What is a Concerto?

When you go to an orchestra concert or start learning about classical music, you’re likely to encounter many new words. The most common word you will see (except perhaps “symphony”) is “concerto.” So, what is a concerto?

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A concerto is a piece of classical music that features a soloist accompanied by an orchestra. The soloist stands or sits at the front of the stage near the conductor so that they can be seen and heard clearly. Concertos are usually very difficult for the soloist and require technical and expressive expertise.

Igor Pikayzen performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with FCS
Violinist Igor Pikayzen performing
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
with the Fort Collins Symphony

Violin Concertos (such as the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major) and Piano Concertos (such as the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Clara Schumann) are the most common types. There are also many concertos for cello, trumpet, horn, flute, clarinet, percussion, and even tuba. Any instrument can be featured!

Most orchestra concerts will feature a concerto of some kind. It is usually the second piece on a program, just before the intermission. The soloist is often a highlight of the evening. They may be a traveling professional, a member of the orchestra, or a “young artist” or competition winner.

The word “concerto” has an unclear past. Historians argue whether it comes from the Italian origin of words like”concord” and “consensus,” meaning to work together, or the Latin origin of “contest” and “contrast,” meaning to work in opposition. Either way, these definitions can both apply since the soloist is both working with the orchestra and in competition with it.

What is the form of a concerto?

The typical concerto is in three movements, or sections: a fast movement in Sonata form, a slow and lyrical movement, and then another fast movement. They will probably be listed in a program as I. Allegro, II. Adagio, and III. Allegro. Allegro is a common word for fast, while adagio is a common word for slow.

The first movement is usually the longest and most involved. It will either start with an orchestral introduction or let the soloist show off right away. The soloist will play two contrasting themes, a feature of a standard Sonata form. Near the end of the first movement, the soloist will play a “cadenza” or an extended solo passage without the orchestra.

The second movement is a slow and lyrical movement. It contrasts the other movements and allows the soloist to show their expressive potential and the beauty of their playing. 

The third movement is fast and lets the soloist show off one last time. This final movement often features a section that the music returns to. This is called a Rondo.

Boris Allakhverdyan performing Alexey Shor's Verdiana, a clarinet concerto
Clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan
performing Alexey Shor’s Verdiana,
with the Fort Collins Symphony

Types of Concertos

Some pieces may have different names, but still function as a concerto. These are usually 20th century or more contemporary works. Some examples are Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium for violin, and Alexey Shor’s Verdiana for clarinet. The most famous example of this is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Some concertos feature multiple instruments, such as Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (for violin, piano, and cello) and Brahms’s Double Concerto (for violin and cello). The Concerto Grosso from the Baroque period is similar in that it features a small group of soloists, such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Some pieces are called a “Concerto for Orchestra.” These pieces don’t feature a single soloist, but instead feature members within the orchestra or the orchestra itself. They are often very difficult for the players and the conductor. The most popular “Concerto for Orchestra” is by Béla Bartók.

What are the most popular concertos?

Some of the most popular concertos are Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos nos. 2 and 3, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

You can see that most concertos are for either violin or piano, but there are concertos for every instrument. A quick search on google or youtube of your favorite instrument followed by “concerto” will help you find many, many more wonderful pieces of music.

Jeremy D. Cuebas,
FCS Assistant Conductor

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