Cadence in music

The cadenza is perhaps one of the most unusual elements of classical music, an indispensable addition to an orchestra-accompanied concerto that, though ubiquitous, can take a wide variety of forms. By definition, a cadenza is a solo that precedes a closing formula, in which the soloist plays a series of personally selected or invented musical phrases, interspersed with previously played themes – in short, a free ground for virtuosic improvisation.

The invention of the cadenza is linked to the traditions of baroque neapolitan opera, in which singers frequently embellished their arias with various individually devised runs, trills, and arpeggios in order to flaunt their talents. However, this proverbial nod to the imagination carried with it the danger of reckless abandon, and while some performers may have used the opportunity in support of the overall piece, others merely derailed the composition through self-indulgent displays of vocal prowess. For this reason, composers, in the interest of preserving the integrity of their work and – more importantly – their original authorial intentions, strove to maintain as much control over their work as possible, and thus to restrict the individuality of performers to the level of mere gestures.

Thus, in time, the cadenzas of classical performance pieces – as with those Baroque opera – became incorporated as integral, written elements, either as a subsequently written work that gradually became part of the standard repertoire (as with Beethoven’s cadenzas for Mozart’s Piano Concertos), or as the notated work of the composer of the piece itself (as with the cadenza in Mendelssohn’s violin concerto). By the Age of Romanticism, the genre of the concerto had become more technically demanding, leaving considerably less room for improvisation – which instead found expression in ensemble and solo pieces such as the paraphrase, nocturne, and impromptu – and the significance of the cadenza faded away until it was all but lost. Yet even today, in the programmes of classical music offered in modern concert halls – with just a few, noted exceptions – the cadenza, though included as a mere revival element (if included at all), is still the one place, where a performer’s true creative talents are revealed.

Péter Kaknics