1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Scherzo

SCHERZO (Italian for “ a joke ”), in music, the name given to a quick movement evolved from the minuet and used in the position thereof in the sonata forms. The term is occasionally applied otherwise, as a mere character name. Haydn first used it for a middle movement quicker than a minuet, in the comparatively early set of six quartets known sometimes (for that reason) as Gli Scherzi, and sometimes as the Russian quartets (Op. 33). He never used the term again, though his later minuets, especially those in the Salomon symphonies, and the last completed quartets (Op. 77), are in a very rapid tempo and on a larger scale than any of the earlier scherzos of Beethoven. Haydn wished to see the minuet made more worthy of its position in large sonata works; but he did not live to appreciate (though he might possibly have heard) the great scherzos of his pupil Beethoven, which brought the element of the sublime into what may be generically termed the dance movement of the sonata style.

With rare exceptions Beethoven not only retained the dance character in lively middle movements, but accentuated it to the utmost in terms of what we have elsewhere called “ dramatic ” as distinguished from “ decorative ” music. He took those features of minuet form and style which most contrast the minuet with the larger and more highly organized movements, and he devised a form that emphasized them as they have never been emphasized before or since. The distinctive external feature in the minuet and trio is the combination of melodic binary forms with an exact da capo of the minuet after the trio; no other movement in the sonata admitting of so purely decorative a symmetry. The form of Beethoven's typical scherzo purposely exaggerates this feature. Mozart had frequently enriched minuets by giving them two or even three trios, with the minuet da capo after each. Beethoven does not do this; for, the general structure and texture of his scherzos being more continuous and highly organized, the variety of themes thereby produced would tend to give the form an elaborate rondo character which would not have differentiated it sufficiently from finales. But after Beethoven's mature scherzo has run through the stages of scherzo, trio and scherzo da capo, it goes through the same trio and da capo again; and perhaps even tries to do so a third time, as if it could not find a way out, and is then playfully and abruptly stopped.

This form lends itself to high-spirited humour, and differentiates the scherzo from the more highly organized movements by dramatically emphasizing its formal and dance like character. The earliest example is the seventh of the pianoforte Bagatelles (Op. 33) where its “ round-and-round " effect is realized with a mastery which alone suffices to dispose of Thayer's belief that these bagatelles belong, in their finished form, to Beethoven's boyhood.[1] As a rule Beethoven did not find the pianoforte a favourable instrument for his characteristic scherzo style; and his only other typical examples for pianoforte are the second movements of the 'sonatas Op. 27, No. 1, and Op. 106 (in neither of which is the trio repeated) and the fifth of the Six Bagatelles Op. 126.

The scherzo of the Eroica symphony is too long for Beethoven to allow it to go twice round; and that of the 9th symphony is so enormous that the main body of the scherzo is like a complete first movement of a sonata, from which it differs only in its comparative uniformity of texture and its incessant onrush, which not even the startling measured pauses and the changes from 4-bar to 3-bar rhythm can really interrupt. Beethoven directs as many repetitions of its sub-sections as possible, and his coda consists of a most impressive attempt to begin the trio again, dramatically cut short. In the 4th, 6th and 7th symphonies, the great pianoforte trio in B flat (Op. 97) and the string quartets in E flat (Op. 74), F minor (Op. 95) and C sharp minor (Op. 131), the round-and-round form is developed to the utmost, though in performance the necessary repetitions are too often omitted where Beethoven has only indicated them by a direction instead of writing them in full. The scherzo of the C minor symphony was originally meant to go twice round; and a certain pairof superfluous liars, which caused controversy for thirty years after Beethoven's death, were due simply to traces of the difference between the prima volta and seconda volta being left in the score.

Beethoven also used other types of quick middle movement in the place of the scherzo. In one case, that of the second allegretto of the E flat trio (Op. 70, No. 2), the round-and-round form is developed to the utmost in an exceedingly luscious and placid movement, very remote from the fiery humours of his typical scherzo style.

Modern custom uses the name of scherzo as a mere technical term for quick middle movements, and in this sense we may speak of the second movement of Beethoven's F major string quartet (Op. 59, No. 1) as a unique example; it being a very highly developed application of binary form with the utmost humour and unexpectedness of detail and style. It is possible that this gigantic movement, occurring in a work which was an especial favourite of Mendelssohn's, may have been the inspiring source of the Mendelssohnian scherzo which is one of the most distinctive new types of sonata movement since Beethoven, and is independent of the notion of an alternating trio, whether in the single or the round-and-round form. The scherzos in Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music, in the Scotch Symphony and in the string quartets in E minor and E flat major (Op. 44, Nos. 2 and 3) are splendid examples. Even Berlioz shows their influence at the height of his power, in the “ Queen Mab ” scherzo of his Roméo et Juliette. The round-and-round form has remained peculiar to Beethoven; perhaps because with the modern scherzo it would be too long, and because it is easier nowadays to manage a scherzo with two trios.

Of Brahms's scherzos there are many distinct types. His largest, such as that of the trio Op. 8, are greatly influenced by Beethoven; but there are several great quick movements in the usual form which are not called scherzos, andare as far from being jokes as is the third movement 'of Beethoven's F minor quartet. The third movement of Brahms's fourth symphony is perhaps the most gigantic scherzo since Beethoven's time. It lasts hardly seven minutes, but is a fully developed blend of rondo and first-movement forms, with a coda containing one of the greatest climaxes in symphonic art.

Chopin produced a new type of scherzo; independent of the sonata, but still in the quick triple time (one beat in a bar) which is Beethoven's typical scherzo rhythm. Chopin's form is traceable to the classical of scherzo and trio, and the style is dramatically capricious and romantic, but far too impressive to suggest humour. The same may be said of many classical scherzos, though Beethoven uses the title only where the humorous character of the movement lies on the surface. Even then Beethoven's only mature instances of the title (except in the form of scherzando as a mark of expression) are those of the Eroica symphony, the B flat trio Op. 97 and the B flat sonata Op. 106. It is, however, correct to call any energetic movement a scherzo when it occupies the position thereof in a sonata scheme.  (D. F. T.) 

  1. The autograph date, 1783, tallies neither with the handwriting nor with the style, but it may well refer to the raw material. Beethoven sometimes kept back his ideas for thirty years before executing them.