Exploring Music's Complexities

Concertos Described

Origin of the Term Concerto

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What does the term “Concerto” mean?  How would you describe one?  What is it about them that make them fun to listen to?

In earlier times the term “concerto” was “concert” in Italian.  Use of the term described works that involved voices and instruments in which the instruments had independent parts—as opposed to the Renaissance common practice in which instruments that accompanied voices only doubled the voice parts (1).

The concerto began to take its modern shape in the late-Baroque period, beginning with the concerto grosso form popularized by Arcangelo Corelli). The Baroque classical concerto was mainly for a string instrument (violinviolacello, seldom viola d’amore or harp) or a wind instrument (fluterecorderoboebassoonhorn, or trumpet.) (2).

Today the term has evolved into describing a piece of music that features a “soloist” who stands at the front of the orchestra playing the melody while the orchestra accompanies.  The soloist sets the stage for the performance.  The conductor follows.

Concerto Structure

Typically, a concerto has three movements or three different sections separated by pauses and lasts about 30 minutes.  The common scheme for these movements is FAST-SLOW-FAST.  Soloists are expected to perform from memory.  The orchestra follows the music.  This ritual dates back to Franz Liszt a “rock star” in his day (3).  If the soloist slips up it is up to the conductor and orchestra to figure out where he/she is.

As each of the movements end the soloist plays by himself or herself for up to five minutes.  This is called a cadenza or a falling progression of harmonies, each chord ending with a natural resting place chord (3).  After the soloist finishes, the orchestra joins in the final chords. It has also been noted that almost all cadenzas end with a trill.  The trill acts as a warning to the orchestra they better get ready to come in with the final chord.

The Concerto’s Development.

“‘Many of the concertos written in the early 20th century belong more to the late Romantic school than to any modernistic movement (1). Masterpieces were written by Edward Elgar (a violin concerto and a cello concerto), Sergei Rachmaninoff and Nikolai Medtner (four and three piano concertos, respectively), Jean Sibelius (a violin concerto), Frederick Delius (a violin concerto, a cello concerto, a piano concerto and a double concerto for violin and cello), Karol Szymanowski (two violin concertos and a “Symphonie Concertante” for piano) (4). “

The 20th century saw composers experimenting with ideas that shaped the way music is written and performed. These innovations include a more frequent use of modality, the exploration of non-western scales, the development of atonality and neotonality, the wider acceptance of dissonances, the invention of the twelve-tone technique of composition and the use of polyrhythms and complex time signatures.

Other Changes

Changes also affected the concerto as a musical form.  They introduced new and extended instrumental techniques and brought about a focus on previously neglected aspects of sound such as pitch, timbre and dynamics. they also helped to redefine the position of soloists and their relation to the orchestra. (4).


1. Talbot, Michael. “The Italian concerto in the Late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries”. The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto. Cambridge Companions to Music.

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcangelo_Corelli. Retrieved 01/28/2019.

3. Understanding Concertos in Classical Music. http://www.dummies.com/art-center/music/understanding-concertos-in-classical-music.com

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concerto#cite_note-2




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