Musical fun fit for horse show week
In my seat in the grandstand for the Aga Khan, I can't get Mozart's music out of my head. Or more specifically, one jolly little snatch that Wolfgang Amadeus came up with when he wanted to have some fun. It's the cantering strings that introduce the swift, concluding movement of a piece he called Ein musikalischer Spass, known in English as A Musical Joke.
Back in the day, someone in a darkened room in the old BBC Television Centre in West London had the bright idea of marrying the melody with the opening credits of the annual Horse of the Year Show, and it worked a treat.
So much so that watching showjumpers in action brings the music to mind, and so it was this week at the RDS.
A Musical Joke isn't actually the best rendering of the original German. Their word for joke is Scherz, which comes from the Italian scherzo (or perhaps it's the other way round).
Scherzo found its way into the musical lexicon as the name of the (usually third) movement in, say, a symphony or a sonata that replaced the more classical minuet.
Beethoven and Schubert used it to great effect. Mendelssohn's stand-alone section in his incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream is a favourite example, still a dance, but a lot more dynamic, more energetic than the strict formality of a minuet.
Ein musikalischer Scherz was the subtitle given to Johann Strauss II's polka Perpetuum Mobile, and in this case, the translation is absolutely accurate.
Ein musikalischer Spass is better rendered as "some musical fun", and maybe that's why it sits so well with the idea of horses and riders pitting themselves against both obstacles and the clock.
The familiar bit is actually the fourth of four movements of a Divertimento for Two Horns and String Quartet, written around the same time as the much-loved serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
The composer's tongue was firmly in his cheek when he set about creating his divertimento, a description that plants it firmly in the domain of light entertainment. That it most certainly is.
Basically, it's a take-off of the poor quality music of which there was plenty in Mozart's Vienna, dreamt up by wannabes with lofty ideas who weren't quite getting it right.
The scene is set by the clunky string chords of the first bars of the opening movement, and it goes on from there. It's clear that the composer got a great deal of pleasure in putting this together.
Convention was being stood on its head. This was not what a contemporary audience would be expecting to hear.
A minuet and trio leads on to a slow movement. Clumsy orchestration accompanies the key changes. The themes recur with what would, in another treatment, be monotonous regularity.
And finally we arrive at the familiar opening to that television theme, the perfect accompaniment to the thud of those hooves.
This galop continues, the music repeating itself as if the composer is finding it difficult to come up with the right sequence of shifts to move on to the next phase. Not that it's in any sense unpleasant to listen to. You just know that Mozart is having fun with this.
The comedy is at its finest right at the end. The sound is of music trying desperately to find a way out, horns and strings frantically going over the same ground again and again before spotting a gap and hitting three last chords that just come out wrong. Musical fun indeed!
George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.