Holiday: April Fool’s Day – Mozart’s “A Musical Joke”, K. 522

April Fools’ Day is celebrated on 1 April every year. 1 April is not a national holiday, but is widely recognized and celebrated in various countries as a day when people play practical jokes and hoaxes on each other called April fools.

‘A Musical Joke’, 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.


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.

Other Musical Jokes

Beethoven

Musical jokes, quips, and dedications
  • WoO 100: Musical joke for three voices “Lob auf den Dicken”
  • WoO 101: Musical joke for three voices and chorus “Graf, Graf, liebster Graf”
  • WoO 199: Musical joke “Ich bin der Herr von zu”
  • WoO 200: Piano Exercise “O Hoffnung!”
  • WoO 201: Musical joke “Ich bin bereit!”
  • WoO 202: Riddle canon “Das Schöne zu dem Guten” (first version)
  • WoO 203: Riddle canon “Das Schöne zu dem Guten” (second version)
  • WoO 204: Musical joke “Holz, Holz, Geigt die Quartette So”
  • WoO 205: Ten musical quips (Kinsky’s word is “Notenscherze”) from Beethoven’s letters

 
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