So what is a concerto, anyway? Concertos were a super popular song form back in the day, so I wanted to take a bit of time to delve into what they are, when they were popular, and what to expect if you choose to listen to one (or play one!).
What is a Concerto – A vehicle for virtuosity
For starters, let’s talk about the structure of a concerto – they were almost always in three movements, oftentimes following the fast-slow-fast template – but not always. As we know, musicians like to break the rules.
Concertos were notable in that they do make use of a symphony, but they feature one instrument – so you might have a piano concerto, a flute concerto, a violin concerto, and so forth. Think of a concerto as putting the spotlight on one instrument, while the band serves a more background role to boost up the featured instrument.
Because of this whole spotlight thing, concertos are often vehicles for really accomplished musicians to show off – they’re usually extremely difficult and require plenty of virtuosity, especially romantic-era concertos.
History of the concerto
The concerto was born in the baroque era (think 1600s), and many famous composers at the time wrote them, like Vivaldi, Bach and Handel. But back in that day, keyboards weren’t particularly advanced so usually the concertos were written featuring string or wind instruments. – Bach did bring us some harpsichord and organ concertos, but it was more uncommon.
For a famous example of a Baroque-era concerto, here’s a recording of Bach’s violin concerto in E major, written in the later part of the Baroque period.
Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042
Classical Era Concerto
In the classical era, and drawing influence from Bach’s concertos, the concerto grew and enjoyed its greatest popularity (in addition to the romantic era). The three part concerto form became even more organized, with the first movement usually being in sonata form, and the last movement in rondo form – but those are topics for completely different videos.
The classical era saw concertos composed by guys like Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn. Recently we learned just a little taste of one of Beethoven’s concerto –
Here’s Beethoven’s famous violin concerto in D major.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, op. 61
Romantic Era Concerto
The romantic era – think the 1800s – saw heavy virtuosity in concertos, and famous ones were written by guys like Mendelssohn, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. The most popular instruments for concertos at the time were piano, violin and cello.
Here’s a concerto by Edvard Grieg – his piano concerto in A minor, which has a very famous, virtuosic introduction.
Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16
20th Century Concerto
Concertos continued to exist in the 20th century, but the tone of them changed – literally. Guys like Bartok, Stravinsky and Debussy broke all the previous rules and incorporating things like atonality – the lack of a tonal center – and dissonance, which created more abstract music.
Here’s Prokofiev’s very intense first piano concerto from 1912.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto 1
And that concludes our discussion on concerti. Hopefully this has given you some insight to the question ‘what is a concerto?’, and the next time you hear one, you should have a good idea of what to expect.