

Other uses[edit]

In a modernised version by Waldo de los Ríos, the opening of the finale of A Musical Joke was used for many years as the theme tune to the BBC's Horse of the Year Show.


  1. ^ Sadie, Stanley (1980). "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London. 
  2. ^ [Untitled talk] (Radio broadcast). BBC Radio 3. October 1981. 

External links[edit]