Beethoven’s Fifth, of course—this is a music blog.
But not the first movement. It gets all the love already, what with that famous “fate knocks at the door/V for victory” head motive, and its very own P.D.Q. Bach spoof, “New Horizons In Music Appreciation.” (If you like, you can check it out at the link below. I’ll wait!)
But the third movement has lots to admire, too. There a just a couple of things to keep in mind as we take a look (and listen) to it.
First, its form: symphonic third movements during the Classical period were generally examples of either of the “minuet-and-trio” or of its derivative form, the “scherzo and trio.” This specimen is no exception, falling into the latter category. The minuet and trio set the formal pattern, though, so let’s look at that for a moment.
A Minuet is in moderate triple meter, and usually in rounded binary form, consisting of a first section—symbolized by the letter A—and a second section. This second section begins with differing material—‘B’—usually in a different but related key, such as the dominant, or (in the case of a minor key minuet) the relative major. This ‘B’ section then concludes with a return to the ‘A’ material, so that the overall form of the Minuet becomes A|BA.
The trio—which may or may not be an actual trio by texture, though it often features lighter scoring—is usually likewise in rounded binary form. It is followed by a restatement of the minuet, making an overall form that is ternary—ABA.
The scherzo follows this general pattern for the most part, but with significant alterations. First, the tempo is usually faster, and the character is different. As Wikipedia puts it, “Beethoven in particular [turns] the polite rhythm of the minuet into a much more intense—and sometimes even savage—dance.”
Second, the form usually possesses ‘irregular’ features, accounting perhaps for the term “scherzo” (Italian for “joke.”) The irregular is the unexpected, and the unexpected is frequently humorous.
Having discussed the form of the scherzo, let’s turn to the second of our points to keep in mind: tonal language.
Classical harmony tends to operate between two polarized tonal functions: the tonic and dominant. The tonic is stability and repose; the dominant, suspense and motion. Other chords, when they are present, are arrayed around this crucial polarity, mediating between tonic and dominant. But they frequently fade tactfully away altogether when not required—and they may not be required for surprisingly long periods of time. This polarization sets up expectations which can become the occasion for ‘play’—for ‘scherzi.’
(By the way, readers wanting to sharpen up on tonic and dominant harmonies in various keys can do so at either of these two articles linked below. Both feature interactive practice exercises.)
But let’s return to the ‘pre-requisites’ of our discussion. The final point I must highlight is the technique of ‘modal mutation.’ As I’m using the term here, it means altering the third of a chord to change it from minor to major (as in the most well-known ‘modal mutation’ idiom, the Picardy third)—or, less frequently, the reverse.
Here’s a tiny (synthetic) example of the “Picardy third:”
For the first three measures, the harmonies are clearly those of C minor; but the E natural in the final tonic triad effects the ‘modal mutation’ of the “Picardy third,” creating a C major triad.
So what does Beethoven do with these conventions and norms we’ve been laying out? Let’s ‘walk through’ the movement and see.
He begins with what sounds rather like an introduction, rather than a theme proper: a double rising ‘misterioso’ idea that basically forms an 8-bar long i-V progression in C minor.
This figure is repeated and made more emphatic by a two measure extension, and concluding again with a fermata.
We then hear a new theme that certainly merits the term “savage”: horns pound out a variant of the first movement’s famous “fate” motive. It begins like this:
Note that although this theme starts out in as clear a C minor as you could ever wish to see, it quickly veers away toward the relative major, Eb. (The Bb triad ending the cited bit would be the dominant in Eb.) But the idea doesn’t stabilize; it careers wildly, seemingly toward ever-more-distant flat keys, settling with another half-cadence—that is, a cadence to the ‘suspense chord’ of the dominant—this time, in Eb minor. (Yes, that would be the modal ‘mutant’ of Eb major, which it initially appeared the passage might make its tonal destination.)
The extended cadential chord is worth quoting—Beethoven embellishes a structural dominant with a tonic:
This Bb major triad becomes the setup for ‘uno scherzo’—quite literally, a musical pun: the dominant of Eb is modally mutated to a Bb minor—as expressed by the ‘misterioso’ rising theme, where it functions as a tonic triad. A dominant is thus ‘turned into’ a tonic, linked by the common Bb root, just as the contrasting meanings of the words in a verbal pun are linked by a similar sound (assonance.)
As it turns out, this section is the contrasting section of the scherzo, articulated not by thematic differences, but by the contrasting key. The ‘misterioso’ theme—via further extensions and a new transition passage—leads back into the ‘pounding’ theme, once again in C minor; this settles again onto an extended half cadence, this time on F minor.
A similar tonal pun ushers in the ‘misterioso’ theme in C minor, and with it the rounding ‘A1’ section of the scherzo. Beethoven extends the scherzo with a codetta combining the ‘misterioso’ theme, the ‘pounding’ motive, now—significantly, as it will turn out—soft; and a new ‘scurrying’ theme. This developmental music crescendos to a last tutti utterance of the pounding motive, concluding in an abrupt, soft, perfect authentic cadence.
Having traced the scherzo in some detail, we can now move a bit faster, simply summarizing the trio. Though it begins as a fugue—”What would Johann have done?”—it plays out rather closer to the normal rounded binary form than does the scherzo. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s set in the parallel major key of C, in yet another example of modal mutation. Its main idea is a somewhat syncopated unison theme—the fugal ‘subject’—stated by ‘cellos and basses. (This theme has become one of the standard ‘audition exerpts’ for bass, and may be one of the challenging bits that Carl Maria von Weber had in mind when he opined that Beethoven was now “ready for the mad-house.”)
The trio also features some play with extended dominant harmonies, rather as the scherzo does. But it is much more diatonic, rarely straying far from the main key. Self-deprived of piquant tonal contrasts, Beethoven animates the music with syncopation and contrapuntal play.
The real masterstroke is the handling of the recapitulation of the scherzo. The ‘misterioso’ theme returns verbatim, and convention would have us expect the ‘pounding’ theme to do likewise.
But what we get—though at first literal enough, in terms of the pitch and rhythmic structure—is in important ways the polar opposite. The repeated notes are now heard pianissmo, cheeping bird-like on a pair of clarinets, and again in a dry tip-toeing pizzicato, accompanied by short, thin-sounding chords, shot through with silence. Where are our savage horns now?
We get the extended half-cadence, and still there are no horns. We get the codetta, more or less, and there is a tiny bit of horn, but it’s piano too—not at all the same thing we were expecting. The movement proper closes with a solo bassoon whispering those repeated notes hoarsely to yet more pizzicato strings. No horns, nothing above a whisper at all.
A listener could feel a bit cheated…
But then the theme comes to rest on a deceptive cadence, and we know that there is more.
Appropriately, for a movement in which functions are subverted—dominant becoming tonic, the prefatory becoming thematic, and the thematic becoming developmental—and in which the emphasis has often been upon the second structural unit, not the first—we get, unexpectedly, a sustained transition that in effect turns the entire movement into a prologue. At the end of it, we are going to get our brass: and not just the horns, not just the trumpets, but an entire 7-piece brass section, including, for the first time in symphonic history, three trombones.
And their mood is not savage, but festive, as they announce, fortissimo, the definitive triumph of C major. But that would be another story, technically; for the transition leads directly into the fourth movement. (This may be the first time this was done in a symphony; it’s the first really prominent example of which I’m aware.)
But the finale is another story—today, it’s enough to praise the imagination and skill with which this remarkable scherzo serves the larger structure of the most famous symphony of them all.