Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 2 Research, Part 2: Scherzo and Scherzino

Scherzo in Italian means  a joke. (Taylor, 1989: p. xx) One of the earliest use of the word in a title of a musical piece was in light-hearted madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi – his Scherzi musicali with two sets of pieces. (Gordon, 2002: 38) Then we have Antonio Brunelli, in his pieces for voices and instruments titled Scherzi, Arie, Canzonette e Madrigale. (Hammond: 164) Johann Baptist Schenk also wrote Scherzi musicali, however it is only a title for fourteen suites for gamba and cotinuo.

Later, the term scherzo was used to denote lively instrumental works in fast tempos in duple time signature, commonly in 2/4. Such is the case with the scherzo in Bach’s Keyboard Partita no. 3 (Dzapo, 59) and later, in Haydn’s Sonatina in F major.

This type of scherzo was an Italian counterpart of French badinerie, which appears to be less common. Badinerie makes a concentrated succession of appearances in three overtures by Telemann and two by Graupner (Fig. 1), the latter which as Butler (34) points out, for the reasons of the provenance and chronology in the existing manuscripts, are in direct response to Telemann’s pieces. Bach also has a badinerie in his Orchestral Suite No.2 in B minor, however, Butler (32) mentions that the title comes as a bit of a mystery as to its relation to the previously mentioned pieces. Bach’s student, Krebs also wrote scherzos and badineries in this style. (Butler, 37)


Fig. 1. List of badineries by Telemann and Graupner

However, it should also be noted that back then, there were other versions. For example, Francesco Bonporti, Corelli’s student, wrote Inventioni da camera, Op. 10, where scherzos have a different musical style and different time signatures, for example scherzi in No. 2 and No.3 are in 4/4, while No. 7’s scherzo is in 3/8.  Hurlebusch in his Compositioni musicali per il cembalo, wrote a scherzo of the previously mentioned type in duple time 2/4, however, in his subsequent keyboard sonatas, he used other time signatures with a different musical expression. (Butler, 36-38) Here is a table (Fig. 2) that illustrates the different scherzos written between Bonporti and Wagenseil, whose scherzo from Sonata No.4, written in 3/8, found in Nannerl’s music book, was learned by Amadeus Mozart in 1761. (Keefe, 2003: p. xii)


Fig. 2. List of scherzos written between Bonporti and Wagenseil

Beside in his Sonatina, Haydn also used scherzo in his String Quartet Op. 33 as a substitute for minuet, all written in 3/4. (Sometimes marked as Scherzando.) These scherzi by Haydn transformed the minuet-and-trio model, and serve as the early examples of the scherzo as it is known today.

As Hepokoski and Darcy (2006) have stated, in the eighteenth century, minuet was saturated with social connotation, which centers around the aristocratic society. Breeding and elegance, public expression and similar, as the Zaslaw’s comment they’ve cited has put it: “the minuets stand for the courtly side of eighteenth century life, and an old-fashioned and formal aspect of it…” Thus, it had a very traditional and formal shape and mood.

However, they write, over time, minuet over time was becoming more of an abstraction in the multi-movement pieces, a musical genre subjected to the compositional craft of style and variation, something to be manipulated with wit and skill. It shifted from aristocratic connotations to universal public with the subtypes of minuet began to appear: the canonic and fugal ‘learned’ minuets, where a composer can display compositional or contrapuntal skills, the stormy or pathetic minor-mode minuet and etc. Some late-eighteenth-century symphonic minuets even resemble faster and much less aristocratic German dances.

Haydn’s sense of humor and bias for comedy is well-known, and he was described as “a man who seems to be made for humor.” (Junker, 1776: 29) This was reflected in his music as well, for example, his string quartet in E flat (subtitled ‘The Joke’) have false endings to try and catch the audience out. In fact, his music had so much ‘humor’, i.e. the musical means that escaped the convention, that it was even branded by North German critics as the chief corrupter of musical taste. (Mirka, 296) It’s really no surprise that his scherzi jokingly played with the traditional minuet and its social connotations by adding rustic spirit (Mirka, 605) far removed from the court, through various musical devices that departure from the usual and expected (Mirka, 296).

However, although Haydn began this transformation of the minuet into scherzo, it was Beethoven who has truly finished the transition, gaving scherzo a new meaning and turned it into a separate genre. As Schoenberg mentions, the usual modern definition, like the one by Webster, states that scherzo is a “playful, humorous movement, commonly in 3/4 measure, which since Beethoven, usually takes the place of the old minuet in a sonata and symphony.” But, for each of these points, there are exceptions.

First, just like Schoenberg writes, to some degree, scherzos may be playful, humorous and gay, but as is the case with the scherzos by Beethoven and the subsequent ones by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and etc., there are many more characteristics. A scherzo can be vivacious, sparkling, brilliant, witty, enthusiastic, however also dramatic, heroic, gigantesque, tragic, diabolical and grotesque. For example, the first three of Chopin’s four scherzos for piano are dark and dramatic, so much so that, Schumann commented: “How is ‘gravity’ to clothe itself if ‘jest’ goes about in dark veils?”

Second, there are cases where signature isn’t ¾. In some cases, it goes back to the duple time, like in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18, written in 2/4. This continuation of duple time scherzos also includes Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in 2/4 or the Trio section of the Scherzo in his Second Symphony in 2/8. Just like most Beethoven’s, Schubert’s scherzos are mostly in triple meter, but as Shoenberg points out, in Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn, there are many time signatures. Some of Mendelssohn’s scherzo continue the duple time scherzos, like Sonata Op. 106, Symphony No. 3 and Piano Trio Op. 66, while Brahms has examples in 6/8, like the FAE sonata scherzo, and in Sonata for 2 pianos, Op. 34b and Piano Quintet Op.34.

Third, it’s not always used to take place of minuet. For example, already in Beethoven’s Septet Op.20, we see that the composition contains both a Minuet and a Scherzo. There are other examples, but most importantly, composers in 19th century started to write scherzos also as separate pieces.

Schoenberg says that with regard to structure, scherzos of the masters have only one thing in common: they are ternary forms. (Fig. 3) They differ from smaller ternary forms and the minuet in that middle section is more modulatory and more thematic. Although, here there are also exceptions, since sometimes, there is a special type of modulatory contrasting middle section, which approaches the elaboration of the Sonata Allegro, as in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18.

scherzo plan.PNG

Fig. 3. Scherzo’s ternary form

What can be said with certainty is that today’s form is distinctly an instrumental piece, characterized by rhythmical accentuation and rapid tempo and also that the fast tempo prevents frequent change of harmonies and remote variation of motive-forms.

I have already written my example, when I was thinking about how to title it. This is when I found a form of little scherzo called scherzino. They contain all the above elements of scherzo: they are instrumental pieces in the rapid tempo with the rhythmical accentuation, only shorter in length and form. For example, where scherzo is a complex ternary form, scherzino is usually in small ternary form.

Just like scherzo, scherzino themselves also vary in character and time signature. There are the light-hearted ones like Schumann’s Scherzino Op. 26 No. 3 and Mussorgsky’s Ballet of Chicks in their Shells from Pictures at an Exhibition in 2/4, also Andersen’s Scherzino Op. 55 No. 6 in  ¾ for flute and Benjamin Arthyr’s Scherzino in 12/8 for piano. There are also scherzinos, such as Carl Mikuli’s scherzino in ¾ for three violins and Max Regers scherzino from Romanze e scherzino for violin and orchestra, that are darker.

To conclude, I really enjoyed researching this subject, since Beethoven’s scherzi are among my favorite pieces. Although, everything I’ve found is often a bit obscure and there aren’t too many resources. Finally, look at my Example 2 to see the scherzino I’ve composed.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. List of badineries by Telemann and Graupner

Fig. 2. List of scherzos written between Bonporti and Wagenseil

Fig. 3. Scherzo’s ternary form


Taylor, Dennis (1989) Eric Ball: His Life and Music, 1903-1989. Cambridge Scholars Publishing pp. 58

Gordon, Jacob

Hammond, Susan Lewis (2011) The Madrigal: A Research and Information Guide. Routledge Music Bibliographies. New York and London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

Williams, Peter (1997) The Chromatic Fourth During Four Centuries of Music (Clarendon Press ili Oxford University Press)

Dzapo, Kyle J. (2016) Notes for Flutists: A Guide to the Repertoire Notes for performers

Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2016

Butler, Jarrett ()

Keefe, Simon P. (ed.) (2003) The Cambridge Companion to Mozart. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hepokoski, J., Darcy, W. (2006) Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Elaine Sisman (ed.) (1997) Haydn and His World. New Jersey and West Sussex: Princeton University Press

Mirka, Danuta (ed.) (2014) The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press


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