Mozart - Divertimento in F for two horns and strings, “Ein musikalischer Spaß” (“A Musical Prank”), K. 522
III. Adagio cantabile
Shortly after Leopold Mozart’s death in late May 1787, Wolfgang began work on the cathartic, very loosely autobiographical Don Giovanni; but also that summer he entered into his catalog two interesting chamber works: the timeless Serenade in G, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” K. 525, and its wicked stepsister, the Divertimento in F for horns and strings, “Ein musikalischer Spaß.”
For all his purity and nobility of musical expression, Mozart was no stranger to caustic humor at the expense of others—a fact which comes across to an embarrassing degree in his personal correspondence and in a few of his compositions. But nowhere is that weed in such full bloom as in this “Musical Prank,” which the composer appears to have been sketching as early as 1785 and finished in the weeks just after his father’s death.
Mozart’s letters make it abundantly clear that he considered himself surrounded by pampered and pompous musical inferiors in Vienna, and K. 522 is for the most part a fully deliberate, deliciously detailed parody of their work, a humorous revenge against their limited taste and integrity and their disproportionate success.
Over the course of the work’s four movements, Mozart retains enough style and composure to trick us into believing we are listening to an actual piece of Viennese music. But into the mix are thrown a smorgasbord of disgracefully awkward themes, nonsensical modulations, gratuitously repetitive figuration, atrocious orchestration, a positively wretched violin cadenza in a place where, clearly, no such thing belongs, unplayable horn writing, and much more. There are plenty of “wrong notes” meant to imitate the poor reading skills of the city’s orchestras: the finale, which features a couple of totally asinine fugal episodes based on exercises by Mozart’s student Thomas Atwood, actually ends in a polytonal meltdown.
To the casual listener, the Spaß might sound like a tolerable piece of dinner music peppered with a copyist’s mistakes. But to those reasonably familiar with the Viennese style of the late 18th Century, the work is hard to endure without spaßmic giggling fits.