Though it was completed on 14 June 1787 a month after Leopold Mozart's death, Ein musikalischer Spass (A Musical Joke) is not, as is often claimed, Mozart's traumatic reaction to the death of his father. In fact, it is likely that the composition of K. 522 was spread over a period of time and much of it may have been written before Leopold's final illness took hold.
Nevertheless, given the popular image of the stern Leopold, the irreverent humour would no doubt have irked the old man. Mozart takes great delight in lampooning the efforts of amateur composers and town bands in writing for the horn. Thus, the capricious Mozart gleefully accentuates the out-of-tune and uneven notes on a natural horn that an experienced composer would normally avoid.
Betraying the composer's ability, however, Ein musikalischer Spass is more than a mere joke and contains moments of great sophistication, particularly in the Adagio Cantabile. The famous Presto with its quirky theme is particularly popular.
The works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are generally held to mark the peak of Viennese Classicism. As a composer who excelled in every genre, he can be rightly regarded as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music.
Born on 27 January 1756 in Salzburg, Austria, Wolfgang received his musical education from his father, Leopold and quickly showed aptitude, playing his sister's piano pieces at the age of four and composing from the age of five. Leopold, fully aware of the remarkable talents of Wolfgang and his sister, Nannerl, took the family around Europe, showcasing his children before Kings and Queens.
Having toured as a child prodigy for ten years and come into contact with all manner of musical styles and practices, including a meeting with J C Bach in London, Mozart began his adult musical career in Salzburg in 1773 in the employ of the Archbishop.
Although the greater part of his job was to compose church music, the young Mozart quickly became the chief composer of instrumental and vocal music in Salzburg and gradually became more dissatisfied with his position. Matters came to a head in 1781 when Mozart realised he could make a living as a freelance musician in Vienna. By the end of 1781, having obtained a release from his employment, he was established as the greatest keyboard player in the Austrian capital.
Mozart's finest works date from the ten years he spent in Vienna, the last years of his tragically short life. His reputation as a composer was immediately established with the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and shortly after he married Constanze Weber. Their marriage appears to have a happy one, though both were financially naive.
The busiest years were between 1784 and 1788, in a period of financial security. Mozart gave numerous subscription concerts, for which he composed a dozen excellent piano concerti, in addition to private concerts for the local nobility. In 1784 Mozart also became a freemason at a lodge in Vienna and often composed music for meetings, most notably the Mauerische Trauermusik.
Opera, however, was still Mozart's priority and he scored great successes in Vienna and Prague with Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. These were followed in the final two years of his life by three more operatic masterpieces: Così fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte.
After the death of Leopold in May 1787 and a temporary lull in creative activity, Mozart began to give fewer concerts. His finances suffered as a result and from mid-1788 he was often in debt, forced to rely on loans from friends. However, the Mozarts never had to do without servants or any other luxuries of their class.
Mozart's work was still attracting international interest and was widely published. He was working on a Requiem commission when he died on 5 December 1791 from rheumatic inflammatory fever, but there is no evidence that this was in any way a burden on him as is sometimes suggested. Nor is there any evidence that he was poisoned, by Salieri or anybody else. He was buried in a common grave, as was the usual custom at the time, on a calm, mild day (not the snowy, stormy day of legend).
Mozart's reputation continued to spread after his death with Breitkopf & Härtel releasing a 'collected edition' of Mozart's works as early as 1798. In 1862, Köchel released his thematic catalogue of Mozart's works (works in Mozart's catalogue are thus prefixed by the letter K) prompting Breitkopf to publish a 'complete edition' between 1877 and 1883. His popularity has, if anything, grown to new heights in recent times with the majority of his works occupying prominent places in the repertory.