What is a… Cadenza?
Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms
A cadenza is a solo passage – written or improvised, and usually virtuosic – performed by a concerto soloist.
Here's a rich source of confusion. Anglophone classical musicians are taught to recognize two separate entities: ‘cadenza’ and ‘cadence’. In the original Italian the same word, cadenza, covers both. Can etymology help us? Well, the Italian ‘cadenza’ derives from cadere, meaning ‘to fall’. But listening to the kind of virtuoso acrobatics labelled ‘cadences’ in Italian operatic arias or Romantic concertos you may conclude that ‘falling’ is the one possibility the soloist is trying to banish from his mind.
In fact ‘falling’ does provide a clue, if it’s understood in the sense of ‘coming down to earth’. From the early Baroque period to the advent of Schoenbergian atonality, the majority of Western works end with a sense of resolution, of coming home – like the moment when the parachutist’s feet touch the ground, and the tension in the parachute strings relaxes. That’s the feeling provided by the typical final cadence – think of the concluding ‘A-men’ of a Victorian hymn or a Handelian chorus.
The fun begins when you start to play with that formula. You can, for instance, delay the cadence, holding back teasingly the moment where the music comes to rest on the home chord. The final ‘Amen’ in Monteverdi’s motet Beatus vir is a particularly delicious example.
Or you can suspend that cadential ‘falling’ process altogether – step outside time for a moment or two – which is what so many operatic or concerto cadenzas in the 18th and 19th centuries genuinely seem to do. The orchestra whips up the tension to the point where landing seems imminent, then it pauses – and the soloist, freed from the orchestra’s pressing need to make progress, either meditates on ideas we’ve already heard, or performs the technical equivalent of turning cartwheels or juggling flaming torches. At last comes the moment when she wills herself to ‘fall’ off the high wire into the arms of the orchestra, which duly conveys us all back to terra firma.
Originally soloists were expected to improvise their own cadenzas. But as the age of the composer-performer declined, so composers became increasingly proprietorial about their cadenzas – what if the soloist cheapened the creator’s sublime thoughts, or even upstaged them? For well over a century it has looked as though the composer has won. Time for a return to free competition?
This article was first published in the February 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine