Beethoven replaced the minuet in his four-movement pieces with the scherzo. Scherzo means “joke,” in Italian, but in Beethoven’s scherzos you won’t usually find anything that qualifies as out-‘n-out funny. What you usually will find is a certain playfulness, with lots of fast notes, abrupt accents, surprises, and quick changes of musical direction.
Composers after Beethoven—from Schumann and Mendelssohn all the way through Prokofiev and Shostakovich—continued the practice of writing scherzos in their symphonies and other works, but although all these composers were influenced by Beethoven, each brought his own distinctive touch to the form. Mendelssohn, for example, is famous for the lightness and fleetness of his scherzos, a kind of sparkling quality. And Shostakovich wrote scherzos in which you sometimes really do get the feeling he’s telling jokes, and sometimes pretty nasty ones at that.
A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.