Scherzo capriccioso, op. 66, B131
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
4 April – 2 May 1883
Premiere - date and place
16 May 1883, Prague
National Theatre Orchestra, conductor Adolf Čech
Bote & Bock, 1884, Berlin
D flat major
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
approx. 14 min.
In spite of their title, which indicates a work of joyful and playful disposition, Scherzo capriccioso is a strong reflection of a period in which the composer was suffering some sort of crisis, the cause of which has never been adequately established. It is possible that Dvořák was under emotional stress as a result of his mother’s death (15 December 1882). This phase of the composer’s life also gave rise to the dramatic Symphony No. 7 and the dark Piano Trio in F minor.
Scherzo capriccioso typically betrays variable moods and a constant sense of inner restlessness which makes its presence felt even in seemingly idyllic passages. This closely woven fabric of outwardly carefree, almost waltz-like temperament, together with sombre, almost grotesquely distorted fragments, is highly unusual for Dvořák’s compositional style, as if he were anticipating the distinctive character of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic writing. The orchestral score revels in a remarkable assortment of tone colours, achieved through the resourceful use of instruments added to the traditional orchestra: harp, bass clarinet, triangle, cymbals and tuba. In terms of form, this is an extensive three-part scheme A–B–A which, in the outer sections, exposes more lively and more changeable themes; the middle part is somewhat more lyrical and introduces a greater sense of tranquility. In contrast to Dvořák’s symphonic scherzos, this work is structurally more complex, more elaborate and, in its outer segments, it also features brief, partial “developments” of the thematic material. The piece is brought to a close with a coda verging on the ecstatic. Scherzo capriccioso is extremely difficult from a performer’s point of view but, for the audience, it is one of Dvořák’s most rewarding works.