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


By exploring the extant manuscript cadenzas for selected concertos in the estate of Johannes Sperger, this article uncovers new knowledge of performance practices that are applicable to historically informed pedagogy, which in turn leads toward more historically informed performances. With the goal of reviving the lost art of extemporaneous fermata embellishment, this article takes Sperger's multifaceted approach to creating cadenzas as a model to guide modern musicians who seek to learn to improvise their own. The cadenzas for fourths tuning composed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for cadenza collections64 and many modern editions65 of contrabass concertos from the late eighteenth century differ in style from Sperger's cadenzas to varying degrees, often by incorporating anachronistic elements. Through a stylistic study of Sperger's extant cadenzas, this article presents a selection of stock formulas and harmonic progressions from Sperger's cadenzas for his contrabass concertos and two by his contemporaries so as to equip today's performer-composer-improvisers to discover the many rewarding possibilities for creating new cadenzas. The Appendices contain worksheets called Cadenzas à la Sperger that are designed to facilitate cadenza creation by using excerpts from Sperger's Allegro cadenzas and Adagio cadenzas to fill structural templates derived from the recurring four-part form of his cadenzas. These worksheets introduce bassists to Sperger's approach to cadenza creation as they explore his concertos in either Viennese or fourths tunings.

Despite the clear differences between Viennese tuning and fourths tuning, there are commonalities that can help modern bassists to translate Sperger's idiom into fourths. There are ways to play double-stop scales in thirds in both tunings, but fourths tuning favors circle-of-fifths progressions with open strings or harmonics as bass notes, while Viennese tuning facilitates triads across strings. Fortunately for those creating cadenzas in fourths tuning, Sperger's cadenzas often prolong dominant harmonies using tension-building pedal points built around the fundamental and harmonics of the top A string, which is the same in Viennese tuning and solo tuning. Unfortunately, Sperger's cadenzas frequently arpeggiate the cadential six-four chord, which is possible entirely with natural harmonics in Viennese tuning in both D major and A major, but only in A major in solo tuning. A bass in solo tuning with a D-extension provides additional harmonics that offer partial solutions to this conundrum. Bassists without this work-around need to explore other ways to articulate the cadential six-four chord in preparation for crafting cadenzas in fourths tuning. Exercises that explore this translation process include transposing a passage down or up an octave or reducing a passage to its skeletal structure and re-embellishing it for fourths tuning with any necessary simplifications.66

Equally important to bass soloists is Sperger's role as leader of the ensemble during his concerto performances,67 which reverses the usual role of continuo players as followers laying a harmonic foundation for higher melodic instruments. In the eighteenth century, violinists likewise performed concertos as centrally located concertmasters, with the soloist playing the ripieno part during tutti ritornellos.68 By giving responsibility for directing the ensemble to the soloist, this performance practice removes the need for a separate conductor in historically imitative performances of Sperger's contrabass concertos. Sperger's extant lead-ins reveal that the soloist is responsible for fashioning the musical content within each fermata embellishment so as to give an effective cue for the tutti to enter in tempo. In contrast, some of Sperger's cadenzas contain false endings in which the soloist walks a fine line between teasing and confusing the tutti musicians as to when they will reenter. The dovetailing of Sperger's lead-ins with the music that follows them sets a high standard for modern soloists, while his intentional use of traditional gestures to maintain suspense within his cadenzas invites the soloist to engage in ludic interludes, provided that the ensemble knows the stylistic reentry signals.

Whereas the composed form of a concerto movement is prose with the possibility of embellishments in repeated material, the improvised cadenza is poetry left open for the soloist to craft.69 The cadenza is an embedded formal process, a small flexible form interpolated into a larger fixed form.70 As indeterminate elements within a concerto, cadenzas invite soloists to dramatically employ compositional devices in performance so as to complete the narrative arc of the movement in question, foreshadow the coming movements, and add a dose of musical humor or melodrama where appropriate. For attentive audiences, effective new cadenzas deepen the experience of the musical work, which exists in a plurality of realizations.71 For perceptive performers, the study of a concerto with its corresponding cadenzas illuminates both the macro-level compositional principles that guide the formal construction of each movement and the micro-level improvisational formulas and thematic transformations that create each cadenza through a retrospectively reflective formal process. The journey toward fluency in the ultimately subconscious process of improvising cadenzas requires the performer to internalize the concerto so profoundly that the performer "becomes" the composer. As a heuristic synthesis of the performer's reflections on the concerto, a cadenza is one of many solutions to a musical puzzle.