BEAUTY of music | the classical cadenza

 APA Artistic Administrator Milner Fuller explains a unique feature of the classical concerto and prepares listeners for the American Pianists Awards Premiere Series.

Sean Chen at the 2013 American Pianists Awards
Sean Chen at the 2013 American Pianists Awards

You have no doubt recognized this section toward the end of a concerto movement by Mozart or Beethoven: the piece seems to be wrapping up, when suddenly the orchestra comes to a full stop on a chord that begs for resolution…

At this moment of tension, the orchestra drops out completely, and the soloist seems to go off the deep end, indulging in displays of virtuosity that can at times have little to do with the music preceding it.

The soloist then builds the tension back up, plays a big trill, and the orchestra resolves the chord it left hanging some 1-5 minutes ago and races to the end of the movement.

This section is called a cadenza and it has roots in opera. In this article we will explore first movement cadenzas, though they can appear in other movements.

The classical concerto is, by its very nature, a hybrid art form—part symphony, sonata, and opera. It inherits from its Baroque form the basic concept of an orchestral work wherein a soloist (or group of soloists) performs more virtuosic music surrounded by sections of music for the whole orchestra (tutti, Italian for all). The thematic and harmonic structure corresponds roughly with that of sonatas and symphonies.

Here is an example from Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B-Flat, K 595, as played during the 2013 American Pianists Awards by finalist Andrew Staupe with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra:

Unlike many of the other solos throughout a concerto, the cadenza gives the performer an unusual amount of freedom. All the score tells the pianist is the following (excerpt begins at measure 345):


It is at that point marked “Cadenza” that the soloist is free to embark on his own journey. At the time of their compositions, the composer would typically work out a cadenza in his head before performing, but may also improvise parts of it during the performance. Mozart later published cadenzas to many of his concerti, and Andrew Staupe, like most performers, chose to play Mozart’s cadenza.  (You can see all of Mozart’s cadenzas at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library. The one in the excerpt is labeled No. 34).

The practice of cadenzas originated in vocal music where singers improvised at certain cadences within an aria. The general rule for vocal music was that the cadenza would last no longer than a breath. Composers preferred that performers keep their cadenzas short to prevent interference with the structure of the aria. Since Mozart and Beethoven were writing for their own performances, they felt no inclination to keep things and took this opportunity to show their flashy keyboard skills.

The character of the cadenza is quite unlike the rest of the work. Often some of the main themes will appear, but this is mostly a chance for the pianist to explore possibilities. The cadenza, unlike virtually all other music from this period, has sections that are performed out of meter. In fact, when written out, there may be sections without bar lines, instead just a stream of unmeasured notes. This kind of writing has more in common with keyboard music of the early Baroque than the late 18th century.

So what makes a good cadenza? Mozart offers one model:

  • The whole cadenza feels like a long suspension of the harmony set up by the cadence. This is accomplished through prolonged low notes that reinforce that harmony and few departures from the main key, making the eventual release of this tension more satisfying.
  • Mozart’s cadenzas are relatively short, lasting a few minutes at most.
  • Use thematic material from the concerto.
  • The whole cadenza should sound improvised and sporadic, even though Mozart has carefully worked it out ahead of time.
  • The final trill in the cadenza sets up the return of the orchestra, which then wraps up the movement.

Mozart himself wrote down cadenzas to most of his concerti. Rather than prescriptive instructions, though, his cadenzas were meant to serve as one possible option. They have since become part of the canon.

Beethoven approached cadenza writing somewhat differently, and he also published cadenzas to his concerti nos. 1-4 separate from the concerti themselves. While all of Mozart’s written cadenzas are similar in structure, Beethoven’s are far more experimental. In fact, Beethoven wrote three different cadenzas for his First Piano Concerto and two for his Fourth Piano Concerto.

Rather than serve as short interludes like Mozart’s, Beethoven’s cadenzas take on lives of their own. While the style is still improvisational, Beethoven is more inclined to visit distant keys and explore new possibilities. His cadenzas are at times twice or three times as long as was typical of Mozart. Because he releases harmonic tension within the cadenza, he must then work harder to build it back up for the return to the tutti section.

In his fifth and final piano concerto, Beethoven proposes a radical solution. At the point when the orchestra sets up the cadenza, Beethoven writes, “Do not make a cadenza here, but play immediately the following.” He then writes his own short cadenza, then more gently eases back into the tutti by accompanying the end of the “cadenza” with a horn theme. This solution integrates the cadenza into the structure of the work rather than serve as a hiatus from the form. 2013 American Pianists Awards winner Sean Chen performs this section in the following clip (“cadenza” starts at 18:59):

Throughout the years, cadenzas that are written by the composer have become canonic, and few of today’s artists depart from them when they exist. Two of Mozart’s most popular concerti, K 466 and 467, do not have written cadenzas by the composer. Beethoven wrote cadenzas for both of these works, which, despite sounding like Beethoven and not Mozart, have become very popular among pianists.

Composers after Beethoven were far less inclined to give the performer so much freedom. For instance, Schuman and Brahms wrote out cadenzas when they appear, which like Beethoven’s Fifth, are more integrated into the greater structure. Chopin’s concerti, which are heavily dominated by the piano, contain no cadenzas at all.

This season, you will hear four of Beethoven’s cadenzas:

  • Steven Lin will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on November 6th
  • Sam Hong will play No. 3 on December 4th
  • Drew Peterson will play No. 5 on January 29th
  • Alex Beyer will play No. 2 on February 26th (with a HUGE cadenza!)

Happy listening!

The 2017 American Pianists Awards have begun! The Awards are held every four years to discover the best aspiring young American classical pianists. The Premiere Series provides the first live juried performances of the five American Pianists Awards finalists. Between September 2016 and February 2017, each finalist makes an initial appearance on stage in Indianapolis for a solo and ensemble performance. Subscriptions are on sale now!



Author: americanpianistsassociation

The mission of the American Pianists Association is to discover, promote and advance the careers of young, American jazz and classical pianists.

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