What is a Concerto?

The Concerto is a work of music in which a solo instrument(s) is contrasted and blended with an orchestra.

Embed from Getty Images

The Origins of the concerto

The earliest work containing the name “concerto” was published in Venice in 1587 entitled Concerti di Andrea et di Gio. Gabrieli.
Church concertos (concerti da chiesa) and vocal chamber concertos (concerti da camera), which were then adapted as purely instrumental works by Torelli, developed in the 17th century.

Baroque Period Concertos

Concertos in the Baroque period were written in two main ways:

The Concerto Grosso

Concerto grosso (great concerto) was an early form of concerto consisting of several movements and composed during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Corelli and Handel were famous composers of concerto grosso.

Have a listen to this example from Corelli:

Arcangelo Corelli portrait

Corelli Concerto Grosso Opus 6 No 4
Advent Chamber Orchestra [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Concerto grosso works were antiphonal – i.e. a small group of strings (called a concertino) alternated playing with a larger group (called the ripieno). The music played by the concertino often contrasted with the sections played by the ripieno.

The Solo Concerto

The solo concerto is a concerto for individual player and orchestra.
It is the form of concerto that we are most familiar with today.
It was first developed by J.S. Bach in his harpsichord concertos.

Have a listen to this extract from a Bach harpsichord sonata:
JS Bach picture

Bach Harpsichord Concerto in E major
Advent Chamber Orchestra with Matthew Ganong on harpsichord [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Solo concertos contain very difficult and impressive passages of music for the soloist to play.

The Four Seasons by Vivaldi is a very famous example of a solo concerto written for violin and orchestra in the Baroque period.

In this video, you can clearly hear/see hear the impressive technical skill needed to perform this piece.

The Cadenza

A cadenza is a passage of music during which the soloist can “show off” their skill by embellishing the written material through improvisation (this is known as extemporisation).
The cadenza first appeared in the Baroque period in Handel’s organ concertos.
The cadenza became a fixture of the concerto from the Classical period onwards.

The orchestra remains silent during the cadenza giving the soloist “centre stage” to demonstrate their talent.
You will usually hear the cadenza towards the end of the first movement and it will often end with the soloist playing a trill, which is the signal for the orchestra to return.

Have a listen to the cadenza taken from the opening movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17:


Mozart Piano Concerto Cadenza

Since the 19th century, the composers of concertos have typically written out the cadenzas for the soloists to perform.

Concertos are typically written in 3 movements – Fast, slow, fast (although there are lots of exceptions to this).

Concertos During the Romantic Period

Concertos continued to be popular during the Romantic period.

The orchestra got bigger and so composers could make even greater dramatic differences between the soloist and the orchestra.
The technical demands of the pieces for the soloists became even harder.

Have a listen to this extract from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The high technical demands and dramatic contrasts between the piano and the orchestra can be clearly heard:

Beethoven imageBeethoven Piano Concerto No 3Ludwig van Beethoven [CC BY 3.0]
ClassicaViva Orchestra & Stefano Ligoratti (pianiste et chef d’orchestre)

The majority of concertos were written for violin, cello and piano, but you will find many examples of other solo instruments as well.

Concertos in the 20th Century

Concertos remained popular throughout the 20th century as composers continued to explore the possibilities of instruments and their virtuoso performers.

Have a look at this video of Anna Fedorova playing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2.
Listen to the amazing dramatic contrast between the piano and the orchestra.

Concertos in the 21st century and Beyond

Composers have continued to use the concerto as a form of composition with a few exciting examples already in the 21st century..
Have a look at this video of the violin concerto “Concentric Paths” Opus 24 by Thomas Adès, performed by Anthony Maarwood.

From its origins in the Baroque period to the present day, the concerto has been, and still remains an exciting means by which composers can explore their craft and show off the immense ability of virtuoso performers.