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.
NPR logo

Cadenzas: Ladling The Gravy On Classical Music

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120792490/120863204" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Cadenzas: Ladling The Gravy On Classical Music

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Somewhere in America, right now, people are up early deliberating about gravy and one of them is our own Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Steve, actually I'm more like reveling in gravy because we're going to find the hidden music in it. And for listeners who might not know, one MORNING EDITION tradition requires that every Thanksgiving we take one part of the meal and give it a musical spin. Our traditional guest for these conservations is music commentator Miles Hoffman. Happy Thanksgiving.

MILES HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee, you too.

MONTAGNE: In the past, you and I have spoken of drumsticks, real turkeys, leftovers, I've been wondering exactly how you are going to do a musical take on gravy.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, well this is my wife's idea, Renee, and all my best ideas are my wife's. And she thought that cadenzas would be a great example of musical gravy. The embellishments that composers and performers add to concertos can spice things up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOFFMAN: Again, if I can cite my wife here, Renee, and her recipe for gravy or her instructions, you start with the yummy bits that are stuck to the pan. And that's what cadenzas are. Cadenzas take the themes from the body of the piece and embellish them. The soloist plays or sings without the accompaniment. One example is from Beethoven's "Third Piano Concerto" and towards the end of the first movement, we have a big cadenza for the soloist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And how did - it all began?

HOFFMAN: I don't...

MONTAGNE: I'm not surprised the soloist wants to show off.

HOFFMAN: You're not, huh? Actually, the tradition of cadenzas, Renee, started a very long time ago. It started in 1600 and especially the early 1700s with the castrati, the singing eunuchs who were the tremendous rock stars of Italian opera. They took every opportunity they could to show off their amazing voices.

CECILIA BARTOLI: (Singing in foreign language)

HOFFMAN: That's Cecilia Bartoli, Renee, a coloratura mezzo-soprano, a woman, but that music would have been sung that high by a man, by a castrato. And the word cadenza is an interesting word. It comes from the word cadence, and a cadence is a closing sequence in a piece. But the word cadence itself comes 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 is they embellished the cadences.

BARTOLI: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Does that mean the cadenzas would have been short? You almost think you could sing that and maybe even only listen to that for, you know, a short period of time.

HOFFMAN: No, sometimes they went on and on and on and that's why there were these very funny commentaries that were written by musicians and critics of the time, making fun of the castrati saying that they would sing for seven minutes at a time without breathing. That they would take a pinch of snuff and walk around the stage, and that the orchestra would start falling asleep while they were showing off. This got way, way out of hand, in fact, to the point that it resulted in real changes in how operas were written and performed.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking about showing off or soloing. How much of it was improvised?

HOFFMAN: The good musicians improvised. The ones who weren't so good had their teachers write out these flashy passages for them. So you had both. You had, in many cases, great composers writing cadenzas for their own pieces. Beethoven wrote cadenzas in many cases for his own concertos, not always. As a matter of fact, in the listings of the Sibley Music Library, they have catalogued something like 15 different cadenzas for the Beethoven violin concerto, cadenzas written by other people, by performers. And my favorite cadenza of the Beethoven violin concerto was written by the great violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: We have been talking about the cadenzas as a musical version, if you will, of Thanksgiving gravy. You know, gravies can be a delicate business. I know it because I mess it up. Are there examples of a cadenza that really was messed up?

HOFFMAN: Well, I hate to do this usually, but there is another cadenza for the Beethoven violin concerto, a cadenza that comes in the same spot where the Kreisler cadenza comes, and this is cadenza by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke and I'm afraid that this cadenza has mainly gotten well-known for its shock value.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Yeah, that is a little shocking, especially...

HOFFMAN: You haven't heard it all, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, especially having just heard Kreisler's.

HOFFMAN: Which is very, very beautiful.

MONTAGNE: So immediately lovely.

HOFFMAN: That's right.

MONTAGNE: Miles, a lot of folks will be waking up and hearing our musical tribute to gravy, thinking, oh, my gosh, I've got to make some. Few foods provoke more nervousness I think before they go on the table...

HOFFMAN: (Unintelligible) - gravy (unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: ...(unintelligible). So as a special Thanksgiving gift to our listeners, tell us what we should go out that would be quite a soothing and...

HOFFMAN: No, I don't know it's - I think we should go out with something that will put everybody in a good mood and make them laugh. That would be the violin cadenza at the end of the third movement of Mozart's "Musical Joke." Now this piece was meant to make fun both of bad composers and bad performers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: So you just provided us with the perfect music for a, what, a Thanksgiving disaster?

HOFFMAN: Well, which we hope - we don't wish on anybody.

MONTAGNE: All you can do is laugh. Miles, happy Thanksgiving.

HOFFMAN: Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is violist of the American Chamber Players and dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.