Music Post: The History of Fast Movements Within The Symphony

Published: Oct. 9, 2018 at 2:00 PM HST
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When I was in elementary school, the music teacher taught us to dance the minuet. I don’t remember the stately steps, but I remember the tempo, so I know that Haydn and Mozart sometimes composed “minuets” that were too fast, because they weren’t intended to be danced, but were played by orchestras, the faster of the two inner movements of the typical four-movement symphony.

In Haydn’s day the fastest movement of a symphony tended to be the finale. But this essay is about fast movements “within” the symphony, not at the edges of one. Suffice to say that very fast finales never completely died out and can be found in symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Ives and Sibelius, to name just a few that come immediately to mind.

It was Beethoven, mainly, who replaced the minuet with the faster scherzo. His First Symphony, 1800, has a “minuet,” but it’s really a textbook scherzo, in A-B-A form, where A is the fast part and B is different musical material in a contrasting key, generally called the trio section because it was originally for just a few instruments.

Most composers fiddle with formats, and Brahms, for all his reputation as a conservative, liked to puckishly choose tempos other than what his audiences expected. For example, the third movement of his First Symphony is “poco allegretto,” the closest the work comes to a scherzo, but really not very scherzy.

Before Brahms, Schumann wrote a “scherzo” for his “Spring” Symphony that is neither fast enough nor light enough to be a proper scherzo.

Sibelius liked to tie fast and slow movements together, by making the fast part twice as fast as the slow part, allowing overlap.

Mahler, in his Fourth Symphony, wrote a scherzo that is superficially correct but has a bitter tone that makes it seem almost like a satire of a scherzo.

Mendelssohn invented the fairytale scherzo, as fast as others’ but so much lighter in tone that the lightness becomes the strongest trait. Tchaikovsky adopted this in his early symphonies and Glazunov mastered it.

Stravinsky subverted the format in his Symphony in C with a fast movement that manages not to sound scherzy because it stop and starts a lot. Until him, a typical scherzo was not merely uptempo but also propulsive, never stopping except for the trio.

Shostakovich subverted it by shifting the emotional focus to the trio section, which he filled with slow, desolate music, starting with his Op. 10 First Symphony. The scherzo of his Ninth Symphony is startling in its trio-desolation because the rest of the work is almost Haydnesque in its lightness.

(Howard Dicus hosts “Howard’s Day Off” on Hawaii Public Radio’s HPR-2, 5am-7am HST Saturdays, with a replay at 5pm-7pm HST Sundays. If you join the Howard’s Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook you’ll see cue sheets for the programs along with advance notice of the following weekend’s topic.)