At the risk of front-end loading all the musical concepts into this one symphony, I thought it might be helpful before we venture into the third movement of the Mahler 5 just to talk a little bit about a word that’s really only heard within classical music circles (or Italian-speakers).
And that is a scherzo. Scherzo is simply the Italian word for “I joke” and I as I mentioned in an earlier post, it is a quirky movement which was faster than the slow movement but not as light and heavy as the first and last movements. But the best way to really get your head around a scherzo is to actually listen to a couple of them to get the idea of what they sound like. It will also give you an idea of just how insane the next movement of the Mahler 5 would have appeared to the audience of the day.
First off, years before there were scherzos, but composers were still cranking out four-movement symphonies, there used to be a fast first movement, a fast last movement and a slow movement (usually the second one) and the third movement would be a kind of dance called a “minuet”. Then, if you think of the minuet theme as Theme A, in the middle of a minuet movement, the composer would switch to a different theme (Theme B). And then when Theme B was finished, they’d go back to Theme A. So it has a simple A B A structure.
Now, at some early stage, the B theme was only played by three instruments, so it came to be known as the “Trio” section. The tradition about only using three instruments didn’t last very long, but the name stuck, and so the full name for a Minuet movement was a “Minuet and Trio” even though any number of instruments will play in the trio section. It’s nearly always the simplest movement to follow. You hear the minuet, then the trio, then back to the minuet. Sometimes they play the minuet through twice the first time then only once after the Trio, but overall it’s not too complicated.
Here’s a world-famous example of a minuet:
This is from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The minuet begins at (0:00:), the Trio kicks in at (0:35) and then back to the minuet at (1:19). Pretty straightforward.
However, by Beethoven’s day, the preferred version was to call it a scherzo, which meant that instead of being a light fluffy dance number, it could be a bit more raucous. (Or at least raucous for an early 19th century set.) But it still had the same pattern. Scherzo (Theme A), middle section called a Trio (Theme B), then back to the Scherzo.
Here’s an example of a very famous scherzo: the third movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica” (or Heroic) Symphony. The Beethoven 3 is all about heroism (originally he had Napoleon in mind when he wrote it) and so, in this movement, you can almost imagine mounted soldiers:
(0:00) It starts at a light canter, then heads up to a full gallop at (0:47). This scherzo theme repeats twice. The Trio arrives at (2:34). It’s a great moment for French horn players, and I always feel like the horn calls give it a military feel as well. Then at (3:59) the scherzo returns and we gallop to the finish..
You get the idea. Despite the name, scherzos are not super-funny, but they are kind of fun.
The only other thing to know is that occasionally, there was a variation on the scherzo, where the Trio would come back again to make the movement a bit longer. (So A B A B A.) But, for the most part, for the listener of the day, it was a simple movement to follow, you knew what to expect, and you knew you’d be done in 10 minutes max. Until the scherzo of the Mahler 5 came along … But you can enjoy that in a few days.