In Mazeppa, 4th étude of Liszt, there is cadenza ad libitum: does this mean I can compose my own cadenza, as in Mozart etc ? or that I can play those scales as many times as I want ?

In Liszt's Rhapsodie hongroise 2, there is also this cadenza ad libitum, suggesting that in Mazeppa too the pianist can introduce his/her own cadenza. However here, it's at the beginning: does this mean that there are specific constraints ?

mazeppa first page

  • While my experience with interpretations of this "Mazeppa" is that pretty much all recordings play the exact notes of this cadenza (often with the very highest notes of each hand being significantly longer than the others), the use of "cadenza ad libitum" here is inconsistent with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C Sharp Minor's use of it, where there is a pause and an invitation to write your own cadenza.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 14:15
  • @Dekkadeci Until the first reference of someone writing his/her own cadenza in RH2, no one dared to do such, and still today not many dare to do such. Maybe the inconsistency is only that Liszt wrote one of his candenzas here. This does not necessarily remove the meaning.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 14:24

5 Answers 5


I agree with phoog's answer but want to expand it a bit. There are really three different questions here:

  • Exactly what is the phrase Cadenza ad libitum intended to mean in this instance?,
  • Could (/should) I create my own cadenza?, and
  • What would Liszt think if I did?

Let's address them in reverse order. Liszt was a celebrated improviser. His performances included not only titled pieces but periods set aside for improvisation, taking suggestions from the audience of well-known themes to work into his performance, somewhat like improv comedy. Many of his written compositions are "rhapsodies" and "fantasies," creating an allusion to improvisation even in written works. Leon Botstein writes,

Musical composition for Liszt began and remained tied to the musical event as a performative experience .... The goal represented by a fully worked-out, permanent composition did not sit well with Liszt, whose habits and experience as a performer led him to appreciate the wide divergences in the actual perception of and response to music. Liszt constantly revised his music and updated it. Liszt's fusion of performance and composition suggest that his written texts cannot be seen so much as a stable account of authorial claims but rather as a script whose full realization in the moment of performance demanded, for him, adaptation, revision, and extension, all in accord with the novelty and uniqueness of the historical moment.

That certainly sounds as though, if you chose to make your own alterations to his work, the ghost of Liszt would not object "But that's not what I wrote!" (Though living listeners might not be so generous.)

To the middle question: Would Liszt have expected you to discard his cadenza and write your own? There's a book that looks to be very valuable to this conversation, Fantasies of Improvisation: Free Playing in Nineteenth-century Music by Dana Andrew Gooley. In a footnote on p. 22, he sums up research into how people were approaching cadenzas in the 19th century. For concerti, at least, the expectation that the performer would provide their own was largely extinct. Yet he mentions a consideration of "short cadenzas—fermata elaborations" that were "historically residual," and as you point out, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 sports a clear "bring-your-own-cadenza" meaning of cadenza ad libitum. But Gooley points out that even as early as 1804 the Paris Conservatory piano manual says that "modern composers ordinarily write them out," so the Hungarian Rhapsody is more of an anomaly.

So, with Liszt's precedence and improvisatory character, one certainly could substitute their own cadenza, but one shouldn't feel that it's expected or required in this instance. So what does the ad libitum actually mean? In this case, with a notated cadenza, the reasonable reading is that it emphasizes interpretive freedom; that Liszt wants to make sure you don't just rattle through the giant string of 16th and 32nd notes inflexibly, but give them some fluidity in timing. So it's not quite the meaning of cadenza ad libitum that you find in a Mozart concerto—"Feel free to put a cadenza here"—but rather "This is the cadenza; do it freely."

  • I appreciate this documented answer, but I could not see anything (ie., premise) allowing to conclude that "the reasonable reading is that it emphasizes interpretive freedom".
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:27
  • @Soleil It's "reasonable," but it might not be academically sound. Lazy says that the "ad libitum" in "cadenza ad libitum" is not a complete carte blanche, but amounts to "this is the cadenza, take it or leave it." I would add that any investigation needs to narrow its scope to mid-19th century, and maybe needs to distinguish between concerti and other works (if distinctions existed in practice). Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 18:14

Of course, you can do whatever you want, but given the fact that Liszt has provided a very extensive set of notes for this cadenza, I think it's rather more likely that this means cadenza, tempo ad libitum, or however that should be in correctly declined Latin. In other words, play the notes as written but observe their time value even less strictly than usual.

Still, I suppose Liszt wouldn't have objected to some compositional variation or embellishment of the given notes.

I couldn't find a manuscript image online, but if an autograph source for this piece exists it would be nice to know whether "cadenza ad libitum" appears there in Liszt's handwriting.

The fact that this cadenza occurs early in the piece probably does not imply any different constraints on its execution. If Liszt had wanted it to be approached differently from a cadenza in a more conventional part of the piece he probably wouldn't have used the word "cadenza."

  • Don't you think a piacere would have been then the proper indication or indeed tempo ad libitum ?
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 14:28
  • @Soleil other than one being Italian and the other Latin, I don't think there's any difference between a piacere and ad libitum.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:44
  • Liszt is using a piacere (eg., Mephisto) or ad libitum (Feux-follets, 1836) or cadenza ad libitum (Mazeppa, 1851, Rhapsodie hongroise). Hence I believe that if he meant ad libitum or a piacere, he would have.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:53
  • @Soleil that assumes that these terms meant something different to Liszt, which they might have and they might not have. The plain-language meaning is the same. What different musical meaning do you think Liszt might have ascribed to these two terms?
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 16:15
  • a piacere: free interpretation, tempo, expression, dynamics etc, but use the text; ad libitum: you may repeat the motif as many time you want (and those have different meaning, they are both used in Mephisto); cadenza ad libitum: you may write you own cadenza
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 17:32

As far as I know "Cadenza ad libitum" was not used in the sense of "play what you like", but rather in the sense of "you may play this cadence if you like, but you can also omit it". If you speak German consider this entry in Koch’s musical lexicon:

Ad libitum, indication, abbreviated ad lib., at will, arbitrarily, [...] In Concerts Cadenza ad libit., the soloist may play a cadenza or may refrain from doing so.


  • The score of the Rhapsodie hongroise 2 contradict your statement: the cadenza is not written, so the pianist may write it, so did Horowitz, Rachmaninoff, Hamelin, Kateen, etc.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 17:54
  • @Soleil No, in what way would it contradict my statement? Yes, the 2nd hungarian rhapsody does feature an unnotated Cadenza ad libitum. Which means that at this point the pianist may insert a cadence. My answer does not in any way imply that "cadenza ad libitum" somehow means that the pianist has to play a notated cadence. It does means that the performer has the choice of playing a cadence.
    – Lazy
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 18:58
  • The contradiction I see is between ""Cadenza ad libitum" was not used in the sense of "play what you like"" and the possibility to "insert your own cadenza" in RH2.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 19:37
  • @Soleil That is BS. You are basically saying: "Here is a score with an unnotated cadenza which is marked as cadenza ad lib., so clearly the marking cadenza ad lib. must be related to the cadenza being unnotated". This is a bit like saying: "This score here has a tempo marking and a forte marking at the same time, so clearly the forte marking means something like change the tempo".
    – Lazy
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 21:59
  • Well, just look at the score, I did not invent that, and it's public. And please, language.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 22:50

The only restrictions are that whatever you play will follow the harmonic sequence, if indeed there is one.

Liszt may well not have played the same cadenza twice (why would/should he?) but must have written out one for those of us who are mere mortals. Thus immortalising it!

So, if you can't come up with something just as good, (better?!) then stick to what's written, otherwise keep it just as Liszt would probably have wanted - as writ.

  • Can you document the "harmonic sequence" point ? I never heard such thing.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 14:34
  • @Soleil - a harmonic sequence is what may have been played prior, or what the cadenza is leading to, or indeed, what would have been played instead. If for example, the main body was in F#m, the harmonic sequence would need to follow that, surely.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 14:49
  • I understood the harmonic sequence inside the cadenza. Of course, connecting the before to the after.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:04
  • @Tim I think you're confusing a cadenza with a jazz solo 'over the chords'!
    – Laurence
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:39
  • @Laurence it is not obvious at all, since Liszt and others are using cadenza ad libitum for the interpret's cadenza, so just with the term, Tim is absolutely right. It is even a tradition.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 16:00

Play what it says. Interpret the rhythm flexibly.

'Cadenza ad libitum' might mean other things in other circumstances. But that's what it means here.

  • Can you document what you claim ? Why would such term change of meaning depending on the context in the same author ?
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:55
  • Also, maybe you meant tempo and dynamics rather than rythm, Mazeppa is not jazz.
    – Soleil
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 1:43
  • Not my dv. Just the usual dim-witted one!
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 16:54

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