What is a... Concerto?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Concerto?
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Sitting in a concert hall, listening to a piece of orchestral music, has it ever struck you that it’s a rather odd way to spend your time? Three centuries ago, scientist Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle concluded that it wasn’t just odd, it was intellectually decadent. ‘Sonata, what do you want of me?’ he exclaimed in elegant exasperation. 

The timing is significant. Fontenelle’s age – the ‘Baroque’ – saw the rise of instrumental music as something proudly self-sufficient. It’s hard to overstate just what an extraordinary new development this was. Before that, music either had words or accompanied actions. It was either song or dance, and with specific magical, religious or social functions. To explain this epochal change would require volumes, but its most enduringly successful result was the form we call the concerto. 

At first it wasn’t simply one ‘form’. There were two rival types, in two rival cities. Rome boasted the ‘Concerto Grosso’, in which a team of soloists alternated with a larger ensemble, or orchestra: principal exemplar Corelli (1653-1713). In Venice, however, the solo concerto, with the classic three-movement form, eventually won the evolutionary battle: principal exemplar Vivaldi (1678-1741).

What were the ingredients of its success? Having a single ‘star’, bewitching an audience with acrobatic skill, soulful eloquence and stage charisma was always likely to prove a winner. But the Vivaldi formula also contains elements that help an audience who would look to formal patterns or some kind of narrative to make sense of art. Crucial is repetition. However brilliantly inventive the soloist’s writing, the orchestra almost always brings us back reassuringly to the basic material. Even for supposedly sophisticated audiences, there’s a warm feeling of recognition, an ‘Aha!’, when the main theme returns, fully scored. The solo-cadenza/massive-return ending of so many concerto movements is simply the extreme manifestation of this highly effective device.

However much composers have bent, stretched, toyed subversively with these formulae, their outlines not only remain but retain a kind of archetypal significance. Same too with the basic three-movement Action-Contemplation-Action pattern. As one composer put it to me, ‘Sometimes I’d like to get away from it all, but you can’t. It always pulls you back.’ 

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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