Magazine article The American Organist

So, You Want to Improvise a Symphony? (Part IX)

Magazine article The American Organist

So, You Want to Improvise a Symphony? (Part IX)

Article excerpt

MOVEMENT III: FROM MINUET TO SCHERZO

MOST OF HAYDN'S 106 symphonies contained four movements, and in most cases the third movement was a minuet. Beethoven had already switched to the scherzo by his second symphony. Thus, we can credit Beethoven with the popularization of the scherzo as a movement of a symphony or sonata.

But where did Beethoven get the idea? Back in 1781, in Haydn's "Russian Quartets" (Op. 33), also nicknamed "Gli scherzi" (The Jokes), Haydn uses the term "scherzo" in place of "minuet." This was the first and last time Haydn so used the term. Could Beethoven have known these quartets? It's very possible, especially since they were published in Vienna by Artaria. Extraordinarily, some Internet sources suggest that Beethoven studied with Johannes Schenk, who composed 14 Scherzi musicali. Johannes Schenk was a Dutch composer who died before 1717! The Schenk with whom Beethoven studied was Johann Baptist Schenk, an Austrian composer who had nothing to do with the Dutch fellow.

A scherzo in the year 1800 was nothing more than a fast minuet. Even the minuets of Haydn's late symphonies were quite brisk. A case in point is the minuet from the "Surprise Symphony" (No. 94), which is the tempo of a Viennese waltz. So, even though Haydn was calling them minuets, they were resembling more and more the Classical scherzo.

Beethoven's scherzos became increasingly driven. Chopin's colossal scherzos are even more driven. It's hard to think of even one passage in any of Chopin's four scherzos that sounds minuet-like. By the end of the Romantic era, scherzos no longer had any relationship to the minuet whatsoever. In fact, they no longer had to be in 3/4 time-e.g., the scherzo in 2/4 from Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony. (Note, however, that as early as 1802, Beethoven included a scherzo in 2/4 in his 18th piano sonata.)

With Mahler's scherzos, the pendulum reversed direction. …

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