Cadenzas: Ladling The Gravy On Classical Music Commentator Miles Hoffman talks turkey about the classical cadenza. Just as a flavorful gravy enhances any holiday turkey, cadenzas are tasty solos composers write to spice up their concertos.
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Cadenzas: Ladling The Gravy On Classical Music

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Cadenzas: Ladling The Gravy On Classical Music

Cadenzas: Ladling The Gravy On Classical Music

Cadenzas: Ladling The Gravy On Classical Music

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delectable cadenzas

Hear excerpts from some famous (and infamous) cadenzas.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 (Emanuel Ax)

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Araia: 'Cadro, ma qual si mira' (Cecilia Bartoli)

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Beethoven (arr Kreisler): Violin Concerto (Hilary Hahn)

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Beethoven (arr Schnittke): Violin Concerto (Gidon Kremer)

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Mozart: 'A Musical Joke' (Concentus Musicus Wien)

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Music commentator Miles Hoffman says that cadenzas enhance any classical concerto, like a flavorful gravy. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Music commentator Miles Hoffman says that cadenzas enhance any classical concerto, like a flavorful gravy.

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Commentator Miles Hoffman is back, making his traditional Morning Edition visit to talk turkey about classical music on Thanksgiving day. In the past, he has waxed eloquently on topics from drumsticks and plucking to the actual "turkeys" (read: clunkers) of classical music.

This year's topic is gravy.

Just as a flavorful gravy enhances any holiday bird, Hoffman says that cadenzas are the tasty solos composers fold in to spice up their concertos.

"Just like making gravy, where you start with the yummy bits that are stuck to the pan, cadenzas take themes or motifs from the body of the piece, then embellish them," Hoffman says.

Chronicling The Cadenza

The tradition of cadenzas, Hoffman notes, started in the late 1600s, but especially in the early 1700s, with the rise of the castrati, the singing eunuchs who were the tremendous rock stars of Italian opera. They took every opportunity to show off their amazing voices.

The word cadenza, Hoffman explains, comes from the word cadence — a closing sequence in a piece of music. And that word is derived from the Latin cadere, which means to fall, because in early church music, melodies almost always descended — or "fell" — in pitch to their last note. "So what these singers did, back in the early days of opera," Hoffman says, "was to embellish the cadences."

Good musicians improvised cadenzas; less talented ones had their teachers write out the flashy passages for them. In many cases, Hoffman notes, the great composers wrote cadenzas for their own pieces.

Beethoven's Gravy

Beethoven wrote cadenzas for many of his concertos. But other composers and performers also got in on the act, especially when it came to Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Hoffman counts some 15 different cadenzas for the piece, his favorite being from the beloved early 20th century violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler.

Occasionally, Hoffman admits, cadenzas — like gravy — can be something of an acquired taste. Consider the rather jagged cadenza Russian composer Alfred Schnittke wrote in 1975 for Beethoven's Concerto.

"This cadenza," Hoffman says, "has become well known for its shock value."

Finally, there's Mozart — always the prankster. Hoffman is particularly found of the faux-cadenza Mozart wrote for his piece A Musical Joke. It's a hilarious send-up of both bad composers and bad performers.

Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College, in Spartanburg, S.C.