What Is Scherzo In Music?

What Is Scherzo In Music
What Is Scherzo In Music

If you are an admirer of Frederick Chopin’s work for piano you may have already played some of the most popular scherzos composed. These works have a startlingly shadowy personality and make huge demands on the pianist.

This is quite a distance from the scherzos composed by Ludwig van Beethoven which range from the more traditional jovial countenance through to the more demonic dances.

What Is Scherzo In Music

I remember from my early musical studies that the scherzo was intended to be a light-hearted piece with a subtle sense of humour; almost a joke.

My teacher’s guidance was not altogether wrong as the very literal translation of the word from Italian is a joke.

Interestingly, the French have their word badinerie also meaning to jest or joke, and infrequently used in place of the Italian scherzo.

It is worth briefly mentioning that the word is sometimes used within another movement that is in itself not a scherzo.

You might, for example, come across a passage in an outer movement of a sonata, symphony, or concerto that directs you to perform the given passage with a scherzo feel.

The implication is naturally that you perform that section of music playfully, perhaps even with a dance-like quality.

I mention those dance elements as the origins of the scherzo are firmly linked to the minuet. This is quite a valuable link as the characteristics of the scherzo are closely related to that of the minuet.

Minuets were dignified courtly dances usually with a triple-time metre (3/4 or 3/8). King Louis XIV of France was apparently particularly partial to a Minuet.

Court composers composed these early Minuets to accompany the dances of the nobility, only later as we move towards the end of the 17th Century do they become stand-alone instrumental pieces.

What became popular amongst composers, notably in the 18th Century was the minuet and trio. This was derived from the tradition of contrasting two Minuets during the dance, the second being scored for three instruments.

What this gives is a formal structure of a rounded binary or ABA (Minuet – trio – Minuet). This is similar to ternary form but the ‘B’ section often shares material from the ‘A’ section and the repeat of the ‘A’ section can be abridged.

The scherzo became associated with music as early as the 17th Century. Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643), composed two sets of what he titled, ‘Scherzi Musicali’ (1607-1632).

These vocal works take on a mixture of moods but are certainly not humorous or fun. They underwent several editions or re-prints during Monteverdi’s life and proved to be immensely popular.

Charming as these madrigals or rather scherzi are they also very important to Monteverdi’s first foray into the world of opera in the form of ‘Orfeo’. These scherzi opened up a new musical structure that Monteverdi would imaginatively employ in Orfeo.

It is in the Classical period of music that we find the scherzo truly coming into its own. Popular forms of the time such as the symphony, sonata, concerto, and the scherzo began to shake the hold of the Minuet.

Even though the scherzo broadly adopted the structure of the minuet, the scherzo was closer to a ternary form (ABA) rather than a rounded binary.

It became the movement, especially in symphonic works, which provided a more relaxed, cheerful diversion from the movements that surrounded it. Haydn composed six String Quartets in 1781 (Op. 33), that include scherzos.

These are a kind of halfway-house between what the scherzo would become and the outgoing minuet. They are light in character but not an out and out joke.

Perhaps what we are witnessing here is the wonderful sense of humour Haydn imbued into much of his music with a sideways poke at the nobility.

Beethoven truly pioneered the scherzo. They come to life initially from the Second Symphony in D major, Op.36.

This composition comprises four-movement of which the Scherzo is the third. Beethoven marks the tempo Allegro and as you would expect, it is in ¾ time.

From here Beethoven included a scherzo in all of his following symphonies. They are nothing short of remarkable pieces and in no way simple jokes.

Beethoven took an existing idea, as he often did, and evolved it into something miraculous. By the time he had composed his ninth and final symphony, Beethoven, the second movement marked molto vivace take the scherzo form into completely uncharted territory.

Very little of the early scherzos exist here as Beethoven takes the dance movement and dresses it in an intricate sonata form that begins with a fugue. When you take a moment to reflect on where the scherzo originated, you can understand just how far it developed in the hands of Beethoven.

The scherzo continues on a fascinating journey over the coming decades. Through the genius of many composers, it transforms into many diverse personalities.

Often considered to be one of the finest from the 19th century is by the very young Felix Mendelssohn. His Octet in E Flat, Op. 20, (1825) completed when he was only sixteen is an exceptional work.

It is symphonic in intent and brilliant in the outcome. Mendelssohn’s display of flawless technique coupled with intense imagination makes this Octet something to celebrate.

It is the third movement that Mendelssohn titles scherzo and it is thought to have been inspired by Goethe’s ‘Faust’.

The list of scherzos is comprehensive with something to suit just about every taste. From courtly beginnings, as dance, the scherzo journeyed to become something far greater than the sum of its parts.

If you find this hard to believe, just listen to the Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto in B flat, Op.83.

In typical Brahms fashion, he famously described this movement as a “tiny wisp of a scherzo”. Brahms was of course having a joke as this is one of the most brutal and restless pieces he ever composed.

Many herald the Scherzo from Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony as the very best example, as in a similar way to Beethoven he pushed this modest form to its limits.

Mahler composed hauntingly beautiful scherzos in his symphonies but the final scherzo goes to Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich and his Tenth Symphony in E minor, Op.93 (1951).

Composed shortly after the death of Stalin, the composer wrote the second movement as a ‘musical portrait’ of Stalin.

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