A concerto (/kənˈɛərt/; plural concertos, or concerti from the Italian plural) is a musical composition generally composed of three movements, in which, either one solo instrument (for instance, a piano, violin, cello or flute), or a group of soloists (concertino) is accompanied by an orchestra or concert band. Its characteristics and definition have changed over time. In the 17th century, sacred works for voices and orchestra were typically called concertos, as reflected by J. S. Bach's usage of the title "concerto" for many of the works that we know as cantatas.[1]


The word concerto comes from Italian; its etymology is uncertain, but it seems to originate from the conjunction of two Latin words: conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight). The idea is that the two parts in a concerto—the soloist and the orchestra or concert band—alternate between episodes of opposition, cooperation, and independence to create a sense of flow.

The concerto, as understood in this modern way, arose in the Baroque period, in parallel to the concerto grosso, which contrasted a small group of instruments called a concertino with the rest of the orchestra, called the ripieno. The popularity of the concerto grosso declined after the Baroque period, and the genre was not revived until the 20th century. The solo concerto, however, has remained a vital musical force from its inception to this day.

Early-Baroque concerto

The term "concerto" was initially used to denote 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.[2] Examples of this earlier form of concerto include Giovanni Gabrieli's "In Ecclesiis" or Heinrich Schütz's "Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich".

Late-Baroque concerto

The concerto began to take its modern shape in the late-Baroque period, beginning with the concerto grosso form developed by Arcangelo Corelli. Corelli's concertino group was two violins, a cello and harpsichord. In J. S. Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, for example, the concertino is a flute, a violin, and a harpsichord;[3] although the harpsichord is a featured solo instrument, it also sometimes plays with the ripieno, functioning as a continuo keyboard accompaniment.[4]

Later, the concerto approached its modern form, in which the concertino usually reduces to a single solo instrument playing with (or against) an orchestra. The main composers of concertos of the baroque were Tommaso Albinoni, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach,[5] George Frideric Handel, Pietro Locatelli, Jean-Marie Leclair, Giuseppe Tartini, Francesco Geminiani and Johann Joachim Quantz. The concerto was intended as a composition typical of the Italian style of the time, and all the composers were studying how to compose in the Italian fashion (all'Italiana).

The Baroque concerto was mainly for a string instrument (violin, viola, cello, seldom viola d'amore or harp) or a wind instrument (flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon, horn, or trumpet,). Bach also wrote a concerto for two violins and orchestra.[6] During the Baroque period, before the invention of the piano, keyboard concertos were comparatively rare, with the exception of the organ and some harpsichord concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Classical concerto

The concertos of the sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, such as C. P. E. Bach, are perhaps the best links between those of the Baroque period and those of the Classical era.

It is conventional to state that the first movements of concertos from the Classical period onwards follow the structure of sonata form. Final movements are often in rondo form, as in J.S. Bach's E Major Violin Concerto.[7]

Violin concertos

Mozart wrote five violin concertos, all in 1775. They show a number of influences, notably Italian and Austrian. Several passages have leanings towards folk music, as manifested in Austrian serenades. Mozart also wrote the highly regarded Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra.

Beethoven wrote only one violin concerto, under-appreciated until revealed as a masterpiece in a performance by violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim.

Cello concertos

Haydn wrote at least two cello concertos (for cello, oboes, horns, and strings), which are the most important works in that genre of the classical era. However, C. P. E. Bach's three cello concertos and Boccherini's twelve concertos are also noteworthy.

Keyboard concertos

C.P.E. Bach's keyboard concertos contain some virtuosic solo writing. Some of them have movements that run into one another without a break, and there are frequent cross-movement thematic references.

Mozart, as a child, made arrangements for keyboard and orchestra of four sonatas by now little-known composers. Then he arranged three sonata movements by Johann Christian Bach. By the time he was twenty, Mozart was able to write concerto ritornelli that gave the orchestra admirable opportunity for asserting its character in an exposition with some five or six sharply contrasted themes, before the soloist enters to elaborate on the material. Of his 27 piano concertos, the last 22 are highly appreciated.

A dozen cataloged keyboard concertos are attributed to Haydn, of which only three or four are considered genuine.[8]

Concertos for other instruments

C. P. E. Bach wrote four flute concertos and two oboe concertos.

Bohemian composer Francesco Antonio Rosetti composed several solo and double horn concertos. He was a significant contributor to the genre of horn concertos in the 18th century. Most of his outstanding horn concertos were composed between 1782 and 1789 for the Bohemian duo Franz Zwierzina and Joseph Nage while at the Bavarian court of Oettingen-Wallerstein. One of his best-known works in this genre is his Horn Concerto in E flat major C49/K III:36. It consists of three movements: 1. Allegro moderato 2. Romance 3. Rondo.

Many common features of the galant style are present in Rosetti's music and composing style. In his E-flat horn concerto, we hear periodic and short phrases, galant harmonic rhythm and melodic line reduction. Rosetti's influence on the 18th century composers, musicians and music was considerable. At the Bavarian court of Oettingen-Wallerstein, his music was often performed by the Wallerstein ensembles. In Paris, his compositions were performed by the best ensembles of the city, including the orchestra of the Concert Spirituel. His publishers were Le Menu et Boyer and Sieber. According to H. C. Robbins Landon (Mozart scholar), Rosetti's horn concertos might have been a model for Mozart's horn concertos.

Mozart wrote one concerto each for flute, oboe (later rearranged for flute and known as Flute Concerto No. 2), clarinet, and bassoon, four for horn, a Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra, and Exsultate, jubilate, a de facto concerto for soprano voice. They all exploit and explore the characteristics of the solo instrument(s).

Haydn wrote an important trumpet concerto and a Sinfonia Concertante for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon as well as two horn concertos.

Romantic concerto

Violin concertos

In the 19th century the concerto as a vehicle for virtuosic display flourished as never before. It was an age in which the artist was seen as hero, to be worshipped with rapture. Early Romantic traits can be found in the violin concertos of Viotti, but it is Spohr's twelve violin concertos, written between 1802 and 1827, that truly embrace the Romantic spirit with their melodic as well as their dramatic qualities.

Cello concertos

Since the Romantic era, the cello has received as much attention as the piano and violin as a concerto instrument, and many great Romantic and even more 20th-century composers left examples.

Antonín Dvořák's cello concerto ranks among the supreme examples from the Romantic era while Robert Schumann's focuses on the lyrical qualities of the instrument. The instrument was also popular with composers of the Franco-Belgian tradition: Saint-Saëns and Vieuxtemps wrote two cello concertos each and Lalo and Jongen one. Elgar's popular concerto, while written in the early 20th century, belongs to the late romantic period stylistically.

Beethoven contributed to the repertoire with a Triple Concerto for piano, violin, cello and orchestra while later in the century, Brahms wrote a Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra.

Tchaikovsky's contribution to the genre is a series of Variations on a Rococo Theme. He also left very fragmentary sketches of a projected Cello Concerto. Cellist Yuriy Leonovich and Tchaikovsky researcher Brett Langston published their completion of the piece in 2006.

Carl Reinecke, David Popper and Julius Klengel also wrote cello concertos that were popular in their time and are still played occasionally nowadays.

Today's 'core' repertoire—performed the most of any cello concertos—are by Elgar, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Haydn, Shostakovich and Schumann, but many more concertos are performed nearly as often (see below: cello concertos in the 20th century).

Piano concertos

Beethoven's five piano concertos increase the technical demands made on the soloist. The last two are particularly remarkable, integrating the concerto into a large symphonic structure with movements that frequently run into one another. His Piano Concerto No. 4 starts, against tradition, with a statement by the piano, after which the orchestra enters in a foreign key, to present what would normally have been the opening tutti. The work has an essentially lyrical character. The slow movement is a dramatic dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. His Piano Concerto No. 5 has the basic rhythm of a Viennese military march. There is no lyrical second subject, but in its place a continuous development of the opening material.

The piano concertos of Cramer, Field, Düssek, Woelfl, Ries, and Hummel provide a link from the Classical concerto to the Romantic concerto.

Chopin wrote two piano concertos in which the orchestra is very much relegated to an accompanying role. Schumann, despite being a pianist-composer, wrote a piano concerto in which virtuosity is never allowed to eclipse the essential lyrical quality of the work. The gentle, expressive melody heard at the beginning on woodwind and horns (after the piano's heralding introductory chords) bears the material for most of the argument in the first movement. In fact, argument in the traditional developmental sense is replaced by a kind of variation technique in which soloist and orchestra interweave their ideas.

Liszt's mastery of piano technique matched that of Paganini for the violin. His concertos No. 1 and No. 2 left a deep impression on the style of piano concerto writing, influencing Rubinstein, and especially Tchaikovsky, whose First Piano Concerto's rich chordal opening is justly famous.

Grieg's concerto likewise begins in a striking manner after which it continues in a lyrical vein.

Saint-Saëns wrote five piano concertos and orchestra between 1858 and 1896, in a classical vein.

Brahms's First Piano Concerto in D minor (pub 1861) was the result of an immense amount of work on a mass of material originally intended for a symphony. His Second Piano Concerto in B major (1881) has four movements and is written on a larger scale than any earlier concerto. Like his violin concerto, it is symphonic in proportions.

Fewer piano concertos were written in the late Romantic Period. But Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote four piano concertos between 1891 and 1926. His Second and Third, being the most popular of the four, went on to become among the most famous in the piano repertoire.

Other romantic piano concertos, like those by Kalkbrenner, Henri Herz, Moscheles and Thalberg were also very popular in the Romantic era, but not today.

20th-century concerto

Many of the concertos written in the early 20th century belong more to the late Romantic school than to any modernistic movement. 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), and Richard Strauss (two horn concertos, a violin concerto, Don Quixote—a tone poem that features the cello as a soloist—and among later works, an oboe concerto).

However, in the first decades of the 20th century, several composers such as Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartók started experimenting with ideas that were to have far-reaching consequences for the way music is written and, in some cases, performed. Some of 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.

These changes also affected the concerto as a musical form. Beside more or less radical effects on musical language, they led to a redefinition of the concept of virtuosity that included new and extended instrumental techniques and a focus on previously neglected aspects of sound such as pitch, timbre and dynamics. In some cases, they also brought about a new approach to the role of soloists and their relation to the orchestra.

Violin concertos

Two great innovators of early 20th-century music, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, both wrote violin concertos. The material in Schoenberg's concerto, like that in Berg's, is linked by the twelve-tone serial method. Bartók, another major 20th-century composer, wrote two important concertos for violin. Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich each wrote two concertos while Khachaturian wrote a concerto and a Concerto-Rhapsody for the instrument. Hindemith's concertos hark back to the forms of the 19th century, even if the harmonic language he used was different.

Three violin concertos from David Diamond show the form in neoclassical style.

In 1950 Carlos Chávez completed a substantial Violin Concerto with an enormous central cadenza for the unaccompanied violin.

More recently, Dutilleux's L'Arbre des songes has proved an important addition to the repertoire and a fine example of the composer's atonal yet melodic style.

Other composers of major violin concertos include John Adams, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies, Miguel del Aguila, Philip Glass, Cristóbal Halffter, György Ligeti, Frank Martin, Bohuslav Martinů, Carl Nielsen, Walter Piston, Alfred Schnittke, Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, John Williams and Roger Sessions.

Cello concertos

In the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, the cello enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. As a result, its concertante repertoire caught up with those of the piano and the violin both in terms of quantity and quality.

An important factor in this phenomenon was the rise of virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. His outstanding technique and passionate playing prompted dozens of composers to write pieces for him, first in his native Soviet Union and then abroad. Among such compositions may be listed Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto, Dmitri Shostakovich's two cello concertos, Benjamin Britten's Cello-Symphony (which emphasizes, as its title suggests, the equal importance of soloist and orchestra), Henri Dutilleux' Tout un monde lointain..., Cristóbal Halffter's two cello concertos, Witold Lutosławski's cello concerto, Dmitry Kabalevsky's two cello concertos, Aram Khachaturian's Concerto-Rhapsody, Arvo Pärt's Pro et Contra, Alfred Schnittke, André Jolivet and Krzysztof Penderecki second cello concertos, Sofia Gubaidulina's Canticles of the Sun, Luciano Berio's Ritorno degli Snovidenia, Leonard Bernstein's Three Meditations, James MacMillan's cello concerto and Olivier Messiaen's Concert à quatre (a quadruple concerto for cello, piano, oboe, flute and orchestra).

In addition, several important composers who were not directly influenced by Rostropovich wrote cello concertos: Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, Carlos Chávez, Miguel del Aguila, Alexander Glazunov, Hans Werner Henze, Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, György Ligeti, Bohuslav Martinů, Darius Milhaud, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Joaquín Rodrigo, Toru Takemitsu, William Walton, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann for instance.

Piano concertos

Maurice Ravel wrote two pianos concertos, one in G-major (1931) and the second for the left hand in D-major (date of creation1932). Igor Stravinsky wrote three works for solo piano and orchestra: Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. Sergei Prokofiev, another Russian composer, wrote five piano concertos, which he himself performed. Dmitri Shostakovich composed two. Fellow Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian contributed to the repertoire with a piano concerto and a Concerto-Rhapsody.

Arnold Schoenberg's Piano Concerto is a well-known example of a dodecaphonic piano concerto.

Béla Bartók also wrote three piano concertos. Like their violin counterparts, they show the various stages in his musical development. Bartok's also rearranged his chamber piece, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, into a Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion, adding orchestral accompaniment.

Cristóbal Halffter wrote a prize-winning neoclassical Piano Concerto in 1953, and a second Piano Concerto in 1987–88.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a concerto for piano, though it was later reworked as a concerto for two pianos and orchestra—both versions have been recorded—while Benjamin Britten's concerto for piano (1938) is a prominent work from his early period.

Important piano concertos by Latin-American composers included one by Carlos Chávez, two by Alberto Ginastera, and five by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

György Ligeti's concerto (1988) has a synthetic quality: it mixes complex rhythms, the composer's Hungarian roots and his experiments with micropolyphony from the 1960s and 1970s.[9] Witold Lutosławski's piano concerto, completed in the same year, alternates between playfulness and mystery. It also displays a partial return to melody after the composer's aleatoric period.[10]

Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin has written six piano concertos. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote three piano concertos, the third one dedicated to Vladimir Ashkenazy, who played and conducted the world première.

French composer Germaine Tailleferre and Czech composers Bohuslav Martinů and Vítězslava Kaprálová wrote piano concertos.

Concertos for other instruments

The 20th century also witnessed a growth of the concertante repertoire of instruments, some of which had seldom or never been used in this capacity, and even a concerto for wordless coloratura soprano by Reinhold Glière. As a result, almost all classical instruments now have a concertante repertoire. Examples include:

Among the works of the prolific composer Alan Hovhaness may be noted Prayer of St. Gregory for trumpet and strings, though it is not a concerto in the usual sense of the term.

In the later 20th century the concerto tradition was continued by composers such as Maxwell Davies, whose series of Strathclyde Concertos exploit some of the instruments less familiar as soloists.

21st-century concertos

Clarinet concertos

Violin concertos

Concertos for orchestra or concert band

In the 20th and 21st centuries, several composers wrote concertos for orchestra or concert band. In these works, different sections and/or instruments of the orchestra or concert band are treated at one point or another as soloists with emphasis on solo sections and/or instruments changing during the piece. Some examples include those written by:


Dutilleux has also described his Métaboles as a concerto for orchestra.

Concert band:

Concertos for two or more instruments

Many composers also wrote concertos for two or more soloists.

In the Baroque era:

  • Vivaldi's concertos for 2, 3 or 4 violins, for 2 cellos, for 2 mandolins, for 2 trumpets, for 2 flutes, for oboe and bassoon, for cello and bassoon... etc.. Some of Vivaldi's concertos were written for a very large number of soloists, including the extraordinary RV555, which features 3 violins, an oboe, 2 recorders, 2 viole all'inglese, a chalumeau, 2 cellos, 2 harpsichords and 2 trumpets.
  • Bach's concertos for 2 violins, for 2, 3, or 4 harpsichords as well as several of his Brandenburg concertos.

In the Classical era:

  • Haydn's concerto for violin and keyboard (usually referred to as the Keyboard Concerto No. 6) and Sinfonia concertante for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon.
  • Mozart's concertos for two pianos and three pianos, the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, and his concerto for flute and harp.
  • Salieri's Triple Concerto for oboe, violin and cello, and his double concerto for flute and oboe.

In the Romantic era:

  • Beethoven's triple concerto for piano, violin, and cello.
  • Brahms's double concerto for violin and cello.
  • Bruch's double concerto for viola and clarinet and one for 2 pianos.

In the 20th century:

In the 21st century:

  • William Bolcom's Concerto Grosso for saxophone quartet and orchestra.
  • Leo Brouwer's Guitar Concerto No. 10 "Book of Signs", for two guitars.
  • Miguel del Aguila's Concierto en Tango for string quartet and orchestra
  • Mohammed Fairouz's Double Concerto 'States of Fantasy' for violin and cello.
  • Philip Glass's Concerto Fantasy for two Timpanists and Orchestra and Double Concerto for violin and cello.
  • William P. Perry's Gemini Concerto for violin and piano.
  • Karl Jenkins' Over the Stone for two harps
  • Terry Manning's The Darkness Within Light Concerto for flute and piano

See also


  1. Wolf, p. 186
  2. Talbot, Michael. "The Italian concerto in the Late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries". The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto. Cambridge Companions to Music.
  3. Steinberg, p. 14
  4. Steinberg,1998, p. 14
  5. Steinberg, pp. 11-19
  6. Steinberg, pp. 17-19
  7. White, John D. (1976). The Analysis of Music, p.62. ISBN 0-13-033233-X.
  8. Threasher, David. "HAYDN Keyboard Concertos Nos 3, 4 & 11". Retrieved 11 January 2019.
  9. "Piano Concerto - Details - AllMusic". AllMusic.
  10. "Piano Concerto - Details - AllMusic". AllMusic.


  • Hill, Ralph, Ed., 1952, The Concerto, Penguin Books.
  • Randel, Don Michael, Ed., 1986, The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London.
  • Steinberg, Michael, 1998, The Concerto: A Listener's Guide, Oxford University Press.
  • Tovey, Donald Francs, 1936, Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume III, Concertos, Oxford University Press.
  • Wolf, Eugene K., Concerto, in Randel, Ed., 1986, pp. 186–191.
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