Possibly no Scherzos available in this joke shop. (Photo by Stephen McCulloch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
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.

12 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – What’s So Funny About Scherzos?

  1. A great explanation there, Matt, of the “scherzo”, and its history and place. It can be such a misleading term, even in some of its earlier uses (like in The Beethoven 5th, where, to me, the Scherzo has an almost grim determination about it (except its Trio, which actually is quite humorous)), but most certainly in Mahler where some of the Scherzos are far from funny or, even, fun, other than in the blackest sense (which is probably the sense in which Mahler used the word). It’ll be interesting to discuss the Sixth Symphony’s Scherzo in that sense, when we get to it.

    Another thing that has been a bit of an unnatural obsession of mine is the issue of repeats, which comes up in these Minuet and Trio movements, and in Scherzos, more often than in most other movements. It’s rare in Mahler, but it was par for the course in classical and romantic symphonies. The classic format was that the Minuet (and then the Scherzo) would be in two sections – a longish first bit, and then a shorter but similar second bit. The score would usually require that the first bit would be played twice, then the second bit would be played twice, and then the Trio would follow. The Trio would be shorter than the Minuet, but it would follow the same structure – a longer first part that would be repeated, followed by a shorter second bit that would be repeated. Then, after the Trio, the Minuet would be repeated. Traditionally, upon the repeat of the Minuet after the Trio the first and second sections would have been repeated exactly as they were the first time around unless the composer specifically asked for this not to happen – but, much to my irritation, it became common practice in the twentieth century to omit the repeats when playing the Minuet after the Trio. In fact some conductors even omit the repeats the first time they play the Minuet. Exactly the same practices occurred when Scherzos replaced Minuets (remembering that Scherzos usually included Trios as well). It is very rare to hear recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies, or the Beethoven String Quartets, where all the repeats are played and it is one of those things that really annoys me. It annoys me even more when repeats are omitted in other movements – such as the first movement of Symphonies (and often the last, if it was in Sonata Form) where the first section, the exposition, was usually repeated. I think the omissions of these repeats was often because of the need to fit a symphony onto a vinyl record, and since the advent of CDs it has become less common to omit repeats in First movements, but it is still quite common in Scherzos and Minuets.

    But, as I say, Mahler rarely asked for sections to be repeated. In fact, as I recall, it only happens twice – in the first movements of both his first and sixth symphonies. It is much more common for him to actually write out a repeat, but typically with significant changes second time round.

    1. Ian, you triggered a reminder for me of my ongoing issue with performances of late Schubert works. Orchestras and chamber music ensembles are notorious for skipping repeats on Schubert’s String Quintet, his 9th Symphony and his String Quartet No 15. I understand why they do this in the interests of time.

      But I also think that a repeat is generally designed to be the equivalent of my timecodes on my notes. It’s generally difficult for listeners to follow themes, especially if it’s the first time they’ve heard a piece of music. So you’ve either go to give them the score, or point out where things are.

      So one of the best ways that composers could use to make sure that their listeners were able to pick up the main themes that they were using was to have those repeats which serve to embed the themes a little deeper in their listener’s brains.

      But if you only play the themes once (especially in sonata form) and then move into the development, it can be difficult if you’re just listening to it, to tell what is a theme and what is the development on that theme. So, yeah, with you all the way about repeats.

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