Cadenza comes from the Italian word meaning cadence. It is generally an improvised or written-out ornamental passage played by the soloist in a concerto, usually in a “free” style, allowing for a virtuosic display by the soloist.
Cadenza refers to that portion of a concerto in which the orchestra [tutti] will stop playing, leaving the soloist to play alone in free time, so that the soloist can “show off his/her stuff”. 🙂
The soloist decides ahead of time if he will play the cadenza written by the composer of the piece or he can choose one written by another composer for the piece, or even one written by himself/herself. For example, many Mozart piano concertos have cadenzas written by Beethoven, if the soloist chooses to use those. Cadenzas normally occur near the end of the first movement and sometimes, but not always, also at the end of the third movement.
Here is Beethoven’s Cadenza that he wrote for Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20, 1st movement:
The cadenza will contain themes of the movement but in variations and emphasizing the virtuosity of the soloist.
If you are a first time concert goer and the concert has a concerto in it, you might ask how will you know when the cadenza is being played, as many times the pianist will be playing alone for a few measures. You can tell because it will be near the end [almost always] of the 1st movement and the conductor will drop his hands to his side, and all of the orchestra members will take their instruments out of playing position.
Many times in a concerto the cadenza ends with a long trill by the soloist [piano/violin, etc] as the conductor will then raise his baton and the orchestra members will get in playing position to re-enter the concerto. After the cadenza, sometimes comes the recapitulation and then the finale of the movement or sometimes just the climax of the movement.
Here is an example of the Cadenza and finale only of the Piano Concerto #3 by Beethoven [first movement]. Watch at the 15 second mark the conductor will instruct the orchestra to stop playing and take their instruments out of playing position…and then the soloist plays the cadenza:
Now turn up the volume and enjoy the entire first movement, Allegro con brio, of the dramatic Beethoven Piano Concerto in C minor and you can tell when the cadenza is being played:
Next we have the first movement of the great Mendelssohn Violin concerto in E minor, Allegro Molto Appasionato, with soloist virtuoso Janine Jansen playing the cadenza from 7:33 – 9:13 in this first movement:
Now in this final example, please, once again, turn up the volume and see if you can tell when the cadenza occurs in this video with the great virtuoso violinist, Midori, performing the first movement of the exciting Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major, Allegro Moderato:
Hint: This is a unique movement as it has 2 cadenzas, one very short one near the beginning of the movement, and then the usual cadenza later on.
Bravo Soloists! Bravo Cadenza!