A divertimento is a piece of generally light-hearted music, usually written for small ensembles.


Background Music versus Serious Listening – it may seem a modern problem (with the former apparently winning the battle at the moment). But the question of what music is ‘for’ is an ancient one.

Do you engage with it, dance to it physically or, to borrow a beautiful image from philosopher Roger Scruton, even mentally? Or do you prefer a discreet presence – a kind of aural perfume, never rudely insisting on your full attention?

The Divertimento was born in answer to the second demand. The earliest surviving example, dated 1681, is by the Venetian Carlo Grossi, subtitled ‘music for the chamber, or for service at table’.

So the idea of agreeably bland music to complement the pasta course is at least 300 years old. Medieval minstrels’ galleries in baronial dining halls confirm that musical accompaniment to the serious business of eating is a much older requirement.

It was in 18th-century Vienna that the Divertimento – ‘Diversion’ or ‘Amusement’ – first flourished. Other terms clustered around it, more or less interchangeably: cassation/serenade/notturno/Nachtmusik.

Intriguingly, the blossoming of what was effectively high-class muzak, good enough to lend glamour to a soirée but not so good as to halt conversation, flourished at the same time as concentrated listening was gaining ground socially.

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In one Viennese great house, the music might be lubricating the wheels of conversation; in another, the influential Baron van Swieten would be glaring audiences into silence during renditions of Bach fugues.

With hindsight, Mozart’s Divertimentos stand out, but their quality raises problems. How closely did Mozart intend us to listen? In the case of the bizarre K187 for – wait for it – two flutes, five trumpets and four timpani, the answer is, probably not very.

But we read of his delight, in a letter to his father, when one patron applauded and cried ‘Bravo Mozart!’ in the middle of one his serenades – just like in modern jazz concerts.

He’d surely be happier to hear Eine kleine Nachtmusik in concert than crackling from a telephone receiver, intermittently yielding to the words ‘Your call is important to us’.

As for the magnificent String Trio K563: a diversion? What was he thinking? More recently Erik Satie tried reviving what he called ‘Furniture Music’, but to his chagrin the audience would insist on paying attention.

Audiences – it seems they’re never quite what composers want them to be.


This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine