Cadenzas – Part II of Our Series on Ornamentation : An Interview with Will Crutchfield

Many performers are discovering that changing ornaments for each new production increases audience appeal. For example, opera fans on the Internet were buzzing at the surprise and freshness of new ornaments added by Jennifer Larmore in La Cenerentola at the Met in January. While a good coach can help work out new cadenzas, no one knows your voice and what you want to express as well as you do, so why not learn to write your own?

From Bach to Mozart to Verdi, Will Crutchfield explains how, when and why with Part II of Ornamention: Cadenzas.

TNYON: Many conductors are now expecting ornaments and cadenzas in Mozart, Bach, Handel, etc. How should these cadenzas differ from the Bellini/Rossini cadenzas we were trained on?

WC: Cadenzas have changed with the times. In 1850, people were singing “1850” style cadenzas, whether it was Rossini or Verdi or even Mozart. They didn’t try to be historical the way we do.The rule for executing a Baroque cadenza was (is): start on the written note (usually third degree, sometimes tonic), execute a messa di voce on that note, sing the improvised cadential stuff (always remaining on that syllable and in the same breath), arrive at your trill and resolve to the final tonic.

TNYON: What about the Classical cadenza?

WC: By the end of the 18th century many people were commenting that an extra breath had come to be normal, usually shortly before the trill. But it was still always on the one syllable. The big difference between Baroque and high-classical cadenzas versus Romantic ones is that most of the 18th century cadenzas are sung over the six-four chord. The most important and often missed aspect is that they recapitulate that I-IV-V-I idea; they are NOT harmonically static but always move to some kind of subdominant, usually by way of some chromatic tones (lowered seventh, raised fifth most often) and then re-approach the six-four before singing the final trill. In other words, they have an “imaginary” bass going under them..One of the biggest differences between early Baroque ornamentation and Classical (Mozart-Gluck-Haydn period) is the shift to more and more emphasis on the dissonant-type ornaments.

Then in the Romantic period it seems to shift back the other way. But that is because the composers had adopted the whole appoggiatura idea so strongly into their written melodies, that the added ornaments are more often based on further elaboration and decoration paying little attention to the “appoggiatura” ideas that are already built in.Domenico Corri, an Italian contemporary of Mozart who worked in London. is one of our best sources for ornamentation during the Mozart period. He published extensively from 1779 to 1810, and with much more notational detail and verbal explanation than anyone else. All his main books have been reprinted by Garland Press and are in most reference libraries now.As an example, Charles Mackerras found Corri’s ornaments for Cherubino’s “Voi Che Sapete” which had been published as sheet-music, and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sang them on a concert with him. It would take a fleeter voice than hers to make them sound right–that’s one thing people sometimes don’t think of: you can’t judge the suitability of an ornament without reference to the particular singer who’s going to sing it. Callas or Sutherland could have done Corri’s ornaments just fine. These ornaments are fairly typical of the various embellished versions of that aria from the period, but not very imaginative. There are many better examples of period Mozart ornamentation around, including three by Mozart himself.

TNYON: What about the Romantic period?

Things loosen up as the Romantic period goes along, and you gradually get to the point where as much as a full line of text is employed in the course of the cadenza. But this was gradual–not yet in Rossini, more in Donizetti, fairly frequent but still not yet the “norm” in Verdi. Think of “De miei bollenti spirit” from Traviata. It was rarely done in Rossini’s time however.

TNYON: So, how do you write a cadenza?

[This is where those theory classes come in!] Before you can write effective and stylistic cadenzas, you need to be able to understand a thumbnail history of their harmonic roots. [Studying what the composer wrote in other situations can give you hints for how to write a stylistically correct cadenza.]The typical Baroque melodic cadence ends with the voice approaching the tonic either from the step above (usual) or the step below (frequent second choice), and the bass is generally the classic I-IV-V-I cadence. Over the “V” in that progression, there is a suspension that makes what we call the “I 6-4” before the “V-7” that is, if we’re in C major, the bass is G and the harmony has C and E resolving (with or without a repetition of the bass G) to B and D, which makes the dominant triad, and then you have the tonic under the singer’s final note. There are a few very typical workings-out of this basic pattern–page through any Handel score and you’ll see them all.What we call a “cadenza” started to come in around the first decade of the 18th century in the following way: Melodic completion, or “cadence,” has always been associated with greater density of ornamentation, all the way back to Gregorian chant and probably into pre-history. At some point–hard to be clear just when–it became habitual for the final line of an aria to be retarded to accommodate more added notes.At a certain point, a transition came. The bass actually stopped, and waited on the six-four chord, either with a sustained dominant or with silence, while the soloist improvised cadential ornamentation, and then the bass (i.e., the continuo group) re-entered with the dominant triad under the singer’s final trill on either the leading-tone or the supertonic. This practice probably began around 1710, according to J.J. Quantz, the author of a big treatise on flute-playing which actually extends into all areas of music. It was published in the 1750’s when he was already well advanced in age. It’s one of the four major mid-18th-century “how to” books which goes into great musical detail.The other three from the 1750’s are J.C. Bach’s Art of Keyboard Playing, Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule, and Agricola’s much-enlarged German “translation” of Tosi’s Opinioni, which adds hundreds of musical examples to the general comments found in Tosi’s work which appeared in 1724.Towards the end of the 18th century, there was an innovation: for the first time; soloists, including voice, violin and wind instruments, began to decorate a bit OVER the V-7 at the end, before and sometimes at the conclusion of the “final” trill. This elaboration over V-7 became much more prominent in the 1780’s and 1790’s–you can see it in some of the many “how to” books published then, and also in the piano concerto cadenzas of Mozart.As this became more and more extensive, the interest in the six-four chord waned drastically. By the time of Rossini, there is rarely any cadenza material on the six-four, and composers even begin to leave out that chord. Compositions ended with I-IV-V-I without the suspension over the V. An example is “Una voce poco fa”, where there is no six-four chord in the cadential progressions of “si, Lindoro mio sara; lo giurai, la vincero.” By this time, there is often some “preparatory” free ornamentation over the subdominant (“lo giurai”) in that example. The “big” cadenza comes on the V-7, and the “final trill” has disappeared. The final vocal cadence may also now end five-one instead of always seven-one or two-one.By the time of Verdi, the last composer to write/invite formal cadenzas at the ends of arias, the coda almost always consists of simple alternations of V and I, with neither a six-four nor even a subdominant, and it’s just a matter of one free cadenza on the V.

Will Crutchfield is Opera Director of both the Caramoor Festival and The Handel Project at the Manhattan School of Music. He has written on performance practice for the New Grove Dictionaries and various scholarly journals.

CJ Williamson

CJ Williamson founded Classical Singer magazine. She served as Editor-in-Chief until her death in July, 2005. For comments on this article or other articles, e-mail