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A scherzo (plural scherzi) is a piece of music or a movement, in a certain style, that forms part of a larger piece such as a symphony, and the scherzo is often the third movement of a symphony, sonata, or string quartet[1]. The word "scherzo" means "joke" in Italian. Sometimes the word scherzando (joking) is used in musical notation to indicate that a passage should be executed in a playful manner.

In the Baroque period (ca. 1750) the term was also occasionally used for both vocal and instrumental compositions, such as Claudio Monteverdi's Scherzi musicali (1607), Antonio Brunelli's Scherzi, Arie, Canzonette e Madrigale (1616) for voices and instruments, Johann Schenk's Scherzi musicale (fourteen suites for gamba and continuo) or the scherzo of Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 3 for harpsichord[2].

The scherzo developed from the minuet, and gradually came to replace it as the third (or sometimes second) movement in symphonies, string quartets, sonatas and similar works. It traditionally retains the triple meter time signature and ternary form of the minuet, but is considerably quicker. It is often, but not always, of a light-hearted nature.

The scherzo itself is a rounded binary form; but, like the minuet, is usually played with the accompanying Trio followed by a repeat of the Scherzo, creating the ABA or ternary form. This is sometimes done twice or more (ABABA). The "B" theme is a trio, a contrasting section not necessarily for only three instruments, as was often the case with the second minuet of classical suites (the first Brandenburg concerto has a famous example).

A technique that exists in some, but not all, scherzi is transposition of a repeated phrase. For example, in the second movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, the first four measures are played in the dominant key. The four measures following that are a repeat of the first four, but transposed up a perfect fourth to the tonic key. This effect creates the illusion of starting on the 'wrong' key, which corrects itself after the phrase is transposed.

Scherzi are occasionally found which differ from this traditional structure in various ways. For example, a few examples exist which are not in the customary triple meter, such as in Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18. This example is also unusual in being written in orthodox sonata form rather than the usual ternary form for such a movement, and thus it lacks a Trio section. This sonata is also unusual in that the Scherzo is followed by a Minuet and Trio movement, whereas most sonatas have either a Scherzo movement or a Minuet movement, but not both. Some analysts have attempted to account for these irregularities by analyzing the Scherzo as the sonata's slow movement, which just happens to be rather fast, which would keep the traditional structure for a four-movement sonata that Beethoven usually followed, especially in the first half or so of his piano sonatas.

Joseph Haydn wrote minuets which are very close to scherzi in tone, but it was Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert who first used the form widely, with Beethoven in particular turning the polite rhythm of the minuet into a much more intense — and sometimes even savage — dance.

Most of the scherzi of Beethoven's symphonies (but not of his sonatas), such as that of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony (No. 6) contain two appearances of the trio, in which the second is sometimes varied and after the second of which the scherzo material often returns much foreshortened by way of a coda. Schumann, as noted by Cedric Thorpe-Davie would very often use two trios also, but different trios.

The scherzo remained a standard movement in the symphony and related forms through the 19th century. Composers also began to write scherzi as pieces in themselves, stretching the boundaries of the form. Out of Frédéric Chopin's four well-known scherzi for the piano, the first three are especially dark and dramatic, and hardly come off as jokes. Robert Schumann remarked of them, "How is gravity to clothe itself if jest goes about in dark veils?" In addition, Brahms regarded the scherzo from his Second Piano Concerto in B-flat, Op. 83 as a "tiny wisp of a scherzo," but it is extremely heavy, dark, and passionate.

An unrelated use of the word in music is in light-hearted madrigals of the Renaissance period, which were often called scherzi musicali. Claudio Monteverdi, for example, wrote two sets of works with this title, the first in 1607, the second in 1632.


  1. ^ Britannica Online - scherzo
  2. ^ Sir Jack Westrup & F. Ll. Harrison, Collins Encyclopedia of Music (1976 revised edition, Chancellor Press, London, ISBN 0 907486 49 5), p.483

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

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 dancelike 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.' 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 pair of superfluous bars, 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. I) 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 Romeo et Juliette. The round-andround 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, and are 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 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.

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.)

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Simple English

A Scherzo is a piece of music which is quite fast. In the 19th century Romantic composers started to write scherzos in their symphonies and sonatas instead of the traditional minuets. They are similar to a minuet, always with three beats in a bar, but they are faster and less "polite". Some composers like Chopin and Brahms wrote scherzos as separate pieces for the piano.


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