Defining Terms: Scherzo
Coming up at about 10 minutes to 11 Thursday on NEPR's Big Classical Show is a wonderfully witty and rhythmic single-movement orchestral work by the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, his "Scherzo capriccioso." Now, we could simply translate the title as "Capricious Scherzo" or "Scherzo-Caprice." and leave it at that — rather like Professor Peter Schickele, in his "Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach" translating Clavier-Übung , the title of some of J.S. Bach's keyboard collections, as "Keyboard Übung." But it strikes me that you've probably seen or heard the word scherzo plenty of times in connection to classical music without someone explaining where it came from or what it's supposed to mean. So, let me give it a try.
According to my handy online Ultralingua, the Italian noun scherzo (perhaps derived from the old German verb scherzen , "to joke") translates into English as "joke," or "jest," or "prank," or "banter," or "lark." You get the idea — something lighthearted and humorous. Scherzo first appears in a musical context in the early 1600s, applied to madrigal-like vocal pieces of a specific poetic structure. The great Claudio Monteverdi's two collection of "Scherzi musicali " are the most enduring examples. The term pops up here and there over the next 150 years, almost always for vocal pieces. So how did a vocal genre morph into an instrumental?
It didn't. Remember my UConn professors' injunction that the answer to "what does this musical term mean" is always "different things at different times?" Well, that goes for symphony, that goes for concerto, and that certainly goes for scherzo, all three of which were used for vocal music first and instrumental music later. The modern sense of "scherzo," as used by Dvořák and countless others, is later in origin and totally unrelated to the old vocal sense of the word.
To pinpoint its origin, let's take a look at the classical multi-movement forms, as they developed in the latter half of the 18th century. The concerto, defined as a work for one or more solo instruments and orchestra, was almost invariably in three movements. Other genres employing keyboard, such as the solo sonata, the duo sonata (e.g., sonata for piano and violin) and piano trio (i.e., trio for piano, violin and cello) were typically in two or three movements. But the symphony and the string quartet mostly came in four movements, thanks to the addition of a movement from the old dance-based suites: the minuet.
Usually placed third among the four movements, the minuet provided an elegant respite from the more serious goings-on in the other three movements. With very few exceptions, the minuets were composed in three-part form: opening section, contrasting "trio" (we'll get to that term some other time), and the opening section repeated. But great composers, as is their wont, constantly look for ways to "kick it up a notch," as Chef Emeril would put it. So our dear Joseph Haydn, in his great collection of String Quartets, Op. 33 (1781), tried a slightly broader and punchier movement in place of the minuet, and called them, for reasons unknown, "scherzo."
And for Haydn, that was it for the scherzo. He returned to the standard minuet in each of his subsequent quartets, and stuck with it in his symphonies as well. But among those paying attention was Beethoven, who featured scherzi in a few of his earliest published chamber works, inluding the Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 2 and the String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 2. And for Beethoven, the difference between the minuet and the scherzo was even bigger than it was for Haydn. Vigorous, boisterous, rhythmically playful, here was a new medium for the young genius's unstoppable creativity. Sure, it stuck to the minuet's three-part form and (usually) three-to-a-bar meter. But this was no elegant dance. This was serious fun!
What Beethoven started in his chamber works, he eventually added to his symphonies, changing the course of that medium forever. The Symphony No. 1 features a scherzo in all but name (it's still called a minuet), but the Symphony No. 2 has a scherzo in both name and style. And from then on, any composer who went back to the minuet (as Beethoven himself did in his Symphony No. 8) was being intentionally old-fashioned, like making a modern movie in black-and-white. If you have a set of Beethoven's Symphonies on your shelves or on your portable device, listen just to a few of the scherzos (an acceptable English equivalent to the Italian scherzi ) and marvel at their rhythmic ingenuity.
Well, as happened to the rondo (earlier blog post here), the scherzo eventually broke away from its part in a multi-movement work, and started to lead an independent musical existence. Chopin's four Scherzos for piano are the earliest masterworks of the genre. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Dvořák's "Scherzo capriccioso" may be the earliest stand-alone symphonic movement using the term. And as with Beethoven, so with Dvořák: the scherzo may be very witty, but it's no joke!