Humour and Classical Music
2. Mozart & Beethoven
by David Barker

It is not my intention to make these columns chronological, but as it happens, the first two are.

The impression one gets of Mozart’s personality from the movie (and play) Amadeus is one of childishness: silly, unpredictable and totally at odds with his extraordinary music. Of course, while the movie is based on fact, it stretches the truth for cinematic effect, but we do know from his letters that Mozart did have a quite broad, at times scatological, sense of humour. It rarely emerges in his music, though.

There is one work, however, where playfulness spills over into slapstick. Written in 1787, Ein musikalischer Spaß (A Musical Joke) pokes fun at incompetent composers and performers. Mozart made no comment about why, or for whom, this work was written.

This is no trifle: it is a divertimento in four movements, and takes about twenty minutes. It is rather oddly (part of the joke) scored for string quartet and two horns. The humour operates on two levels. The musically untrained listener (such as myself) will hear some rather trivial themes, odd and awkward harmonies, some discordance, the rather strange balance (or lack of it) between the strings and brass, and especially towards the end, what sounds like wrong notes played by the horns as the music collapses in a heap. If, however, you are well-versed in what was considered in the late eighteenth century the right way to compose music, you would pick up lots of wrong elements: secondary dominants replacing necessary subdominant chords, parallel fifths, whole tone scales in the violin’s high register, going to the wrong keys for a sonata-form structure, starting a movement in the wrong key, and a failed attempt at a fugue in the last movement.

This being Mozart, there are numerous versions to listen to – Presto Music lists in excess of fifty. If you feel the need to watch as well as listen, here is a good performance from a group of young Canadian musicians (YouTube).

I can almost hear some of you exclaiming “Beethoven didn’t write anything funny”. Cheerful, as in the opening movements of the Pastoral Symphony, yes, but not funny. Let me offer his Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio, better known as Rage over a lost penny, vented in a Caprice. Robert Schumann wrote that “it would be difficult to find anything merrier than this whim”. Now even allowing for changes in what is considered funny in different eras, this isn’t ROFL (that’s “roll on the floor laughing” for those of us not up on social media abbreviations), but it is delightfully silly (for Beethoven) and almost sounds like the great man is sending himself up. Beethoven’s use of “alla ingharese” in the title is interesting because the second word doesn’t exist in Italian. It is thought that he has conflated the words alla zingarese (in the Gypsy style) and all’ungherese (in the Hungarian style), but whether this was done deliberately or in error, we shall never know.

This work, at around six minutes, has become a favourite encore, and thus there are plenty of recordings. It is anything but profound, so take your pick.