A Musical Joke
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" -- though Mozart himself is not known to have revealed his actual intentions.
Structure and intention
The piece consists of four movements, using forms shared with many other classical divertimenti:
Nevertheless, the music has potential to appeal to the average audience of that time as a comedy, including:
- use of asymmetrical phrasing, or not phrasing by four measure groups, at the beginning of the first movement, which is very uncommon for the classical period,
- use of secondary dominants where subdominant chords are just fair,
- the use of discords in the French 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 with which the finale ends. 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 were later revisited by 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.
Issues of translation
The established English title A Musical Joke is a poor rendering of the German original: as Fritz Spiegl pointed out, 'Spaß' does not strongly connote the jocular—for which the word 'Scherz' would normally be required. In Spiegl's view, a more accurate translation would have been Some Musical Fun.
- Stanley Sadie: 'Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart', The New Grove dictionary of Music and Musicians (London, 1980)
- BBC Radio 3 talk, October 1981
- Ein musikalischer Spaß: Score and critical report (German) in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe
- The Mutopia project has information about the composition A Musical Joke
- Recording of A Musical Joke
- A Musical Joke: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project