The “Musikalishes Würfelspiel” or “Melody Dicer” was published by N. Simrock in Berlin in 1792, with instructions in German, French, and English and by other publishers between 1793 and 1801.
Quite a number of important composers – including Haydn and Mozart – devised such systems. Also at least a dozen other composers were doing the same sort of thing. Some of them are today not so widely known, but in their time may well have cut a more imposing figure: Kirnberger, Stadler, de la Chevardiere, Hadyn, Graf, Fiedler, Fischer, Catrofo, Calegari, and possibly C. P. E. Bach. Their “musical dice games” were printed and reprinted all over Europe – especially around 1775-1800. This is precisely the period which we usually refer to as “classical” – the time when our very greatest music was being written.
So far as Mozart himself is concerned, the composing game is his all right. We have his handwritten manuscript for at least part of it, listed in Kochel’s index as 516F. It was not ghost-written. Besides Mozart was still fairly early in his career and not quite so widely known as he was to be later. It’s something he wanted to do, in the full effervescence of his lively spirits, to show how one might compose “without the least knowledge of music German walzer or Schliefer, by throwing a certain number with two dice.”
He was definitely not a stuffy composer, or one who thought of music as not really being for people. He thought of composition not as something to be approached only in a sort of dry-induced state of higher consciousness. If you’ve got a pair of dice around, just toss a number and begin.
Also, as has been suggested, this type of thing was not confined to Mozart. Johann Philipp Kirnberger brought out in Berlin in 1757 something with the same general intent, entitled “The Ever Ready Composer of Polonaises and Minuets” (Der allezeit fertige Polonaisen und Menuetten Komponist). In his introduction he explains that if you use this book you “will not have to resort to professional composition”. In other words, it’s a how-to-do-it book. It is intended, he says, for the music lover who wishes occasionally a change from the ombre table in his “hours of leisure”. Apparently Kirnberger did well with his method, for in 1783 he brought out another and more elaborate one explaining how to compose sonatas, symphonies, and overtures.
Actually, the conception of music here involved – so different from the Romantic one – goes back to the beginnings of the classical era and into the preceding one. The diarist Samuel Pepys had a sort of music composing machine. The friend of J.S. Bach and head of the musicians’ society to which he belonged, Ludwig Mizler, wrote in 1739 “The Initial Basses of Figured Bass, propounded mathematically and presented in a very clear way by a newly invented machine”. While Mizler did not shake the dice to get his numbers to compose by, he obviously was approaching music in a somewhat un-Romantic way.
By about 1775, however, a new spirit was stirring. Josef Haydn called his contribution to the burgeoning literature of musical crap-shooting a “Philharmonic Joke”, and it was brought out in 1790 by the publisher Luigi Marescalchi in Naples. Maximilian Stadler called his “Tables according to which one can toss off minuets and trios”; de la Chevardiere called his “The Harmonic Top” an anonymous work brought out in England has the explicit designation “A Tabular System whereby any person without the least knowledge of music may compose ten thousand different minuets in the most pleasing and correct manner.”
Antonio Calegari brought out in Venice in 1801 a Gioco piatogorico musicale apparently of this type; and in 1802 he moved to Paris, where he brought out his presumably similar L’Art de composer de la musique sans en connaitre les elements, which very shortly went into a second edition, dedicated to Mme. Josephine Boneparte. Oddly enough, he suggests in it that one use three dice “It is apparent” he says, “that music, which is taken to be the language of the heart, must – like any other language – have its phrases, its periods, its words, syllables, and letters.” He says texts may be put under the successions of notes mechanically arrived at, and strong dynamic contrasts may be achieved. Perhaps his work is a little overdone, and suggests that the taste for the Classical was waning.
The respect for Classical, objective, numerical elements in composition has, of course, revived again today, with twelve tone, serial, and aleatory composition. “Aleatory,” literally, means “having to do with dice” – the Latin phrase for “the die is cast” being alea jacta est. Mozart’s emphasis on the relationship of music to number, which appears clearly in his “Melody Dicer”, is something at once very old and very new. Other occasional features of Mozart’s music, such as his use of more than one tonality at once, are also both old and new.
But why would he want to link composition with that activity today so despised, crapshooting? Mozart was no high-brow. He once said he wrote his pieces for all sorts of ears – except the long ones.
In his day, one of the really exciting new ideas was that artistic achievement was not confined to those who had been “through the mill”. In olden times the guilds had insisted on a long apprenticeship. But things were now different. Mozart’s father felt really challenged by the evidences of musical ability shown by his infant son, and devoted his life to fostering them. He distrusted the Establishment, the hoary ceremony of courts and bureaucracies. A wild west wind was blowing through Europe – west because America lay to its west, Nature and naturalness were in vogue. Out of this frame of mind came the idea of playfully linking musical composition with crapshooting.
Not only was there a sentimental drive behind this but also it had its practical aspects. There was a great deal of amateur composition during this period when these musical dice games were in their heyday. Any well brought up person was expected to be able to compose something when the occasion demanded. The idea that music was something to be attempted only after long study and great suffering or to be bought in a store or to be read about in books, magazines, and newspapers was as foreign to this age as were the phonograph, radio, and television. Undoubtedly it was expected of the average music lover that he would occasionally write some music in an acceptable way – just as he was expected to be able to dance, make a speech, or write letters. Possibly the results may sometimes have seemed rather lame to composers like Mozart or Haydn. Thus in an off-handed and joking way they suggest that something acceptable could be easily obtained if the person who wished to produce a little piece would follow the very simple steps they indicated.
The basic idea behind such a musical dice game as Mozart’s is simple enough. The first two casts of the dice will refer anyone playing the game to measures that are essentially conceived in the tonic; the third cast will yield a measure in the dominant; and so on.
But what is important is that the writing of the resulting minuet or waltz be something completable. The person using it gets an idea of the whole resulting work – the Gestalt. It is little, but one’s own. It would be quite possible later to go on from there and introduce still further complications, as Calegari did. But so far as Haydn or Mozart is here concerned, the indispensable minimum is that the opening begin with the tonic and the first section wind up on the dominant, and that the second work its way back from the dominant to the tonic for the ending.
The value of this for the present is, first, as in Mozart’s day – that it is fun. It is a game. But, second and beyond that, there are some basic ideas about the normal structure of classical music that are here suggested. It is important that the person using it can thus take his first step towards composing, and that the whole matter be not transferred to a never-never land, but be presented in a quite simple clear, and definite way. It is important that this first step be feasible for the person taking it. And the result should have some musical integrity and completeness. Undoubtedly it has for us today an educational value over and above the purely recreational one that it had for those using it at the time it was originally issued.
Carousel has published Mozart’s original composing game, Musikalisches Wurfelspiel, K516f as the “Mozart Melody Dicer”. The Joplin Melody Dicer was created by Carousel using Mozart’s original idea of a dice game, with Scott Joplin’s music. Both games come in 3 versions: Individual Player, Classroom ans e-book.