A Ruggedly Vigorous Musical Joke

Bruckner’s Scherzi are outstanding for their freshness and rugged vigor, and this one is no exception.

  • Benjamin Korstvedt

In most of Bruckner’s Symphonies, the second movement is a slow movement.  Here in the Eighth, he has reversed his normal ordering and made the second movement a Scherzo.  As I alluded to in the previous post, this movement is connected to the first movement by being in the same tonic key of c minor.  Anton can convincingly do this because the first movement didn’t exactly beat us over the head with c minor.  It was full of chromatic, roving harmonies that keep the sound of c minor fresh enough to use in the second movement.

Minuet“Scherzo” is an Italian word, roughly translated as “joke”.  Beethoven wrote some of the most influential Scherzi as the “dance” movement of his Symphonies, and many composers in the following generations took the Beethoven concept of a Scherzo as their example.  For the longest time as a student, I couldn’t make the connection of “joke” to the Beethoven Scherzo.  My best understanding came when I thought back to the Minuet and Trio, which the Scherzo replaces in most cases.  A minuet is social ballroom dance of French origin, danced in triple meter like the waltz.  Old Ludwig had little use for this society dance, and had aspirations to expand the individual expression of the “classical” forms.  Beethoven kept the triple meter of the minuet, but sped things up and intensified the music from the polite, light dance.  In my mind, the “joke” of the Scherzo  is imagining eighteenth century nobles in their powdered wigs trying to dance a society minuet  to the galloping music of Beethoven.  Here is the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.  Try to envision the powdered wigs flying about.

Beethoven Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”, Movement III, Scherzo

Bruckner is certainly taking Beethoven’s lead, and making it his own in the second movement Scherzo of Symphony No. 8.  For all of its length, Bruckner’s Scherzo follows a pretty typical classical form.  The large chunk of music that is the Scherzo is contrasted with a Trio section, then followed by a reprise of the Scherzo music.  This isn’t even a “double Scherzo” that has a second Trio section. (Scherzo – Trio I – Scherzo – Trio II – Scherzo)  Again, as in the first movement, the phrasing and form are pretty regular.  Bruckner builds the Scherzo section of music from two motives.  The first motive is heard in the first two bars, and consists of the violins playing a string of descending, chromatic chords.  This is followed in bar three with the second main motive, an arpeggiated tonic c-minor chord in the cellos and violas.  The second motive drives home c-minor more effectively than almost anything that took place in the opening movement.  The Scherzo music unfolds in a large rounded binary form that takes up the first six minutes of the recording below.

sunshineThe Trio section is contrasting music that starts at 6:05 in the recording.  Mr. Korsvedt calls it a “miniature slow movement tucked into the Scherzo”, and I think that is a pretty spot-on description.  The score is marked Langsam (fairly slow), and starts in the key of A flat major (the relative major to c minor).  One notable feature to listen for is Bruckner’s use of the harp in this Trio section. This is  first time Anton used harps in one of his symphonies.  They arrive at 7:41 in the video below, and provide a tranquil, peaceful moment that has not been felt before in the Eighth symphony.  Also at this same moment, we land in E Major, in a root position triad that has a bright and shimmering sound.  This moment is worth the price of admission.  It is the simplest of chords, a major triad with the root in the bottom, but sounds like a ray of sunshine from a far off star.  This is in part because E Major is so far away harmonically from c minor, where the Scherzo started.  This shiny key of E Major also becomes important in the next movement, the Adagio, adding a further element binding the symphony together.

The Scherzo music returns at 10:19, and is played as an exact repeat of the first time we heard it.  In fact, Bruckner doesn’t even write it out in the score.  He follows classical conventions and simply writes “Scherzo D.C.” meaning Scherzo da capo.  It encompasses the final six minutes of the recording below.  This is the same performance that we heard for the first movement in the last post, with Herbert von Karajan conducting.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Second Movement, Scherzo

Herbert von Karajan was a brilliant conductor who left a huge body of recordings for us to listen to.  I think that his recording of Symphony No.8, on the whole, is a great version to hear.  I do have to quibble a small point here in the Scherzo, however.  Given my notion that a Scherzo is an intensification of the minuet, I prefer the Scherzo music of this second movement at a quicker tempo than Karajan takes it.  I like the Trio slower than the Scherzo, providing even more contrast between the sections.  Here is an alternate version, with a conductor flapping his arms in a vigorous fashion, that is closer to my preferred tempo. Admittedly, it is a matter of taste.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Second Movement, Scherzo

Next up, the big, grand, gorgeous slow movement Adagio.



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