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A concerto (from the Italian: concerto, plural concerti or, often, the anglicised form concertos) as a musical work is a composition usually in three parts or movements, in which (usually) one solo instrument (for instance, a piano or violin) is accompanied by an orchestra. The etymology is uncertain, but the word seems to have origin from the conjunction of the two Latin words conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight): the idea is that the two parts in a concert, the soloist and the orchestra, alternate episodes of opposition and cooperation in the creation of the music flow.
The concerto, as understood in this modern way, arose in the Baroque period side by side with the concerto grosso, which contrasted a small group of instruments with the rest of the orchestra. While the concerto grosso is confined to the Baroque period, the solo concerto has continued as a vital musical force to this day.
The concerto was established as a form of composition in the Baroque period. Starting from a form called Concerto grosso introduced by Arcangelo Corelli, it evolved into the form we understand today as performance of a soloist with/against an orchestra.
The main composers of concerti of the baroque were: Tommaso Albinoni, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Pietro Locatelli, Giuseppe Tartini, Francesco Geminiani and Johann Joachim Quantz. The concerto was intended as a composition typical of the Italian style of the time, and all the composers were studying how to compose in the Italian fashion (all'italiana).
During the baroque period, before the invention of the piano, keyboard concertos were comparatively rare, with the exception of the organ and some harpsichord concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. As the harpsichord evolved into the fortepiano, and in the end to the modern piano, the increased volume and the richer sound of the new instrument allowed the keyboard instrument to better compete with a full orchestra.
The concertos of the sons of Johann Sebastian Bach are perhaps the best links between those of the Baroque period and those of Mozart. C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard concertos contain some brilliant soloistic writing. Some of them have movements that run into one another without a break, and there are frequent cross-movement thematic references. Mozart, as a boy, made arrangements for harpsichord and orchestra of three sonata movements by Johann Christian Bach. By the time he was twenty, he was able to write concerto ritornelli that gave the orchestra admirable opportunity for asserting its character in an exposition with some five or six sharply contrasted themes, before the soloist enters to elaborate on the material. He wrote one concerto each for flute, oboe (later rearranged for flute and known as Flute Concerto No. 2), clarinet, and bassoon, four for horn, a Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra, and a Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. They all exploit and explore the characteristics of the solo instrument. His five violin concertos, written in quick succession, show a number of influences, notably Italian and Austrian. Several passages have leanings towards folk music, as manifested in Austrian serenades. However, it was in his twenty-three original piano concertos that he excelled himself. It is conventional to state that the first movements of concertos from the Classical period onwards follow the structure of sonata form. Mozart, however, treats sonata form in his concerto movements with so much freedom that any broad classification becomes impossible. For example, some of the themes heard in the exposition may not be heard again in subsequent sections. The piano, at its entry, may introduce entirely new material. There may even be new material in the so-called development section, which in effect becomes a free fantasia. Towards the end of the first movement, and sometimes in other movements too, there is a traditional place for an improvised cadenza. The slow movements may be based on sonata form or abridged sonata form, but some of them are romances. The finale is sometimes a rondo, or even a theme with variations.
In the 19th century the concerto was a vehicle for virtuosic display flourished as never before. It was the age in which the artist was seen as hero, to be worshipped and adulated with rapture. Early Romantic traits can be found in the violin concertos of Viotti, but it is Spohr’s twelve violin concertos, written between 1802 and 1827, that truly embrace the Romantic spirit with their melodic as well as their dramatic qualities. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is unique in its scale and melodic qualities. Recitative elements are often incorporated, showing the influence of Italian opera on purely instrumental forms. Mendelssohn opens his violin concerto (1844) with the singing qualities of the violin solo. Even later passage work is dramatic and recitative-like, rather than merely virtuosic. The wind instruments state the lyrical second subject over a low pedal G on the violin – certainly an innovation. The cadenza, placed at the start of the recapitulation, is fully written out and integrated into the structure.
The great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was a legendary figure who, as a composer, exploited the technical potential of his instrument to its very limits. Each one exploits rhapsodic ideas but is unique in its own form. The Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps contributed several works to this form. Édouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole (1875) displays virtuoso writing with a Spanish flavor. Max Bruch wrote three violin concertos, but it is the first, in G minor, that has remained a firm favorite in the repertoire. The opening movement relates so closely to the two remaining movements that it functions like an operatic prelude. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto (1878) is a powerful work which succeeds in being lyrical as well as superbly virtuosic. In the same year Brahms wrote his violin concerto for the virtuoso Joseph Joachim. This work makes new demands on the player, so much so that when it was first written it was referred to as a "concerto against the violin". The first movement brings the concerto into the realm of symphonic development. The second movement is traditionally lyrical, and the finale is based on a lively Hungarian theme.
Cello concertos have been written since the Baroque era if not earlier. Among the works from that period, those by Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Tartini are still part of the standard repertoire today.
In the classical era, the cello did not receive nearly as much recognition as a solo instrument as it did later; however, Haydn provided us with two surviving examples, C.P.E. Bach three and Boccherini several. Since the Romantic era, the cello has received as much attention as the piano and violin as a concerto instrument, and many great Romantic and even more 20th century composers left examples. The concertos of Robert Schumann, Carl Reinecke, David Popper, and Julius Klengel focus on the lyrical qualities of the instrument. Antonín Dvořák’s cello concerto ranks among the supreme examples from the Romantic era. Beethoven contributed to the repertoire with a Triple Concerto for piano, violin, cello and orchestra while later in the century, Brahms wrote a Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra. The instrument was also popular with composers of the Franco-Belgian tradition: Saint-Saëns and Vieuxtemps wrote two cello concertos each and Lalo and Jongen one. Tchaikovsky’s contribution to the genre is a series of Variations on a Rococo Theme. He also left very fragmentary sketches of a projected Cello Concerto which was only completed in 2006. Today's 'core' repertoire which is performed the most of any cello concertos are by Elgar, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Haydn, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Schumann but there are many more concertos which are performed nearly as often (see below: cello concertos in the 20th century).
Beethoven’s five piano concertos increase the technical demands made on the soloist. The last two are particularly remarkable, integrating the concerto into a large symphonic structure with movements that frequently run into one another. His Piano Concerto no 4 starts, against tradition, with a statement by the piano, after which the orchestra magically enters in a foreign key, to present what would normally have been the opening tutti. The work has an essentially lyrical character. The slow movement is a dramatic dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. Concerto no 5 has the basic rhythm of a Viennese military march. There is no lyrical second subject, but in its place a continuous development of the opening material. He also wrote a Triple Concerto for piano, violin, cello, and orchestra.
The piano concertos of Mendelssohn, Field, and Hummel provide a link from the Classical concerto to the Romantic concerto. Chopin wrote two piano concertos in which the orchestra is very much relegated to an accompanying role. Schumann, despite being a pianist-composer, wrote a piano concerto in which virtuosity is never allowed to eclipse the essential lyrical quality of the work. The gentle, expressive melody heard at the beginning on woodwind and horns (after the piano’s heralding introductory chords) bears the material for most of the argument in the first movement. In fact, argument in the traditional developmental sense is replaced by a kind of variation technique in which soloist and orchestra interweave their ideas.
Liszt's mastery of piano technique matched that of Paganini for the violin. His concertos No. 1 and No. 2 left a deep impression on the style of piano concerto writing, influencing Rubinstein, and especially Tchaikovsky, whose first piano concerto's rich chordal opening is justly famous. Grieg’s concerto likewise begins in a striking manner after which it continues in a lyrical vein.
Brahms's First Piano Concerto in D minor (pub 1861) was the result of an immense amount of work on a mass of material originally intended for a symphony. His Second Piano Concerto in B♭ major (1881) has four movements and is written on a larger scale than any earlier concerto. Like his violin concerto, it is symphonic in proportions.
Fewer piano concertos were written in the late Romantic Period. But Grieg-inspired Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote 4 piano concertos between 1891 and 1926. His 2nd and 3rd, being the most popular of the 4, went on to become among the most famous in piano repertoire and shining examples of Russian musicianship.
Besides the usual three-movement works with the title "concerto", many 19th-century composers wrote shorter pieces for solo instrument and orchestra, often bearing descriptive titles. From around 1800 such pieces were often called Konzertstück or Phantasie by German composers. Liszt wrote the Totentanz for piano and orchestra, a paraphrase of the Dies Irae. Max Bruch wrote a popular Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, César Franck wrote Les Djinns and Variations symphoniques, and Gabriel Fauré wrote a Ballade for piano and orchestra. Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra have an important place in the instrument's repertoire. Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is widely considered to be structured similarly to a piano concerto.
Many of the concertos written in the early 20th century belong more to the late Romantic school than to any modernistic movement. Masterpieces were written by Edward Elgar (a violin concerto and a cello concerto), Sergei Rachmaninoff (four piano concertos), Jean Sibelius (a violin concerto), Frederick Delius (a violin concerto, a cello concerto, a piano concerto and a double concerto for violin and cello), Karol Szymanowski (two violin concertos and a "Symphonie Concertante" for piano), and Richard Strauss (two horn concertos, a violin concerto, Don Quixote —a tone poem which features the cello as a soloist— and among later works, an oboe concerto).
However, in the first decades of the 20th century, several composers such as Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartók started experimenting with ideas that were to have far-reaching consequences for the way music is written and, in some cases, performed. Some of these innovations include a more frequent use of modality, the exploration of non-western scales, the development of atonality, the wider acceptance of dissonances, the invention of the twelve-tone technique of composition and the use of polyrhythms and complex time signatures.
These changes also affected the concerto as a musical form. Beside more or less radical effects on musical language, they led to a redefinition of the concept of virtuosity in order to include new and extended instrumental techniques as well as a focus on aspects of sound that had been neglected or even ignored before such as pitch, timbre and dynamics. In some cases, they also brought about a new approach to the role of the soloist and its relation to the orchestra.
Two great innovators of early 20th-century music, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, both wrote violin concertos. The material in Schoenberg’s concerto, like that in Berg’s, is linked by the twelve-tone serial method. Bartók, another major 20th century composer, wrote two important concertos for violin. Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich both wrote two concertos while Khachaturian wrote a concerto and a Concerto-Rhapsody for the instrument. Hindemith’s concertos hark back to the forms of the 19th century, even if the harmonic language which he used was different.
Three violin concertos from David Diamond show the form in neoclassical style.
More recently, Dutilleux's L'Arbre des Songes has proved an important addition to the repertoire and a fine example of the composer's atonal yet melodic style.
Other composers of major violin concertos include Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Walton, Benjamin Britten, Frank Martin, Carl Nielsen, Paul Hindemith, György Ligeti, Philip Glass, John Adams, and Kan-no.
In the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, the cello enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. As a result, its concertante repertoire caught up with those of the piano and the violin both in terms of quantity and quality.
An important factor in this phenomenon was the rise of virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. His outstanding technique and passionate playing prompted dozens of composers to write pieces for him, first in his native Soviet Union and then abroad. His creations include such masterpieces as Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto, Dmitri Shostakovich's two cello concertos, Benjamin Britten's Cello-Symphony (which emphasizes, as its title suggests, the equal importance of soloist and orchestra), Henri Dutilleux' Tout un monde lointain, Witold Lutosławski's cello concerto, Dmitri Kabalevsky's two cello concertos, Aram Khachaturian's Concerto-Rhapsody, Arvo Pärt's Pro et Contra, Alfred Schnittke, André Jolivet and Krzysztof Penderecki second cello concertos, Sofia Gubaidulina's Canticles of the Sun, Luciano Berio's Ritorno degli Snovidenia, Leonard Bernstein's Three Meditations, James MacMillan's cello concerto and Olivier Messiaen's Concert à quatre (a concerto for cello, piano, oboe, flute and orchestra which was almost finished at the time of his death and completed by Yvonne Loriod and George Benjamin).
In addition, it must be noted that several important composers who were not directly influenced by Rostropovich wrote cello concertos: György Ligeti, Alexander Glazunov, Paul Hindemith, Toru Takemitsu, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Samuel Barber, Joaquín Rodrigo, Elliot Carter, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, William Walton, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Hans Werner Henze, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Einojuhani Rautavaara for instance.
Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto is a well known example of piano concerti. In addition, Stravinsky wrote three works for solo piano and orchestra: Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. Prokofiev, another Russian composer, wrote no less than five piano concertos which he himself performed. Shostakovich composed two. Fellow soviet composer Khachaturian contributed to the repertoire with a piano concerto and a Concerto-Rhapsody.
Bartók also wrote three piano concertos. Like their violin counterparts, they show the various stages in his musical development.
Ligeti's concerto is a good example of a more recent piece (1985) that uses complex rhythms.
Concertos for other instruments
The 20th century also witnessed a growth of the concertante repertoire of instruments, some of which had seldom or never been used in this capacity. As a result, almost all the instruments of the classical orchestra now have a concertante repertoire. Examples include:
Amongst the works of the prolific composer Alan Hovhaness may be noted Prayer of St. Gregory for trumpet and strings.
Concertos for orchestra
In the 20th century, several important composers wrote concertos for orchestra. In these works, different sections and/or instruments of the orchestra are treated at one point or another as soloists with emphasis on solo sections and/or instruments changing during the piece. Famous examples include those written by:
Dutilleux has also described his Métaboles as a concerto for orchestra.
Concertos for two or more instruments
Many composers also wrote concertos for two or more soloists.
In the Baroque era:
In the Classical era:
In the Romantic era:
In the 20th century:
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