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Evolution of concerto

The Italian word concerto means concerted musical performance. The suggested origin of the word in Latin, concertare, means to contend or dispute and this is believed to be the idea behind the first concerto type music. The concertato style -antiphony- was first used by Gabrieli in his motets (1587). It is based on repeated alternation of tutti (all orchestra) - solo sections. In later examples (from Torelli), the tutti ritornello circumscribed the key and determined the form. Three factors interacted with each other in the evolution of concerto: (1) concertato style: the device of opposed bodies of sound and tutti-solo contrast, (2) concerto style: homophonic contrast originated from the rise of continuo, (3) ritornello form: appeared shortly after the concerto style had been established. The earliest concerti grosso of Corelli made great use of opposed groups, only small use of concerto style and no ritornello. The later orchestral concertos of Torelli, Taglietti, Abaco and Handel dispensed with tutti-solo contrast and used more emphatically concerto style, and also ritornello form. In the concertos of Vivaldi, Albinoni and Bach all three factors were united in complete harmony.

In the 1660s, string players in Bologna began to play one-to-a-part pieces with more than one player to a part. Cazzati published the first trumpet sonatas which were simple and homophonic, the style which influenced the concerto style. In the 1670s, Alessandro Stradella used small and large groups of strings (concertino and concerto grosso) in aria accompaniments combining the principle of contrast, orchestral forces and strong sense of tonality for the first time [in the serenata Qual prodigio e ch'io miri, 1675]. For the greater part of the seventeenth century, it would have been hard to define the precise difference between concerto and sonata. In the beginning of the late Baroque, sonata was established as the main instrumental genre. Since sonatas could be performed orchestrally, there was no clear division between the two genres. By 1682, Corelli had written the first classical concerto grosso of the Baroque era. Concerto grosso was an expansion and elaboration of contrapuntal trio sonata which may be played by as few as four or, by doubling the parts many times, by up to 60 players. If necessary, it can be played by a trio sonata ensemble since the orchestral tutti is only used to punctuate the cadences. Before the ritornello form came into use, the movements were in binary, ternary or fugal forms.

Corelli's concerti grosso (written in 1680s) are the conservative model of this genre. They follow the slow-fast-slow-fast plan of sonata da chiesa. The concertino's material is self-sufficient and ripieno only accompanies playing chords when it is not doubling the soloists. During its evolution, first the initial slow movement was discarded as the concerto idiom came into its own in the first movement. Next the outer movements changed their form. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the fugal allegro (first/fast) movement of trio sonata was abandoned in concerto and replaced by the ritornello form in the mature Baroque concerto (from about 1690). In a Corellian concerto grosso: there are multiple movements, concertino plays throughout (ripieno doubling), there is no ritornello, phrases are short and regular in length, and the movements are usually in binary form.

The Bolognese composer Torelli was the first to introduce solo concerto which was further developed by Albinoni and Vivaldi. Torelli also introduced the ritornello form and the use of three contrasting movements which was firmly established by Vivaldi who also added more virtuoso writing for soloist(s). The earliest example of the mature Baroque concerto is by Torelli. Six of the 12 works in his Op. 8 Concerti Grossi (1709) are true solo violin concertos. In his Op.8, No.8 Concerto for solo violin and string orchestra, there are three (open) ritornellos in expected keys in the last movement (tonic to dominant; relative major to subdominant; tonic). Modulations were occurring within the ritornellos. Vivaldi's first concertos (Op. 3) were published in Amsterdam in 1711. He used close ritornellos in varying lengths with several themes in his concertos. He added the virtuoso element in solo parts. The Venetian type concerto superseded the Corellian type with its three movement plan, ritornello design and virtuoso solo parts. The classical examples of Baroque concerto grosso are: Corelli’s Op. 6 (No.1-12) and Handel’s Op. 6 (No.1-12) (Corellian style) and JS Bach’s six Brandenburg concertos (Vivaldian style).

JS Bach's concertos fall into two main groups: the Brandenburg concertos (concerto grosso, 1721) and the concertos for violin and clavier for a single soloist or a pair. There is no essential difference in the outline: usually three movements (fast-slow-fast). The keystone of the construction in the outer movements is usually ritornello (punctuated by episodes) and in slow movements, ground bass. Tutti always join in the ritornello and the intervening episodes are given to the soloists. These episodes may consist of entirely fresh material or may develop ideas contained in the ritornello itself. The concerto movements not in ritornello form may use binary form or a dance movement. In slow movements, Bach often uses an ostinato bass and above it writes a long elaborate melody (Violin Concertos in A minor and E). In the first movement of the concerto for two violins, JS Bach anticipates the classical concerto by using two contrasting themes.

Handel also wrote both solo concertos and concerto grosso. The solo concertos are for the organ and the concerti grosso are laid out quite differently from the Brandenburgs. In Op. 6 (1739), Handel's concertinos consist of strings only (the Brandenburgs have different instrumentation in each one). In Handel's works there is much more variety in form. Handel prefers to have four, five or even six movements and usually finishes with a dance movement. His choice for a multimovement concerto is a Corellian feature, but he used the ritornello form in fast movements.

The dominant motive of the Baroque concerto was not a display of virtuosity but contrast of tone. The Baroque solo concerto lived on during the Classical era with some of its basic features changed. Its structure was remodelled under the influence of the sonata form. The most important event during the transitional period was the switch from the harpsichord to the piano. Beethoven was the first great composer who never wrote for the harpsichord (Mozart's early concertos for keyboard were for harpsichord). In the classical concerto, the role of the soloist was drastically altered and their relationship to the orchestra revised. The earlier concerto primarily explored the contrast between one or several soloists and a larger group of accompanying strings. Excessive technical difficulties were usually absent in the solo parts. The classical concerto, on the other hand, was written for virtuoso who wanted to display their mastery of the instrument. The scores even allotted space for cadenzas in which the soloist was free to interpolate brilliant passages. In the classical era, the concerto grosso transformed into the sinfonia concertante. This form was most popular in France and Mozart wrote his during his stay in Paris in 1778. Beethoven contributed to the repertory with his triple concerto in C major (for violin, cello and piano).

It is universally agreed that it was Mozart who shaped the lines of the modern concerto. The transition period consists of composers such as JC Bach, CPE Bach, Michael Haydn, Joseph Haydn, Dittersdorf, Boccherini, Clementi and Dussek. Among those, JC Bach can be said the one who contributed to the development of classical concerto most, mainly by influencing Mozart. In his Op. 7 concertos, the second subjects are evident and also their feminine character is obvious. Mozart's concerto form is based on the ritornello principle but incorporated the sonata principle. There is an opening by tutti remaining in the tonic, then the solo joins in and the opening material is repeated (which led to the term double exposition). The double exposition is a wrong description since the two expositions are normally dissimilar in thematic content. The second exposition may omit some themes of the first exposition and often adds new ones (it may even start with a new theme as in K482).  In his keyboard concertos which were models for Mozart, JC Bach invariably introduced the soloist with the first subject of the opening ritornello. In extreme cases, however, as in Mozart's Violin Concerto in A, the two expositions may have very little in common. In the solo part somewhere the second subject is presented. Then the themes are developed and recapitulated. Often, there is no proper development in terms of motivic development but a tonally fluid, partially non-thematic fantasy section. The development of themes is subsidiary to the soloist's display. The recapitulation reconciles the two forces; the soloist and orchestra are now together, whereas in the opening they were separate. Towards the end of the recapitulation, the orchestra builds up to a climax and pauses on the second inversion of the tonic triad. This is the signal for the cadenza. Beethoven in his G major piano concerto (No. 4), gave the opening bars to the solo by way of innovation (the only earlier example is one of Mozart's early piano concertos, K471 in Eb). In Mendelssohn's violin concerto, the soloist enters at once and there is no opening tutti (also in the concerto, the cadenza in the first movement comes at the end of the development). A typical Mozart concerto first movement is structured in the ritornello aria form as follows:

Opening ritornello in tonic finishing with a perfect cadence in tonic

First solo starting in the tonic key moving to the dominant  key finishing with a trill on its dominant seventh

A very brief orchestral ritornello (in the dominant key) finishing with a perfect cadence in the dominant

Fantasy section for the soloist and the orchestra modulating, and ending on a dominant pedal to dramatize the return to the tonic

Recapitulation in the tonic: all forces together (reconciliation) with a reprise of the opening material. Like the first solo, this section builds up to a climactic dominant seventh trill (in the tonic key)

Final ritornello with a cadenza and ending with the final cadence. This model, despite not being a binary form, observes the sonata principle. In the first solo section, the music invariably moves to the dominant and a new theme is heard at this point. After the tonally unstable fantasy section, all themes are recapitulated in the tonic.

Slow movements are the most lyrical ones and frequently in ternary form (or air and variation) although Mozart sometimes used ritornello form too. It became popular to base the slow movement on a well-known operatic aria. The outer sections usually frame a contrasted central section. The last movements are frequently in rondo form and may introduce some exotic material. In all Beethoven concertos, the last movement is in rondo form and the soloist introduces the main subject. The concerto form usually consists of three movements as there is no opportunity for the solo instrument in a scherzo-like movement as in symphonies.

In Beethoven's concertos, the relationship between solo and tutti is one of Classic balance and proportion, while in many virtuoso concertos of the later nineteenth century, the orchestral accompaniment provides some background in front of which the performer may shine. This greater emphasis on the solo instrument is one of the characteristics of Romantic concerto. Most romantic concertos start directly with the solo instrument rather than orchestra. The Romantic composers preferred the sonata form in the first movements and tended to let the soloist and the orchestra share the exposition from its beginning. The tension formerly created by the long orchestral ritornello vanished and the two forces are accepted as equal partners. A feeling of more rhapsodic style became evident and a less rigid attitude to musical form appeared. Typical examples of romantic concertos are Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in Eb, and Bruch's Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor. As last appeared in the works of Rachmaninov (1873-1943) in the twentieth century, brilliant solo parts and dramatic orchestration, melodic richness, extended lyrical tunes and a technique of development that is nearer the variation than the symphonic development characterize the romantic concerto. This contrasts with the classical concerto in which the display element is carefully integrated and any real fireworks are reserved for the cadenzas. Brahms expanded the concerto form to symphonic dimensions with his two piano concertos. The latest innovation in the concerto form in the twentieth century was the Concerto for Orchestra (for example by Bartok) in which different players and groups of players in the orchestra have varying prominent role in the concerto. This resembles the earlier ripieno concertos.

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M.Tevfik Dorak, B.A. (Hons)

Last updated on Dec 31, 2000