What is a concerto?
Stephen Johnson gets to grips with one of classical music's key technical terms, the concerto
What is a concerto?
A concerto is a work for instrumental soloist plus orchestra or group of musicians.
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.
When did the concerto form begin?
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).
Vivaldi: a great concerto composer
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.
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Antonio Vivaldi: creator of the concerto formula
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.
What movements does a concerto have?
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.’
What are some of the most famous concertos?
Too many to mention, but let's take three of the instruments for which concertos have most commonly been written: the piano, violin and cello. Famous piano concertos include Beethoven's Piano Concertos No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 (the 'Emperor'), and Mozart's Piano Concertos No. 20, No. 21 (sometimes known as the 'Elvira Madigan' because of the slow movement's use in that film), No. 23 and No. 24.
Elsewhere, the two Brahms Piano Concertos are both staples of the concert hall, as is Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 (of five). The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns also wrote five Piano Concertos: only the Second is a real repertoire mainstay (numbers four and five get some attention too), but all five are absolute dazzlers.
And if you want something light and bracing, both of the Shostakovich Piano Concertos are short, fun pieces, fizzing with ideas and energy - although both blessed with exquisite slow movements.
The greatest violin concertos include the Sibelius Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and Beethoven Violin Concerto. Brahms, once again, wrote a fabulous concerto for the instrument. Mozart wrote five, of which No. 3 and No. 5 (the 'Turkish') are probably best known. Bach wrote two very beautiful Violin Concertos, while the Bach Double Concerto is elegantly composed for two violins.
Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto is very famous, with a songlike melody that you may know without knowing it! Finally, from opposite ends of the classical timeline, Vivaldi's Four Seasons is in effect a set of four very beautiful Baroque violin concertos, while in the 20th century Alban Berg's Violin Concerto is one of the most expressive ever written for the instrument.
Famous cello concertos include those by Elgar, Dvořák, Shostakovich (Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2), Haydn (Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2) and, again, Saint-Saëns. Tchaikovsky wrote a beautiful set of theme and variations for cello and orchestra, the 'Rococo' Variations.
This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine