Nuts & Bolts: Cadenzas

Soloist’s delight, but composer’s nightmare: cadenzas can be a short burst of thematically controlled prowess or an irrelevant romp. Why the discrepancy? Jeremy Siepmann explains.

Originating in the dawn of opera in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the cadenza as we know it today is an extended solo section in an aria or instrumental concerto in which the soloist defers the end of the aria or movement with a display of their technical prowess.

Usually drawing on themes or motifs from the main body of the composition, it was traditionally improvised on the spot, thus heightening the excitement by introducing an element of danger and unpredictability just when the orchestra looked set to wind up the proceedings. The parallel with a trapeze or high-wire act is emphasised by the derivation of the term from the Latin verb cadere, to fall. But the danger wasn’t the soloist’s alone. The composer often suffered grievously as a headstrong performer cut loose from the shackles of formal confinement, effectively banishing creator and orchestra to the wings while holding forth at enormous and irrelevant length.

A safety net, please
To minimise such risks, many composers took to providing their own cadenzas, thereby ensuring stylistic continuity and formal balance. In concertos throughout the eighteenth century, the problem seldom arose, since composer and soloist were generally the same. With the rise of the freelance virtuoso in the nineteenth, however, composers increasingly took to incorporating their cadenzas as an integral part of the movement itself. Beethoven led the way in his last piano concerto, the Emperor, and many of his great successors – most notably Schumann, Brahms and Tchaikovsky – followed him.

But throughout the last century and most of this one, great composers couldn’t even afford to trust each other. The overblown, expansive and stylistically incompatible cadenzas composed for Mozart’s concertos by such masters as Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Busoni, Anton Rubinstein, Clara Schumann, and even Beethoven were far removed from the concise and modest examples of Mozart’s own cadenzas, which seldom reach 90 seconds in length (compare this with Beethoven’s magnificent if not entirely appropriate cadenza to the first movement of Mozart’s D minor Concerto, which clocks in at around 2:45).

Far more startling are Britten’s for Mozart’s K 482, Schnabel’s for the C minor Concerto K 491, and Glenn Gould’s hilariously shocking monstrosity for the finale of Beethoven’s First Concerto. In our historically conscientious age, such things are increasingly shunned in favour of genuine improvisation in an informed period style (as practised by Malcolm Bilson, Robert Levin and others) or musicologically apt cadenzas, either by the soloists themselves or such scholar-musicians as Paul Badura-Skoda and Marius Flothuis. Interestingly, several modern performers even reject the cadenzas that Beethoven supplied for his own concertos. The grounds include excessive length and stylistic incompatibility: the fugal cadenza for the first movement of this early Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, while quite wonderful in itself, was written two decades later, in the complex and demanding style of his last years.

What makes an ideal cadenza?
The ideal cadenza then combines stylistic aptness, including brevity, with thematic ingenuity and an appropriate level of virtuosity (though it should be noted that Mozart himself often wrote and played cadenzas which were non-thematic). Just occasionally, composers will include cadenzas in unaccompanied instrumental works with concerto-like features, as Mozart does in his B flat Piano Sonata K 333, or cadenza-like interpolations in such un-concerto-like works as Chopin’s Nocturnes.

While there are no hard and fast rules for cadenzas, they do tend to develop earlier themes or at least to draw on some established motif (perhaps only a rhythmic figure), and in piano concertos especially, they tend to be harmonically adventurous, wending their way through several keys before drifting homewards for the orchestra’s final flourish. Also standard, but not inevitable, is the suspenseful, so-called six-four chord with which they’re introduced, and the long, anticipatory trill that heralds the orchestra’s return.

What’s in a cadenza?
Cadenza An improvised solo flourish inserted just before the end of a concerto, aria or solo instrumental piece.
The six-four chord The chord with which the orchestra usually introduces the cadenza. It is the home, or tonic, chord, but with what would normally be the top note played as the bottom note, leaving the other two notes respectively four and six notes above it. Its effect is to make the music seem ‘almost home’, but not yet stable.
What then? The soloist, usually starting from the home key, plays a written or improvised cadenza. They show off their virtuosic skill, but they may also make it a private, expressive moment, develop certain themes further, or even amuse the audience with passing references to other works.
Have you finished? Whatever happens, the soloist must signal the end of the cadenza to the orchestra with a clear move to the dominant chord, made obvious with an embellishment such as a trill.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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