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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 8 May 2011

Classical Music 101: The Concerto

by Claudio Pinto / May 2, 2011

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The concerto is one of the main forms of occidental music. Of Italian origin, the term appeared at the end of the 16th century with the concerto grosso, in which a small group of instruments plays against a large one; Stradella, Corelli, Torelli and Handel are among its exemplary representatives. The music world would have to wait until the arrival of Vivaldi—and that of the sonata in the mid-17th century—to witness the birth of the solo concerto. Strengthening the idea of rivalry (from the Italian concertare) between the soloist and the orchestra (tutti), the solo concerto recognizes the importance of dialogue between the two parts.

This new style spread like wildfire throughout Europe, in part due to the emigration of Italian musicians to large courts, but also due to the development of musical edition. This veritable tidal wave would lead to the decision of using Italian to designate, all across Europe, tempi and musical dynamics—still a common practice today.

Generally made up of three movements (fast-slow-fast), the concerto includes, at the end of the first and sometimes third movements, an improvised part called a cadence, in which the interpreter improvises and displays his virtuosity, which repeats small excerpts of the theme of the movement (as a jazzman today could transform a motive in his own way over a few measures). Most cadences weren’t written down, but some, notably Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, have been preserved.

Distinguishing itself by its dramatic element, the solo concerto became extremely popular in the Classical and Romantic eras. Although the piano and violin were the favoured instruments, others, such as the cello and the flute, also gained composers’ favour. It is also important to mention concertos for multiple instruments, such as Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (piano, violin and cello) and Brahms’ Double Concerto.

The concerto is also used as a single-work exploratory tool: Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Busoni’s Concerto for Piano, Orchestra and Men’s Choir bear witness to this. Many composers did not write a single concerto (notably Schubert), but others—like Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven—made it a privileged field for individual expression. Contemporary composers have made equally important contributions—among them Henri Dutilleux, John Cage, Pascal Dusapin, John Corigliano or John Adams, who wrote a concerto for electric violin entitled Dharma at Big Sur—thereby confirming its incontestable vitality.

[Translation: Catherine Hine]

Kent Nagano and the OSM will host two spectacular pianists this month for concertos: Yefim Bronfman plays Lizst’s Concerto for Piano No. 2 in A major on May 2 and 3. Alain Lefèvre plays Rachmaninoff’s Concerto for Piano No. 4 on May 8.

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