A cadenza is often an extremely virtuosic passage, usually played by a solo performer for example in a concerto. It comes from the word ‘cadence’ and is thus a way of finishing a section of the music (often at the end of a movement).
They were originally intended to be improvised, but over time they started to be more commonly written down. Often they contain or develop themes from the main work itself. I have written some notes on a few famous cadenzas I have listened to below.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3
This is an incredibly difficult cadenza in the first movement of Rachmaninov’s beautiful piano concerto. It starts after a quiet section of the movement, introduced by tremolo strings and the bassoon playing a repeated dominant note, building up the suspense. When the piano cadenza finally starts the music immediately changes key, and a low rumbling left hand accompaniment gradually builds up the intensity and dynamics. Then there is a chromatic descending passage, before the opening theme of the first movement can again be heard – but whereas before it was a single line melody it is now played with loud, heavy chords, sounding desperate and passionate. I like the way this cadenza ends with a rippling effect on the piano, fading out as a solo flute line comes in, back to the more subdued mood of before the cadenza started.
Joachim: Cadenza to Brahm’s Violin Concerto
You can listen and follow along to the score to this here.
The cadenza starts and ends in D major (the same key as the concerto itself), but transitions through other keys such as G major and E minor. There is often an unexpected harmony or key change at the end of a long arpeggio. It was particularly interesting to listen to it after having read the course notes about the role of the dominant chord in harmonic progressions and cadences. The opening phrase starts and ends with a long dominant note, which I think perhaps suggests a question being asked. At the end of the cadenza the dominant is given significance again (this time tied over a bar) before eventually resolving into the tonic.
This cadenza gives ample scope for virtuoso playing – lots of double stops, very high passages, fast arpeggios and trills. It is played with plenty of rubato, quite freely, which I think is common to many cadenzas as it is in keeping with the improvisatory style. The cadenza ends very quietly, preparing the next section which takes on a similar mood.
Beethoven: Cadenza to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20
Beethoven’s cadenza to the first movement of this piano concerto is introduced by a climactic dominant note in the orchestra. The piano starts the cadenza with a series of dramatic trills and a repeated characteristic short run in the bass taken from the opening of the movement where it is first played in the strings. We then again hear one of the themes from earlier in the movement, this time first transformed into a major key before being developed further. The cadenza ends as it starts with another series of trills, finishing with a firm perfect cadence as the orchestra returns to play the finale of the movement.