Volume 13, August 2021
Sperger's Cadenzas for his Contrabass Concertos: A Study of Compositional Techniques and Improvisational Strategies for Creating Cadenzas

by Renaud Boucher-Browning

For the curious soloist, concertos from the late eighteenth century offer an opportunity to explore the art of extemporization, the invention of music in real time.1 During this time period,  soloists often improvised new cadenzas, lead-ins, and embellishments each time they performed a concerto.2 The cadenza at the close of most first, second, and some third movements allowed the soloist to meditate on the preceding music in an oneiric soliloquy rife with surprises for the audience.3 Shorter than cadenzas, lead-ins, also called Eingänge or Fermaten,4 could appear in any movement and consisted of nonthematic improvised passages marked by fermatas, thus giving the soloist opportunities to make asides to the audience, either at transitions to new sections or before thematic reprises, as in a rondo.5 When a previously heard theme returned, the soloist created variety by adding tasteful embellishments.6 The realization of these extemporized elements required the soloist to make creative decisions in performance. These improvisatory practices waned in the nineteenth century due to the changing status of professional musicians from artisans trained through apprenticeships in court orchestras with aristocratic patrons to conservatory-educated bourgeois artists who performed for paying audiences in public concerts.7

This tripartite article investigates a subset of the extant manuscript cadenzas for the contrabass concertos written by and for prolific composer and Viennese violone virtuoso Johannes Sperger (1750-1812),8 including nine Allegro cadenzas and seven Adagio cadenzas. The first part explains the stylistic rules behind Sperger's cadenzas, the second part analyzes selected manuscript cadenzas with annotated transcriptions, and the third part presents the concept of a cadenza network with multiple possible realizations as a pedagogical tool for teaching and learning the process of creating cadenzas.9 The appendices contain cadenza networks in Viennese tuning and fourths tuning that consist of excerpts from the cadenzas presented in this article. These excerpts may be recombined, altered, and/or embellished to compose new cadenzas, or internalized as a knowledge base of idiomatic stock figurations to draw from while improvising cadenzas. The goal of this research is to equip performers, teachers, and students with stylistic context and strategies for creating new cadenzas.

Sperger's cadenzas demonstrate one late-eighteenth century contrabass soloist's personal style and approach to creating improvisatory cadenzas. His practice of notating cadenzas with multiple beginnings, endings, or interchangeable options, the presence of several cadenzas for one movement, and stock formulas that appear in several cadenzas indicate his improvisatory approach to fermata embellishment. Moreover, the creative practices that Sperger employed in his cadenzas can guide modern performers who seek to create new cadenzas in his style.

Whereas historical treatises and modern scholarship focus on cadenzas for the fortepiano, violin, or winds, this article explores cadenzas for the Viennese violone, which Sperger labelled 'Contrabasso solo' in his concerto scores.10 In and around Vienna in the late eighteenth century, the five- or four-stringed violone with seven frets, tuned from top down A-F#-D-A-[F♮, E, or D], attained the status of a solo instrument in virtuoso concertos, sinfonie concertante, and obbligato arias.11 Other composers who featured the Viennese violone in solo works are Franz Joseph Haydn, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Wenzel Pichl, Anton Zimmermann, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Johann Baptiste Vanhal, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.12

Previously published research on Sperger contains almost no discussion of the manuscript cadenzas, lead-ins, and embellishments for his contrabass concertos. Sperger scholars have focused on biography, organology, repertoire, playing technique, and performance practice;13 thus there are few references to improvising cadenzas. After noting Sperger's burgeoning thematic creativity in the first movement of his Concerto No. 15, Michinori Bunya mused: "Also noteworthy is the new theme in the development, which surprisingly appears only once — would Sperger have wanted to improvise on it in a cadenza?"14 This question likely stems from Sperger's frequent use of thematic quotation and embellishment in his cadenzas for concertos by Dittersdorf and Vanhal.15 By quoting themes, the performer renders homage to the composer. In Sperger's cadenzas for his own concertos, however, he quotes themes comparatively less often. Instead, the recurrence of stock formulas, idiomatic figurations, and harmonic schemas in his cadenzas demonstrates that he recycled material from earlier cadenzas in later cadenzas and occasionally borrowed non-thematic passagework from his cadenzas for concertos by his contemporaries to use in his cadenzas for his own concertos and vice versa. These allusions result in humorous intertextual references for audiences familiar with his concerto repertoire.

The purpose of this research into Sperger's cadenzas is to renew the practice of composing, improvising, and/or extemporizing cadenzas among performers today. This article undertakes an analytical study of a subset of Sperger's extant cadenzas with the goal of articulating guidelines and formulating strategies that will help readers to understand his performance practices. If needed, soloists can then pursue further training in improvisation or composition to learn to create new cadenzas, either following Sperger's lead or in their own style. Crafting cadenzas is one of many ways in which bassists may express themselves by engaging creatively with late-eighteenth century concertos. Sperger's manuscripts attest to other opportunities for creative self-expression by bass soloists, including improvising lead-ins at certain non-cadenza fermatas and extemporizing embellishments for the restatements of rondo themes. Improvising cadenzas also invites soloists to take risks, which is part of what makes performances of late-eighteenth century concertos so exciting for the modern listener. In this respect, the soloist's role in Sperger's concertos resembles that of a jazz musician, for whom playing an instrument, performing, composing, and improvising are overlapping and inseparable competencies.16 Ultimately, recovering the practice of improvising cadenzas gives soloists yet another avenue for showcasing their personal creativity, thereby engaging audiences with uniquely expressive performances.