A scherzo (plural scherzi) is a piece of music, often a movement from a larger piece such as a symphony or a sonata. The scherzo's precise definition has varied over the years, but it often refers to a movement which replaces the minuet as the third movement in a four-movement work, such as a symphony, sonata, or string quartet. Scherzo also frequently refers to a fast-moving humorous composition which may or may not be part of a larger work. The word "scherzo" means "joke" in Italian. Sometimes the word "scherzando" ("joking") is used in musical notation to indicate that a passage should be executed in a playful manner.
In the Baroque period, the term was also occasionally used for both vocal and instrumental compositions, such as Claudio Monteverdi's Scherzi musicali (1607), Antonio Brunelli's Scherzi, Arie, Canzonette e Madrigale (1616) for voices and instruments, Johann Schenk's Scherzi musicale (fourteen suites for gamba and continuo) or the scherzo of Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 3 for harpsichord.
The scherzo developed from the minuet, and gradually came to replace it as the third (or sometimes second) movement in symphonies, string quartets, sonatas and similar works. It traditionally retains the triple meter time signature and ternary form of the minuet, but is considerably quicker. It is often, but not always, of a light-hearted nature.
The scherzo itself is a rounded binary form, but, like the minuet, is usually played with the accompanying Trio followed by a repeat of the Scherzo, creating the ABA or ternary form. This is sometimes done twice or more (ABABA). The "B" theme is a trio, a contrasting section not necessarily for only three instruments, as was often the case with the second minuet of classical suites (the first Brandenburg concerto has a famous example).
A technique that exists in some, but not all, scherzi is transposition of a repeated phrase. For example, in the second movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, the first four measures are played in the dominant key. The four measures following that are a repeat of the first four, but transposed up a perfect fourth to the tonic key. This effect creates the illusion of starting on the 'wrong' key, which corrects itself after the phrase is transposed.
Scherzi are occasionally found which differ from this traditional structure in various ways. For example, a few examples exist which are not in the customary triple meter, such as in Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18. This example is also unusual in being written in orthodox sonata form rather than the usual ternary form for such a movement, and thus it lacks a Trio section. This sonata is also unusual in that the Scherzo is followed by a Minuet and Trio movement, whereas most sonatas have either a Scherzo movement or a Minuet movement, but not both. Some analysts have attempted to account for these irregularities by analyzing the Scherzo as the sonata's slow movement, which just happens to be rather fast, which would keep the traditional structure for a four-movement sonata that Beethoven usually followed, especially in the first half or so of his piano sonatas.
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