What Is A Concerto In Music? A Complete Guide

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The concerto is probably the most recognizable form of classical music. Incredibly complex structures together with technically difficult instruments allowed famous composers to produce the wonderful works of art that we get to enjoy to this day.

Starting in the 17th century, the concerto, developed from the earlier sacred works. By the late Baroque period, the development of the concerto was in full swing, delighting the audiences with a combination of instruments and voices that had not been heard before.

Bach, Mozart, and Haydn are but a few of the composers who led the evolution of the concerto which continues into the current era, and in this post, we’ll be exploring what is a concerto and look at its history with examples.

Definition of a Concerto

The simplest definition of a concerto is that it is a composition for a solo instrument set against the background of an orchestral ensemble.

In a way similar to sonatas and symphonies, the concerto is constructed of several movements that are tonally and thematically integrated.

The composition follows a contrasting cycle of movements that convey the audience through a host of emotions and feelings which eventually resolve themselves in the final movement.

The most common instruments for concertos to be written for are the piano, violin, viola, cello, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, however, other solo instruments do get to enjoy the limelight now and then too.

The History of Concertos

The orchestral form of music known as the Concerto first gained prominence during the 17th Century.

Johan Sebastian Bach became known for his concertos when he titled his earlier sacred compositions for voice and orchestra with this name.

As the concerto evolved in the late-Baroque period, it brought about the concertino group – a small ensemble that was typically composed of a flute, violin, and harpsichord.

And, as the genre matured and became closer to its modern equivalent, the concertino was reduced still further to only one instrument playing in contrast to the orchestra.

Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel became synonymous with the concerto and, although they were but a handful among many other composers, their works have stood the test of time and remain firm favorites to this day.

Before the invention of the piano, it was rare to find a concerto composed for the keyboard other than the organ and harpsichord concertos by Bach.

Throughout the classical era and into the early Romantic period, the concerto continued to evolve, with Mozart writing several concertos for the piano and violin.

The romantic era saw the ascendence of the virtuoso form, focusing attention on the piano with Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff producing many of our most loved concertos.

In the twentieth century, the new forms of concerto gained popularity with composers like Benjamin Britten producing compositions that spanned many different styles, drawing their inspiration from the romantic era while pushing the limits of rhythm, harmony, and structure.

Characteristics of a Concerto

As far as musical forms go, the concerto is extremely elastic, featuring vocals, instrumental soloists across a wide range of instruments and sections.

The elements of a concerto are therefore that there be a soloist with an orchestra or concert band playing.

Concertos often have three movements though, two fast, with a slow contrasting movement in the middle.

Examples of Concertos

There are so many concertos in the classical repertoire but below are a few that highlight it well.

The Brandenburg Concertos – J.S. Bach

‘The Brandenburg Concertos’ by JS Bach

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are instantly recognizable and are one of the most famous concertos of all time.

Bach apparently packed them away after the person for whom he composed them failed to acknowledge him and they were lost for more than 100 hundred years before being discovered and made public.

Piano Concerto No.5 in D Major – Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – ‘Piano Concerto No. 5 in D major’

When it comes to piano concertos one of the most prolific composers was Mozart who wrote 23 of them. He’s generally considered the leading composer when it comes to concertos.

Mozart’s first piano concert was his Piano Concerto No. 5 in D major.

Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K622 – Mozart

‘Clarinet Concerto in A major’ by Mozart

Arguably, the most famous of Mozart’s concertos were not composed for the keyboard at all but rather for the clarinet.

His Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K622, is instantly recognizable and the adagio movement is extremely popular. It can be found in most classical music enthusiasts’ compilations.

‘Piano Concerto No. 1 E Minor’ – Frédéric Chopin

‘Piano Concerto No. 1 e-minor’ by Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric Chopin wrote the Piano Concerto in E minor when he was 20-years-old. It is one of his most well-known pieces and was first performed at a concert in Warsaw.

His first of two concertos written for the piano it is made up of three movements: I. Allegro, II. Romanze and III. Rondo.

The 2nd movement was also featured in the soundtrack to the Jim Carey film, The Truman Show as well as a number of other films

Piano Concerto No.2 Op.18 – Rachmaninoff

Another hugely popular concerto is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 which first premiered in 1901.

He wrote it after suffering from depression for a number of years and he dedicated it to his physician who helped treat him.

It’s such a memorable theme that it’s been the inspiration for a number of modern songs including the Celine Dion classic All By Myself of which Rachmaninoff is actually listed as a composer!

Piano Concerto – Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten – ‘Piano Concerto’

The contrast between Britten’s piano concerto is self-evident and an indication of the great changes that occurred in the structure and rhythm of the concerto throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

How Many Movements Does a Concerto Have?

Most concertos are written with three movements. The first and third are often fast with a slow middle movement to provide contrast.

The first movement will also often end with a cadenza – where the featured instrument will play an unaccompanied solo that can be improvised or written out by the composer.

How Does a Sonata Differ From a Concerto?

A sonata, which is also a composition for a solo instrument is different from a concerto in that it won’t feature a large orchestra.

It’s typically for a solo instrument with a piano or small ensemble accompaniment.

They are usually written in sonata form too.

In Closing

The concerto is an ever-evolving genre, consisting of very many different styles and structures.

It can take a lifetime to immerse yourself in music yet never fully understand the nuances and technicalities of this expansive genre.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.