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Mozart Wrote Dirty Songs, Too

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People love to complain about today’s music. All the lyrics are too bland, repetitive, and racy. So thank goodness we have a canon of treasured composers to fall back on! You know, guys like Mozart. He wrote songs with substance.

1. Leck mich im Arsch (K. 231)

Mozart wrote this six-voice canon in 1782. It was likely a party piece for his friends. The title translates to “Lick me in the ass,” an old German idiom akin to the modern “Kiss my ass.” When Mozart’s publisher received the piece, he was shocked to see such bawdy language and bowdlerized the text to read, “Let us be glad!” (Which, I think, is the complete opposite of what this tune means.)

Leck mich im Arsh, g’schwindi, g’schwindi! Etc.

"Lick me in the ass, quickly, quickly! Etc."

2. Bona Nox (K. 561)

In this four-voice canon in A Major, Mozart recycles some scatological zingers that first appeared in letters he sent his family. (If you haven’t read his letters, take a few minutes and give them a look—they’re doozies.)  

Translation:

[Latin] Good night!
You are quite an ox;
[Italian] Good night,
My dear Lotte;
[French] Good night,
Phooey, phooey;
[English]Good night, good night,
[German] Sh** in your bed and make it burst;
Good night, sleep tight,
And stick your ass to your mouth.

3. Difficile Lectu (K. 559)

This one is full of fun bilingual puns. The lyrics are in Latin, but if you translate it, you’ll realize it doesn’t make much sense. That’s because Mozart wrote the piece for his friend Johann Nepomuk Peyerl, a baritone with a thick Bavarian accent. Mozart knew that when Peyerl would pronounce the Latin “lectu mihi mars,” it would sound like the German, “leck du mich im Arsch,” which means, well, you know. The piece also incessantly repeats the word “jonicu”—that’s because, when said over and over, it sounds like the Italian vulgarism “cujoni.” You, of course, know it better in Spanish: “Cojones.”

Difficile lectu mihi mars et jonicu, jonicu
Difficle, lectu, lectu, lectu mihi mars
Mihi mars lectu lectu difficile lectu lectu
Jonicu jonicu, jonicu, jonicu, jonicu,
Jonicu, jonicu, jonicu, jonicu difficile

So what was up with Wolfgang’s potty mouth? Some believe Mozart had Tourette syndrome, although the diagnosis has been debunked time and time again. It’s more likely that the musical mastermind simply loved crude jokes—which wasn’t unusual for his time, anyway. Scatology was just as popular back then as it is today, although it was especially strong in Germanic culture. After printing the Bible, the next project on Johannes Gutenberg’s to-do list was a laxative timetable called a “Purgation Calendar.” Martin Luther—the same man who redefined Christianity—was brilliantly vulgar. “I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away,” is one of his tamer aphorisms. Goethe once used poop jokes to lash back at a critic. Mozart wasn’t any different. He cribbed most of these ribald lyrics from fashionable phrases that shared wide currency in his day.  

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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