Beethoven did not invent the scherzo  nor was he the first one to use it, but he certainly was the de facto catalyst in its inexorable rise and supremacy leading to the ultimate replacement and demise of the menuetto movement.   

In the beginning

Literally meaning ‘a joke’, the word scherzo in its different variants and inflexions was known to have been in use during the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras  as a light hearted, rhythmic even  amusing piece of musical composition usually in dance-like  3/4 time, mostly for the courts and as background music and not for serious listeners or other musicians.  Monteverdi’s Scherzi Musicali are probably the best known examples, the earliest ones dating back to 1607.  Scored for solo and a tre voci with  instrumental ensemble these were called ‘trifles’ or ‘jokes’  by the master, but nonetheless remain among the true masterpieces of the genre. 

Giovanni Battista Bassani  was another composer of that period who laid the framework for the future scherzo without involving it per se. There were many others, mostly churning out delightful, unpretentious pieces, but none reaching the artistic excellence and historical relevance of  the Monteverdi scherzi to transcend the dismissive paternalism of later generations.

The Classical Era

During the early classical period, Haydn toyed with the scherzo form, mainly in his string quartets, most notably in the op.33 set.  Haydn was always a great innovator and looking for new ideas and also  novel and funny effects, but always within the strict confines of neo rococo  formalism. There is nothing striking or revolutionary  in any of Haydn’s  scherzo movements, apart from being a somewhat newer transform of the minuet-and-trio model. In fact, Haydn achieves some stunning new effects elsewhere;  for example the jarring glissando in the trio, or the unexpectedly long pause followed by a sudden bravura animato in the final movement must have been quite striking to many.

During the rococo-classical period the idea of the joke often had nothing to do with a scherzo movement.  Mozart’s  A Musical Joke (K522) is a complete parody of a bad musical composition by an imaginary inept composer  although nobody ever knew who the butt of the joke was. His Scherzo Duetto is an interesting and clever violin duet featuring a musical palindrome in which the second violin part mirrors the first violin on the same sheet and some parts are palindromic. Here the novelty is the joke, with nothing to do with the evolution of musical form.

Beethoven's Scherzo

Beethoven changed all that niceties and elegant jokes, resonating with the revolutionary zeal of the time.  Even some of his early minuets, like the one in the First Symphony, were  much bolder and less formal, considered then  to be virtually a new form, an oxymoronic ‘serious sherzo’ perhaps? The scherzo in the second symphony is unequivocally so. Then the ‘Eroica Scherzo’ finally blew off the cobwebs of so many staid historical and musical conventions.     

In spite of its  bold and serious nature, a Beethoven scherzo never lacks charm, humor or high spirit. In fact some historians claim to  trace  the origin of the Eroica scherzo to a celebratory or drinking song  of that time, although most musicologists vehemently deny any connection as such, and some contending that the scherzo probably inspired the song rather than the other way round. Whatever may it be, this scherzo can always invoke high spirit and merrymaking.

But in later development, this musical and emotional shading became more nuanced. The scherzo in the Op. 69 Cello sonata (a rare inclusion in this group) for instance has a bitter-sweet undertone, an almost muted rhythm, like a nostalgic yearning perhaps. The scherzo in the Archduke Trio on the other hand never wavers from the dance. Then in the Hammerklavier sonata the scherzo offers a brief respite before the intensity of the next movements, while scurrying up and down the keyboard in a brief controlled flourish.

Finally, the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony becomes  the true apotheosis of Joy. The heroic, almost savage, rhythm, culminates in a dionysian frenzy, presaging Schiller’s ode, and the birth of the Romantic era in the history of western music.

              3 Classical Albums, Get 4th Free

The Legacy

The Romantics followed in Beethoven’s footsteps, not always with the same classical approach at first, but evolving, like Schubert’s scherzo from the Sixth symphony to the one in the Ninth, or from early Mendelssohn to his more acclaimed works, or of Schuman, even Brahms.

From a purely musical point of view, an important development was the stand-alone scherzo, vaguely similar to the scherzi musicali, but purely instrumental, and structurally more cohesive, the best known being the  Four Scherzi by Chopin, which are much closer in form to the Ballades and Impromptus by Chopin himself or by Schubert or Brahms  than to any  earlier ones mentioned.  

Of course, the romantics did not always follow or agree with Beethoven’s classicism or  restraint, and their music became more extra-musical and extrovert  even sentimental with a worn heart on sleeve approach. Whether it’s Tchaikovsky’s pathos or the sheer bitterness of Mahler or the sardonic humor of many later composer of the time, the progressive changes and freedom of expression resonated with the war, carnage, destruction, depravity  and the utter desolation all around.

In music, as in life, nothing would ever be the same again.