Structural Deformation as a Token of Undercurrent Humor in Mozart’s Instrumental Rondos

Paper to be presented at the 7th European Music Analysis Conference (EUROMAC) in Rome, September 29 – October 2, 2011

“Non-referential” humor is prone to manifest in structural irregularities capable of upsetting the listener’s “preparatory set” of expectations (Meyer 1956). Applying this to the First Viennese School, what would typically come to mind are Haydn’s witty formal distortions as, e.g., in the finales of the ‘Joke’ Quartet and the ‘L’ours’ Symphony. In accordance with the widespread view that, among Mozart’s oeuvre, even instrumental works constitute “operas in disguise”, it may be surmised that Mozart’s humor is essentially operatic, opting for caricatures of characters and situations.

In reading Ein Musikalischer Spaß K. 522 as a “parody of compositional inadequacy”, Lister (1994) claims the work to have a virtual “hero”, the incompetent Kapellmeister it conjures up. By echoing topics derived from the style of opera buffa, instrumental pieces may incorporate comic elements without necessarily reenacting farcical stage situations. This has been demonstrated, e.g., with regard to subtle “slapstick effects” in the opening theme of the String Quintet K. 593 (Ratner 1980), to buffa-esque gestures in several of Mozart’s piano concertos (Allanbrook 1996) and to the buffo topic in the finale of the ‘Prague’ Symphony (Kenpler 1994, Sisman 1997).

However, it is also possible to trace in Mozart’s music a “non-referential” type of humor, which can be shown to operate along the lines of such complementary concepts as stylistic “markedness” (Hatten, 2004) and structural “deformation” (Hepokoski and Darcy, 2006). In Mozart’s instrumental rondos and sonata-rondos, deviations from formal ‘defaults’ are generally far more pronounced than in his sonata movements proper, and, in observing a selection of such irregularities, I endeavor to challenge the implicit common view that the composer’s musical wit necessarily drew on emulating operatic or opera-like procedures.

In the final rondo of the Trio Piano K.498 (‘Kegelstatt’), a melodic figure, originally “tucked away” inside one of the couplets (mm. 139–145), gradually assumes a higher degree of formal significance throughout the movement, thus provoking the image of an initially shy figure, becoming more and more obtrusive. Whereas this subtle manipulation, which may be likened to Meyer’s concept of “hierarchic migration” (1989), hardly seems to relate to any of the buffa-esque procedures normally utilized by Mozart, it nevertheless lends itself to a humorous interpretation in terms of a witty violation of thematic hierarchy within a piece.

Special attention will be given to the second movement of the Sonata for Piano and Violin K. 302. I will show that the formal ambiguity of measures 17–36, instead of being resolved, is constantly amplified throughout the movement, producing two concurrent, albeit incongruent, overall formal designs, somewhat reminiscent of a cubist painting.

Whereas Haydn’s sense of humor was considered already during his lifetime an essential prerequisite for an understanding of his music (Junker 1776), Mozart’s humor seems to have been less widely acknowledged as a central feature of his style. Allowing for Johann Georg Sulzer’s threefold distinction among ‘low’, ‘middle’ and ‘high’ comic (1777), K. 522 clearly falls under the former category, involving the ludicrous and farcical. Formal irregularities of the kind discussed in this paper, on the other hand, give rise to a more refined ‘middle’ (witty) humor, which may not necessarily be immediately perceivable as such.


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