What is a concerto?

A concerto is music of contrasting colours created through the orchestra. There are two types of contrast which represent the two types of concertos. The first is the contrast of a small group of instruments with full orchestra. This is called the concerto grosso. It used to be very popular at the time of Bach and Handel, two composers who lived in the 17th century. The second type of concerto is the solo concerto or the contrast of one single instrument with the orchestra. The solo concerto became popular at the time of Beethoven, Mozart and the romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Brahms.

The concerto grosso has no fixed number of movements or sections while the solo concerto is usually in three movements. The first movement is very much in structure like the first movement of a symphony dealing with the two melodies and their development. It is essentially a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. The second movement is lyrical and personal, intimate and very romantic. The third is fast paced and brings the concerto to a triumphant conclusion. If you listen to the concertos of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, you will get a good idea of the sound world of the concerto. All romantic solo concertos have passages where only the soloist plays. This is called a cadenza.

In Indian classical music, you will observe that a concerto can be compared with jugalbandi where two different instruments (sitar and tabla, sarod and tabla, flute and harmonium etc.) develop two melodies together as a session of question and answer.

Below is a listening guide to examples of concerto grosso and solo concerto. The violin and piano are most common in concertos as solo instruments. I am also sharing some examples of unusual instruments such as the harp, oboe, lute, mandolin, organ and recorder. There are some examples where Bach used four pianos for a concerto and Beethoven used Piano, Violin and Cello for his Triple Concerto. Baroque composers like Bach, Telemann, Haydn, Handel, and Vivaldi had used organ, harp, trumpet, lute and mandolin which are not commonly in use today.

Vivaldi – Four Seasons

Beethoven – Violin Concerto

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5

Handel – Harp Concerto

Vivaldi – Lute Concerto

Mozart – Clarinet Concerto

Vivaldi – Recorder Concerto

Haydn – Trumpet Concerto

Mozart – Oboe Concerto

Vivaldi – Concerto for 4 Violins

Vivaldi – Concerto for two Mandolins

Dvořák – Cello Concerto

Handel – Organ Concerto