What is a… Scherzo?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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A scherzo is a piece or, in particular, movement in a symphony of very lively character.

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It’s hard to think of a piece of music more serious in intent than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. So why is its third movement usually described as a ‘joke’? That’s what the Italian word ‘scherzo’ means, yet it’s not normally a laughing matter – unless you’re watching a particularly bad performance. 

This is another of those musical terms that’s gone on a circuitous journey over the centuries. Even at the start there seems to have been some ambiguity: Monteverdi’s two sets of vocal Scherzi musicali (1607 and 1632) aren’t all fun and frolics.

The next milestone is the publication in 1781 of Haydn’s six Op. 33 String Quartets, nicknamed Gli scherzi (roughly, ‘with Scherzos’), because in each a dance movement called Scherzo or Scherzando replaces the customary Minuet. Subversive humour replaces courtly formality?

In an age when the old aristocratic order was being energetically challenged it’s tempting to read a political message in the scherzo’s gradual triumph. But Haydn’s scherzos here are more often playful than jokey. And for a while ‘minuet’ and ‘scherzo’ were confusingly interchangeable.

The third movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony (1800) is called Menuetto, but any Jane Austen heroine who tried dancing to this breakneck Allegro molto e vivace would soon end up on the floor in a tangle of stays, buskins and lace unmentionables.

The Lord of the Dance and the Lord of Misrule coincide surprisingly late in the history of the symphonic scherzo, especially in those just-as-confusingly-entitled central ‘trio’ sections – witness Bruckner’s Fifth, Mahler’s Sixth and Shostakovich’s Fifth.

But after the titanic example of Beethoven’s Ninth, the goal to be aimed at became much more portentous. Original as they are, the first three of Chopin’s solo piano Scherzos are composed in Beethoven’s shadow.

Yet there was another master of the form who left a very different inheritance: Mendelssohn. The Scherzo of the staggeringly prodigious Octet is in two-time rather than the customary three and delights in delicate, ethereal, elfin sounds.

Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Vaughan Williams wrote fine scherzos in Mendelssohn’s nocturnal shadow. And then there’s Berlioz’s superb ‘Queen Mab, the dream fairy’ Scherzo from his Roméo et Juliette symphony.

Titans, fairies, 18th-century radicals – it seems this is a dance in which all can join.

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This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine