Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Ein Musikalischer Spass (A Musical Joke) K. 522 (1787)

Program Notes Home

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791)

  1. Allegro
  2. Menuetto: Maestoso; Trio
  3. Adagio cantabile
  4. Presto

During the month after his father had died (May 28, 1787), Mozart was composing an opera (Don Giovanni) and two divertimenti. All three of these pieces are well remembered; the divertimenti are Ein Musikalischer Spass, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Although Mozart listed A Musical Joke in his catalogue on June 14, 1787, its first movement was composed two to three years earlier than the rest, and performed shortly after its composition. The purpose of this work is a source of much contention. It is clearly written in jest, but at whose expense? Wrong notes abound in the score. The music is not a caricature or mockery of the musicians of the time; it frequently requires sophisticated technique of the players. That is, it is often easier to hit wrong notes—which sound right—than the “right” ones, which sound wrong.

Some consider A Musical Joke to be a parody of a fictitious composer, a combination of the then popular Gyrowetz and Duschek and Mozart’s insipid pupils Sussmayr and Hummel. Analyst Wolfgang Hildesheimer calls the music “second rate, superficial, stubbornly and enduringly devoid of any significant idea” in support of this thesis. Considering A Musical Joke to be a parody would be a mistake. The first movement could be such, but the others employ such ridiculous devices that Mozart’s contemporaries would not use them.

In this piece, Mozart intentionally violates elementary laws of composition, such as creating consecutive fifths and octaves. He also doubles parts without accounting for texture, to create overly intrusive accompaniment, in some sections. The Trio section is rhythmically imbalanced. Twice in the Finale, music goes on for 30 bars without any real motivation. It seems the composer cannot come to the cadence he wants.

What Hildeshemier calls a “feigned lack of imagination” is something much different. Underneath the seemingly bumbling surface, Mozart is wielding his usual wit. For example, the clash of the last chords seems simply inept, but here is the joke: the various instruments are in different keys, which form triads on the five notes of an e-flat major scale. This and other examples of the underlying skill in its structure are convincing arguments that Mozart intends more than mere parody. It seems that A Musical Joke is, for Mozart, an exercise in coping with musical impossibilities. Normally, he was never in the position of developing an amateurish opening to completion.

Because of its sophisticated simplicity, A Musical Joke amuses theorists and laypeople alike.