Cadenza writing tips

March 20, 2019, 11:28 AM · My son (8th grader) is currently filling in a gap in his training by learning Mozart 3. Because the piece is not technically challenging for him, he and his teacher are focusing mostly on Mozart style, and he will be writing his own cadenzas.

I've helped him a bit by giving him general strategies (ie aim for it having a 3-part form, use snippets from the melody), as well as some thematic transformation ideas (change the octave/key/mode/rhythm, add double stops, etc.) I also gave him a very brief intro to galant tropes, especially modulating ones, to give him ideas how to get from one place to another harmonically.

He's come up with a bunch of good ideas, mostly by improvising and recording the improvised bits he likes. But he is having some trouble assembling all the bits into a coherent whole.

Others who have written cadenzas -- any tips?

Replies (17)

March 20, 2019, 11:30 AM · Don't make it too long.
March 20, 2019, 1:23 PM · Try and hear Leonard Elschenbroich - He had me transfixed with his improvised cadenza to the Haydn cello concerto.
March 20, 2019, 2:24 PM · Great question! I've been asked to write a very short "cadenza" for a gap-filler in my repertoire too. This is a first for me and I appreciate reading what you have here, and look forward to others' responses.
March 20, 2019, 3:05 PM · Susan, I think your advice is "right on!"

I have never composed or written a cadenza - but I did get started on one once and took the approach you have recommended.

March 20, 2019, 4:26 PM · Cotton Mather - what would you say is too long? I told him 1-2 minutes.
Edited: March 20, 2019, 5:24 PM · For Mozart, I would try to stay under two minutes, unless you have a really cool idea for an orchestral cadenza (probably not).
You're just restating the themes from the concerto with some j a z z y sevenths and maybe some small reharmonsation, so you don't want the audience to sit there and listen to the same thing over and over and over.
March 20, 2019, 6:19 PM · You're probably already doing this, but writing down the ideas will help organize them, and you can maybe move things around more easily and try out different ideas and think about ways to connect bits. Slow things down with long notes before the final run to the tonic; contrast is always good.

Just make sure the end cadence is clear and not obscured by heavy ornamentation, and don't forget to end on a long trill with a nachschlag!

Edited: March 20, 2019, 6:27 PM · Coherent whole? I've scarcely heard any such cadenza. But I see what you mean ... you don't want it to be like a Christmas sing-along medley with jarring transitions that go through half the circle-of-fifths to arrive at the new key.

Composing is like writing -- the way writers learn to write is by reading. So he should definitely study the Flesch and Franko cadenzas, and it might pay to transcribe some of the others that have been recorded, i.e., like Josh Bell and Augustin Hadelich. I really like Josh Bell's cadenza in the first movement of the M3. I like the suspended arpeggio especially. Transcribing is a useful skill too.

Also - make sure there is some lyrical content. Not 100% parlor tricks.

Edited: March 21, 2019, 5:28 AM · Many years ago in my far-off youth I composed a cadenza for the first movement of Haydn's C maj Cello Concerto for a performance I was due to give. The concerto had fairly recently been discovered, I think there was only one LP recording available, the cadenza on it sounding far too modern for the 18th century, and the published score had a nominal "cadenza" of half-a-dozen notes, so I decided to compose a short one for the performance.

From what I recall I used the main theme of the first movement, did some variations on it including one or two modulations which would surely have raised Haydn's eyebrows, a passage in octaves going way up the fingerboard (a sure-fire way to make fairly easy stuff look spectacular), and coming back down to finish with the requisite trill. As music it was most probably dreadful, but hey! it was my cadenza, and I performed it.

[edit added] Well, if that's a tip on composing a cadenza then it's more likely a tip on not how to do it!

March 20, 2019, 10:15 PM · Robert Levin improvises his own Mozart PC cadenzas, which are worth a listen. During concert prep he will literally never play the same thing twice. I think he has also prepared cookbooks for the violin concertos: at least some of them.
March 21, 2019, 9:45 AM · Thanks for all the ideas! Paul Deck, he has already studied a bunch of cadenzas, including Hadelich's, which if anybody is interested, is on his website. That is definitely helping. He needs to take your comment about lyrical stuff to heart -- so far lots of fireworks and not much else.

Thanks to everybody else for the suggestions. I'll try to get him to record it once he is done.

March 21, 2019, 9:58 AM · Harmonically, a cadenza is basically one long V chord.
Ok, that may or may not help....

I've helped students come up with cadenzas, and I guess the best thing is for student and teacher just proceed by listening and tweaking things. Go for symmetry in phrases, just like the concerto itself.

March 21, 2019, 11:46 AM · "a cadenza is a long V chord". I "like" this comment.
March 21, 2019, 2:28 PM · If you look at what chord the orchestra plays just before a cadenza (especially in the typical Mozart/Haydn/Beethoven era), it's almost always a V chord. The cadenza may of course run through several keys, but the big picture is that it's just a prolongation of V. The cadenza ends with a conclusive cadence on I as the orchestra wraps it up.
March 22, 2019, 9:05 AM · Yes, I understood what you meant. :)
March 23, 2019, 1:37 PM · I "assembled" cadenzas for a Stamitz viola concerto (the editor's ones were very aimless) by grafting motifs from the movements onto harmonic schemes from Mozart (cadenzas and piano fantasias). The result was rather better than the Stamitz itself...
March 27, 2019, 12:04 PM · 1) I personally would keep most (if not all) aspects of the cadenza within the musical limits of the piece. For instance - no weird chromatic harmonies, glissandos, up bow staccato, or such in a Mozart concerto.

2) it should be brilliant and accentuate the individual's strength. If the player can effortlessly play difficult arpeggios, for instance, or is every good at double stops the cadenza should include at least one such passage.

3) it should be shallow and fun for the audience to listen to. A cadenza is no place to work out brooding thematic material personal to an individual player.

4) I agree - not too long.

5) Don't try to improvise on the spot. That's for MUCH later on down the road.

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