Laughter is the Best Medicine

Terrible Counterpoint in Mozart’s “A Musical Joke” (“Ein Musikalischer Spaß”)

In this video I’ll discuss the
intentionally terrible counterpoint in Mozart’s K. 522 divertimento entitled “Ein Musikalischer Spass,” traditionally translated as “A Musical Joke,” but perhaps
more accurately translated as “Some Musical Fun.” I’m publishing this on my
favorite holiday, April Fool’s Day, so I thought this topic would be appropriate.
Although the real Mozart probably bore little resemblance to the shrieking
caricature portrayed by the movie “Amadeus,” we know from his letters that he had a robust sense of humor and we know from his compositions that he had an
equally robust musical sense of humor. This piece is a parody of what an inept
composer might have produced and it’s riddled with hilariously awkward
passages. I will first share a highlight from each
of the first three movements and then the majority of the video will be a
detailed analysis of the presto finale, famous among other things for its
amateurish fugal passages. The piece is scored for four string parts and two
horns, a combination that was common for divertimenti at the time — for example,
three of Mozart’s earlier divertimenti have this same instrumentation. The first
movement opens with this purposefully trite, overconfident theme. Notice when
the theme repeats that its first and last measures are identical, allowing
them to overlap, creating an amusingly unbalanced seven-measure phrase. In a musical era known for its
symmetrical phrasing, Haydn and Mozart often use this kind of asymmetrical
phrasing for comedic purposes. For another example, listen to the opening
theme of Haydn’s Op. 20 No. 3 quartet that also consists of 7
measures. Now returning to Mozart, my favorite
passage from this first movement is the end of the recapitulation section when
the second theme returns. Notice the clumsiness of this final measure, partly
due to these parallel fifths between the first violins and violas that of course
also exist between the first violins and the bass. This introduces an
entertaining passage with no real melody other than this obviously accompanimental Alberti Bass configuration played by the first violins, a prolonged trill that also seems out of place played by the violas,
and this clunky repetitive descending bass line that becomes even more awkward in this portion that has a doubled leading tone that doesn’t resolve and
combines with this new ridiculous viola passage and the Alberti Bass figure. Shortly after this, the horns play this
silly outburst of rapid-fire notes followed by the closing theme of the
movement accompanied by this absurdly nonsensical bass line. The most noteworthy gag from the minuet
and trio second movement is this slapstick horn passage containing these
obviously wrong notes. In Mozart’s time the horn had no valves and besides stopped notes was limited to notes of the harmonic series. To partially solve this
problem they used different lengths of interchangeable tubing called “crooks” to
play more easily in different keys. This is why orchestral scores from this era
notate the horn parts without a key signature as a transposing instrument in
the key of the composition. This slapstick horn passage is thought to
simulate what would happen if an ill-prepared horn player mistakenly
attached the wrong crook. The most famous joke from the slow third
movement is the ending of the violin cadenza when the upward major scales
suddenly become a whole-tone scale at the very end, followed by this unexpected
pizzicato note and this strange trill between two non-adjacent notes. The real musical fun in this piece
occurs in the presto finale that opens with this theme. Part of what makes the
theme so amusing and catchy is again the irregular phrasing with the overall
theme lasting 10 measures, divided into phrases of 4, 4, and 2. Compare this with
another quirky 10 measure theme from the finale of Haydn’s 66th symphony in B-flat, in this case divided into equal five
measure phrases. The Mozart finale now continues with a
capricious immediate modulation to a statement of the theme in the flat
mediant key of A-flat major before abruptly jumping back to F major, as if
to say “never mind!” Immediate modulations to the flat mediant are not common in
Mozart’s music but one other instance that comes to mind is the non-satirical
version of this same modulation occurring at the beginning of his A
major, K. 464 quartet. It starts with the first theme in A major, immediately
modulates to a false second theme in the flat mediant key of C major, and then
modulates to the actual second theme in the expected dominant key of E major.
Notice the perfection of the four-part imitation in the first modulation and
more importantly, just notice the overall compositional skill that Mozart displays
at the height of his non-satirical compositional ability (remember this is
one of the six quartets he dedicated to Haydn, all of which he said were the
“fruit of a long and laborious endeavor.” Now comes the much-anticipated fugato
based on this sophomoric subject. This section reminds me of a funny comparison
of Handel and J. S. Bach attributed to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach that says “Handel’s
fugues are good but he often abandons a voice. Bach’s clavier fugues can be set out
for as many instruments as they have voices; no voice fails to receive its
proper share and every one is carried through properly … I doubt whether Handel’s fugues will ever bear comparison with Bach’s.” I haven’t yet done a video about
Handel’s music but I certainly consider him a great composer and I don’t
completely agree with this assessment but it is definitely true that his
contrapuntal writing is generally more sparse. Returning to Mozart’s fugato, the
quote about Handel is a perfect description of the counterpoint seen
here. In skillful fugal writing, the contrapuntal lines are as independent as
possible and static moments from one voice are complemented by motion from
another. The first countersubject of this fugato is not really much of
anything other than two notes that are completely subordinate and accompanimental to the subject (and the last of which even doubles the subject).Tthe
second countersubject is only slightly more substantial and seems more like a
standard bass line accompaniment. Suddenly, these two countersubjects drop out
completely and are replaced by this third pitiable countersubject,
consisting of just one repeated note and a trill. Notice also that Mozart
intentionally commits the harmonic faux pas of doubling the third of the triad,
adding to the clumsiness of this passage. Next comes an absurd passage featuring a
very long trill marked “piano,” played by both horns. As I mentioned before, horns
in Mozart’s era had no valves so trills could only be accomplished by moving the
jaw, lips, and tongue (not really the tongue) — a difficult technique known as a “lip trill.” Good horn
players were certainly capable of this which is why there are many trills for
example in Mozart’s own horn concerti, but this particular trill imposes the
added difficulty of having to play quietly for nine straight measures,
almost guaranteeing a clumsy sound. Under the trill the violins give us the
semblance of imitative counterpoint but notice that the overlapping portions
have identical rhythm and melodic contour, meaning that one is basically
just the accompaniment of the other. Since the dark blue motif is just a
decorated version of the green motif it also doesn’t really add any substance
to the counterpoint. This new yellow trill motif combined
with the dark blue motif from earlier now alternates with this new green motif
combined with a new pink countermotif that completely lacks any independence
or contrapuntal relevance. Despite this Mozart still subjects the
pink motif to contrapuntal manipulation with the pink and green motifs trading
places in invertible counterpoint. I’m labeling the green motif “Alleluja”
because it reminds me of the famous final movement of his K. 165 motet. Now
listen first to the Alleluia theme from the motet and then compare it with this
passage. One of my favorite platitudes now occurs
when this descending passage played by the violins is immediately repeated
verbatim but this time playing each note twice, in a perfect parody of an
unskilled composer’s attempt to create variety. The section now ends with this
silly closing theme combined with a clunky and unimaginative accompaniment. The main theme now returns in the
dominant key of C major, leading to another juvenile passage in which the
ending portion of the theme enters imitatively, followed by imitative
entries of its inversion, followed by this red passage that gradually grinds
to an almost complete halt before a surprising forte outburst brings us
to the F major recap of the main theme. Mozart’s musical humor was strongly
influenced by Haydn, who was the master of humorous musical devices. For example, the silly imitation and inverted imitation from the passage we just heard
is remarkably similar to this passage from the finale of Haydn’s Op. 33 No. 3 quartet in C major. The red portion that humorously lulled
us into a false sense of security and then surprised us with a loud outburst
reminds me of a similar passage from the opening movement of Haydn’s 60th
symphony in C, nicknamed “Il Distratto,” or “The Absentminded Man” because it was
originally incidental music for a play with that title. The passage in question
is marked “perdendosi,” meaning “losing oneself,” and it dies away in a similar
manner before the surprising loud outburst. This Haydn symphony also has a
moment in its final 6th movement that resembles Mozart’s wrong notes from the
horn that I discussed earlier. In this case the energetic presto finale
screeches to a halt and the violins suddenly start tuning their strings with
the score directing them to tune the G-string from F to G. Once everyone is in
tune the remainder of the presto finale continues as if nothing had occurred. Now listen to Mozart’s recapitulation
section, noticing this hilarious moment when all the strings suddenly double
each other. Also pay attention to the return of the horn trill, this time even
more ridiculous because they play two octaves apart at opposite extremes of
register. Finally notice that the green “Alleluja” motif is combined with the pink
countermotif in invertible counterpoint but this time the pink motif itself is
inverted in addition to the inversion of its position in the score. The coda section now begins with the
main orange theme that Mozart now treats with a contrapuntal device of its own,
known as imitation “per arsin et thesin,” which means in this case that the
original entry is on the weak beat and the answering entry is on the strong
beat. I have an entire video dedicated to this topic in which I called the
technique, “irregularly metrically shifted counterpoint. The horns now play the main
theme accompanied only by sparse pizzicato notes from the bass, leading to
the final and possibly most famous gag of the entire piece: an early example of
polytonality during which the horns are the only instrument remaining in F major,
and each of the remaining parts plays a cadence in a different key. Now listen to
the entire coda section of Mozart’s April Fool’s Day masterpiece!

100 thoughts on “Terrible Counterpoint in Mozart’s “A Musical Joke” (“Ein Musikalischer Spaß”)

  1. I think the music is fun to play from a musician perspective. It is really possible to make it sound 'all over the place' while still being perceived as professionals. But as others have stated, if you simply play it as it's written it sounds like a normal piece played by amateurs.

  2. That whooshing sound you hear, is all of this going, at astonishingly rapid speed, completely over my head.

  3. Charles Rosen said "Chopin was the greatest master of counterpoint since Mozart."
    When are you going to address this in a video?

  4. This is great and all, but the greatest piece of musical humor is and always will be Rossini's "Duetto buffo di due gatti".

  5. The tempo changes… subtle. and …… un recognized …. start to make me laugh. god help us. now… in Love…. Mozart. alive. and well………………… 2

  6. Purely by chance, I listened to this immediately after a Byrd "O Salutaris Hostia".

    It's an interesting juxtaposition – Mozart creates his joke by studiously breaking all the rules of counterpoint, while some 200 years earlier Byrd created his by rigidly following the rules of a canon to create dissonance after dissonance as the parts strive to mesh with each other fight for dominance.

  7. Hi Richard! I love you videos, and may I suggest an analysis of 'the musical offering' by Bach. Such a great musical feat featuring figures and canons on a single theme!

  8. Easy to play armchair master composer after the composer is dead and like DK said, "easy to talk when you have no car." Easy to talk when you have no collection of music works.

  9. That glorious cacophony of strangulated hernias being dragged backwards through a mangle at 5:25. I will NEVER tire of listening to that.

  10. lol, hand stop trill. Just in case some virtuoso wants to be a jerk and make it sound better than intended.

  11. I hadn't previously noticed many of the funny parts before the actual joke ending, maybe because the recordings I've listened to have too clean playing, or the instruments weren't "making mistakes" when they "should've" made. And some I just didn't notice because of the speed and joyful feeling throughout the entire piece.

  12. I have to say that a lot of it seems fine to me…I think they would find a lot of modern music "gag-worthy", haha, back then…it's interesting, at any rate…I like to say Mozart would like rock (or any modern non-classical music…and that would go to any avant garde classical piece) nowadays, but I don't think he would if he made to listen to it *in his time*…I really don't think there's anything wrong with most of these passages…


  14. It makes me angry that I can’t figure out why half of these are funny because it still sounds good to me

  15. 3:28 you used so many negative words to describe this passage. I heard it! I heard beautiful music with a spirit to it, like telling a story. I see nothing pathetic or ridiculous about it. Maybe it broke all the rules you believe in, but the result was nice to my ears. I get what he's doing, what he felt and what he was trying to convey.
    you know, sometimes music is more than what you see on a paper! it was the case on that one

  16. Mozart: writes a piece that is meant to be be a literal joke; still sounds good

    Modern composers: try their hardest; sound even worse than Mozart’s joke

  17. The trouble with comedy is that it is less comedic when it has to be explained. This is a very informative video, but more than 2 centuries later and after the seismic changes in music of the last 100 years or so, many of Mozart' s "shocks" would go unnoticed…some even to trained musicians.

  18. Troll level 100, masterpiece! 
    Although one thing you didn't mention was the uncalled for fraudulent cadences here and there XD

  19. As a Zappa fan. This composition looks like a Zappa composition, full of "I don't give a fuck if it doesn't make sense"

    The part of the pizzicato after the whole tone scale sounds like Zappa. King Crimson has a song with one guitar going 7/8 and another in 15/8.

  20. Sounds like Mozart channeling his inner Frank Zappa.
    The voice on this video would put an insomniac to sleep in 2 minutes. Does he make the announcements for the TSA at airports?

  21. Thank you for this great video, Mr. Atkinson. I have been your follower for three years, and your videos helped me a lot to appreciate all those great music. I am from China. Unfortunately, people in China do not have access to YouTube, and most Chinese people do not speak English. I am wondering if it is possible that you could allow me to repost your videos with Chinese subtitles to a video-sharing website that is accessible in China( Then Chinese classical music lovers can also learn from your amazing videos. I will make it clear that the videos were made by you, and I will not use your videos for any commercial purpose. Thank you so much for your generosity!

  22. It's a pity that Portsmouth Sinfonia isn't still together to do an orchestral version. Then again, they didn't need Mozart's clowning around to achieve very similar effect. Here they play–or should I say "slay"–the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony:

  23. Music Majors: Look at this silly bass line, ironic trills, and unresolved chord progression

    Me a total noob: It all sounds like good music to me

  24. Maybe the joke is that Mozart knew in the future we would find this okay and our contemporary listeners would try to find the joke

  25. I guess our ears have gotten so used to all sorts of "modern music" that it is quite difficult to notice the "humor" in this piece. Some of the intentional mistakes actually sound pretty "cool", as they would in a "neo-classical" piece, composed in the XX century (like the "wrong" horn passage, for example). It's also really difficult to notice the asymmetrical phrasing, again, due to us being used to broken form.

  26. Many thanks, Richard, very interesting and instructive! Do carry on, you have an interested public

  27. Why the hell would you call Ab the "Flat Mediant" of F?? No composer or music theorist would ever say that. I mean, technically it is, but it's also just the RELATIVE MAJOR of the PARALLEL MINOR… an EXTREMELY common modulation…. fucking flat mediant, get out of here with that bullshit

  28. Seriously though. Listen to this piece after listening to Mozart's regular compositions. You will truly realize how bad it is lol.

  29. some of these jokes sound hilarious, like the Never Mind! and the never ending trill, yet some of the “mistakes” (like parallel fifths, for example) seem more like overly-restricting rules than absolutely necessary guidelines. I don’t want to be the “just your opinion bro” guy or the “everything is subjective” guy. At the same time, it seems a little strange to claim that one somehow has more “skill” (or whatever you’d like to call it) at enjoying music if they always dislike parallel fifths. Seems kinda unnecessarily pretentious.

  30. These jokes are actually more interesting than most of Mozart's "correct" music. I know people love to pontificate over how great Mozart is, and he truly is a genius. But much of his music is highly repetitive. Probably because he had to produce so much of it in a short time. As a result, it's really easy for me to start tuning out his music, even when I'm trying to pay attention. But these come off as unique, regardless if Mozart's intention was to mock the audience or play with his peers. These short "jokes" are a welcome respite between his predictable repeated themes. Something that makes me snap to attention and go "holy crap, he went against the formula!"

  31. Not the majority of the video. MOST of the video will be about… I don't know about poor counterpoint, but most people now don't seem to understand the difference between "majority" and "most". They are not synonyms.

  32. maybe my brain is broken but the dissonance in the end was quite pleasing. although i also like some schoenberg

  33. The only part that sounds bad to me is the "not resolving modulation", thats really really ankward.The horn joke sounds like early '900 composers imho

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