genre: ConcertoThe concerto has been perhaps the most esteemed vehicle of displaying the skills of an instrumental soloist since late Baroque era. The term concerto is likely derived from the Italian verb “concertare” – to arrange or get together – and began to appear in the title of musical works in the Renaissance (early 16th century). Initially, it referred to vocal works in consort with (“concertato da”) instruments, and specifically works sung in Italian. By the early-17th century, the term began to be used for purely instrumental works as well, which by the end of the century had become exclusive. The key development in this regard was the popularity of instrumental works that divided an orchestra into a large group (ripieno or concerto grosso) and a smaller group of featured players (concertino); by the end of the century the term “concerto grosso” was applied to the entire work – usually in 3 movements (fast-slow-fast) – and reached its first zenith in the works of Giuseppe Torelli and Arcangelo Corelli. Antonio Vivaldi expanded on these developments, and likewise developed the solo concerto into a dominant form, as in his famous Four Seasons concertos for solo violin and string orchestra. Both the concerto grosso and solo concerto were embraced by leading German composers of the following generation, notably J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel, though by the end of the 18th century, the concerto grosso began to fall out of favor. During the Classical era, the solo concerto developed into a grand genre on par with the symphony, and those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven – especially the piano concertos – certainly rank among their greatest achievements. During the Romantic era the concerto increasingly became a vehicle of virtuosic display, as in the solo concertos of Niccolò Paganini, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, and Sergey Rachmaninov. All of the principal musical developments of the period – in terms of form, harmony, orchestration, etc. – found their way, if not their impetus, in the solo concerto, and few were the composers who did not dedicate a sizable amount of their output to the genre. The concerto maintained its popularity throughout the Modern era, with some return to the elements of the Baroque concerto grosso – as in neo-classical concertos of Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, the Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartòk, etc. For all its possibilities in highlighting the skills of a soloist in a compelling dialogue with a larger ensemble, the genre of the concerto is alive and well today, and seems in no danger of disappearing from composers’ vistas anytime soon.
Nolan Gasser, PhD