What Is a Cadenza?

A cadenza is often performed at the end of a movement with a virtuosic improvisation by a solo instrumentalist or singer.
A cadenza is often performed at the end of a movement with a virtuosic improvisation by a solo instrumentalist or singer. Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

A cadenza is a passage of music typically contained within the last phrase of a classical work (as well as jazz and popular music) that calls for a soloist or, sometimes, a small ensemble to perform an improvisation or a previously composed ornamental line. The cadenza often allows performers to display their virtuosic skills as they "free-style" melodically and rhythmically.

The Origin of the Cadenza

The word "cadenza" actually comes from the Italian word "cadence." Cadences are melodic/harmonic/ rhythmic lines of music used to conclude the piece.

In other words, a signal that the song/movement has ended, or is about to end. If you listen to the last few measures of Haydn's Surprise Symphony (watch and listen on YouTube), you'll hear the universal-like chords announcing the symphony is over. When you listen to other classical works, pay attention to how the piece is ended and you'll start to hear a familiar pattern.

The use of cadenzas in a classical music concerto arose from their use in vocal arias. Singers were often asked to elaborate their aria's cadence by embellishment or improvisation. Many composers began incorporating this style of music into their own writings, including the concerto. As it happened, the cadenza suited the concerto form perfectly.

Examples of Cadenzas

Cadenzas in Concerti: In most cases, the cadenza is placed near the end of the movement. The orchestra will stop playing and the soloist will take over. The cadenza will end with the soloist playing a trill and the orchestra joining in to finish the movement.

Many composers left the cadenza blank within the musician's score, allowing the performer to improvise and showcase their musical and artistic abilities.

Knowing that some musicians were incapable of improvising on their own, many composers would compose the cadenza to make it sound as if it were being improvised by the performer on the spot.

Some composers would even write cadenzas for other composers music (e.g., both Mendelssohn and Brahms wrote cadenzas for Beethoven's and Mozart's concerti; Beethoven also wrote cadenzas for Mozart's concerti). What's more, performers lacking improvisational abilities would often copy or mimic the improvised cadenzas performed by others.

Cadenzas in Vocal Music: As mentioned above, singers were often asked to embellish or improvise their own aria's cadence(s). Composers like Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti used cadenzas extensively throughout their operas. Typically, three cadenzas were written in the aria, with the most difficult reserved for last. Here are some examples of vocal cadenzas:

  • Beverly Sills sings "Cielo! che diverrò?... Sì, ferite... Dal soggiorno... Ah! che spiegar" from Act II of Rossini's opera, L'assedio di Corinto (listen on YouTube)
  • Olga Trifonova sings "The Hymn to the Sun" from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or (watch and listen on YouTube)