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a musical joke

March 30, 2012

a musical joke

With April Fools Day just around the corner, I was reminded of Mozart’s “A Musical Joke.” I particularly like this youtube video that shows the score (written for two horns and string quartet) and helps us pick out some of the subtler oddities of the piece.

Take for instance the first movement, where the first phrase seems perfectly fine as a statement of the theme, but as the piece progresses the theme fails to evolve and develop, both tonally and rhythmically. By the third or fourth nearly-identical iteration of the phrase, laying heavily on rhythmic unison, we eventually arrive at a false ending that lingers on, only to lead into yet another unison f-major chord. And once we DO reach the end of the movement (on an f-major chord) how does the second movement start? You guessed it – an f-major chord. Oh, that crazy Mozart, showing us how boring music can be when it lacks that certain finesse of a master composer.

The piece continues on with accidental sharps and flats that don’t belong (especially with the trumpets around 5:25), making the performers sound inept. My memory of watching this piece performed live is the trumpet players cringing to show they knew it was going to sound “wrong.”

Fast forward to the last three chords (eek!) and you get the picture. But why is this supposed to be funny? Why would Mozart take the time to write something “bad” or something that doesn’t represent his best work?

Scholars call it “satire” – in this case, using public ridicule or shame to force an ideological change or improvement. “A Musical Joke” was meant to be constructive criticism and to be funny, and I am sure it both ruffled some feathers AND motivated Mozart’s contemporaries to strive to his level. In turn, it helped train audiences to identify sloppy music-making and appreciate a well-written, well-performed piece (like Mozart’s) when they heard one.

Mozart’s sense of humor might not be the best way to prank your friends this Sunday, but since Mozart’s time there have been plenty of musical jokes, song parodies, blending of musical styles and other fun musical shenanigans. How are you celebrating April Fools’ Day? Any good “musical jokes” to share?

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