Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes – Wolfgang Mozart, Ein musikalischer Spaß, K. 522

Inappropriate Revisited

Subtitled as being a “divertimento for two horns and string quartet” and generally (if rather inaccurately) translated as “A Musical Joke,” Ein musikalischer Spaß is, in my humble opinion, the single strangest work ever written by a major composer, particularly a major composer in his absolute prime who had not a minute to waste.  It is a PDQ Bach-type, four movement musical parody in which Mozart (1756-1791) imitates a bad composer composing badly.  According to Stanley Sadie, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

Mozart in 1789, at the age of 33
Mozart in 1789, at the age of 33

“[its] harmonic and rhythmic gaffes serve to parody the work of incompetent composers.”   

Given that the “joke” was composed by Wolfgang-freaking-Mozart, it is, of course, devastatingly clever and often laugh-out-loud funny; which was no doubt Mozart’s intention from the get-go.

Okay; fine: purposely artless music intended to be funny.

But why would Mozart choose to inappropriately waste his time and energies on such a parody (a parody that no one asked for or commissioned) at a time he was at the very top of his game, composing some of his most lucrative music?  That is the $64.00 question.

Mozart in 1789, at the age of 33

The 31-year-old Mozart entered “A Musical Joke” in his Verzeichnis aller meiner Werke (“Catalogue of All My Works”) on June 14, 1787.  Please, indulge me for a moment, because we’ve got to place this “musical joke” within the context of some – some – of the other music (and completion dates) he entered in his “works catalog” immediately before and after it.

  • The Marriage of Figaro: May 1, 1786
  • Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat: June 3, 1786
  • Piano Sonata No. 15 in F: June 10, 1786
  • Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat: June 26, 1786
  • Piano Trio No. 2 in G: July 8, 1786
  • Trio in E-flat for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola, “Kegelstatt”: August 5, 1786
  • String Quartet No. 20 in D, “Hoffmeister”: August 19, 1786
  • Piano Trio No. 3 in B-flat: November 18, 1786
  • Piano Concerto No. 25 in C: December 4, 1786
  • Symphony No. 38 in D, “Prague”: December 6, 1786

(Okay, yes, we’ll jump ahead a bit . . .)

  • String Quintet No. 3 in C: April 19, 1787
  • String Quintet No. 4 in G minor: May 16, 1787
  • Sonata in C for Piano Four-Hands: May 29, 1787
  • A Musical Joke: June 14, 1787
  • Serenade No. 13 in G, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik: August 10, 1787
  • Violin Sonata No. 35 in A: August 24, 1787
  • Don Giovanni: October 28, 1787

We’ll stop there.  A pretty impressive 17-month compositional run, yes?


So again: why would Mozart choose to inappropriately waste his time and energies composing such a purposely inappropriate piece of music at a time he was composing some of his very best and most important music?

The answer is fascinating, and it cuts to Mozart’s complex and deeply troubled relationship with his father, Leopold Mozart.…

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