There are two kinds of concerto that were composed in the Baroque period: concerto grosso and solo concerto. This link will take you to a very interesting summary of the two types of concerto. Even though this site is quite concise in its written descriptions of the two genres, it is the listening examples embedded in the that page really help clarify a point that can be confusing to students the first time they encounter the concerto grosso—namely the roles of the concertino and the ripieno (also known as tutti). The examples will make it easier for you to hear the difference between the smaller and larger group that provide the contrast in a concerto grosso.
Here is one clarification to something stated near the end of the linked article: it mentions that Antonio Vivaldi, who you’ll read about soon, “wrote many solo concertos and in particular for oboe, flute, and bassoon.” This might give you the impression that the bulk of his works were for those instruments. That is not the case. He wrote over 500 concertos (solo and grosso), 350 of which were for solo instruments. The majority of those solo concertos (230) were for solo violin, which is not surprising, given that Vivaldi was a virtuoso violinist. I think they mentioned those additional instruments because there are relatively few concertos written for wind instruments so his works for those and other instruments stand out in the literature.
Now, let’s take a more in depth look at concerto grosso. Notice the important role that Corelli plays in developing this genre into something that many other composers would want to work with, and in Corelli’s overall style no less. As with previous genres, there was, for a time, a division into chiesa and camera forms.
The concerto grosso (Italian for big concert(o), plural concerti grossi) is a form of baroque music in which the musical material is passed between a small group of soloists (the concertino) and full orchestra (the ripieno or concerto grosso).
The form developed in the late seventeenth century, although the name was not used at first. Alessandro Stradella seems to have written the first music in which two groups of different sizes are combined in the characteristic way. The name was first used by Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori in a set of 10 compositions published in Lucca in 1698.
The first major composer to use the term concerto grosso was Arcangelo Corelli. After Corelli’s death, a collection of twelve of his concerti grossiwas published; not long after, composers such as Francesco Geminiani, Pietro Locatelli and Giuseppe Torelli wrote concertos in the style of Corelli. He also had a strong influence on Antonio Vivaldi.
Two distinct forms of the concerto grosso exist: the concerto da chiesa (church concert) and the concerto da camera (chamber concert). The concerto da chiesa alternated slow and fast movements; the concerto da camera had the character of a suite, being introduced by a prelude and incorporating popular dance forms. These distinctions blurred over time.
Corelli’s concertino group was invariably two violins and a cello, with a string section as ripieno group. Both were accompanied by a basso continuo with some combination of harpsichord, organ, lute or theorbo. Handel wrote several collections of concerti grossi, and several of the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach also loosely follow the concerto grosso form.
The concerto grosso form was superseded by the solo concerto and the sinfonia concertante in the late eighteenth century, and new examples of the form did not appear for more than a century. In the twentieth century, the concerto grosso has been used by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Bloch, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bohuslav Martinů, Malcolm Williamson, Henry Cowell, Alfred Schnittke, William Bolcom, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Andrei Eshpai, Eino Tamberg, Krzysztof Penderecki, Jean Françaix and Philip Glass. While Edward Elgar may not be considered a modern composer, his romantic Introduction and Allegro strongly resembled the instrumentation setup of a concerto grosso.
A concertino, literally “little ensemble,” is the smaller group of instruments in a concerto grosso. This is opposed to the ripieno and tutti which is the larger group contrasting with the concertino.
Though the concertino is the smaller of the two groups, its material is generally more virtuosic than that of the ripieno. Further, the concertino does not share thematic material with the ripieno, but presents unique ideas. This contrast of small group to large group and one thematic group against another is very characteristic of Baroque ideology—similar to terraced dynamics where the idea is significant contrast.
As we’ve looked at concerto grosso, here’s a bit more detailed information on the solo concerto. Notice that the solo concerto has a bit more standard structure (three movements in a fast-slow-fast pattern) than the concerto grosso, though we must always remember that Baroque composers were not nearly as concerned about standardization of form as later Classical Era composers were.
A solo concerto is a concerto in which a single soloist is accompanied by an orchestra. It is the most frequent type of concerto. It originated in the Baroque Period (c. 1600–1750) as an alternative to the traditional concertino (solo group of instruments) in a concerto grosso.
A typical concerto has three movements, traditionally fast, slow and lyrical, and fast. There are many examples of concertos that do not conform to this plan.
The earliest known solo concertos are nos. 6 and 12 of Giuseppe Torelli’s Op. 6 of 1698. These works employ both a three-movement cycle and clear (if diminutive) ritornello form, like that of the ripieno concerto except that sections for the soloist and continuo separate the orchestral ritornellos. Active in Bologna, Torelli would have known of the operatic arias and the numerous sonatas and sinfonias for trumpet and strings produced in Bologna since the 1660s. He himself composed more than a dozen such works for trumpet, two dated in the early 1690s. Other early violin concertos are the four in Tomaso Albinoni’s Op. 2 (1700) and the six in Torelli’s important Op. 8 (1709—the other six works in this set are double concertos for two violins).
The most influential and prolific composer of concertos during the Baroque period was the Venetian Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741). In addition to his nearly 60 extant ripieno concertos, Vivaldi composed approximately 425 concertos for one or more soloists, including about 350 solo concertos (two-thirds for solo violin) and 45 double concertos (over half for two violins). Vivaldi’s concertos firmly establish the three-movement form as the norm. The virtuosity of the solo sections increases markedly, especially in the later works, and concurrently the texture becomes more homophonic.
Concertos for instruments other than violin began to appear early in the 18th century, including the oboe concertos of George Frideric Handel and the numerous concertos for flute, oboe, bassoon, cello, and other instruments by Vivaldi. The earliest organ concertos can probably be credited to Handel (16 concertos, c. 1735–51), the earliest harpsichord concertos to Johann Sebastian Bach (14 concertos for one to four harpsichords, c. 1735–40). In the latter case, all but probably one of the concertos are arrangements of existing works, though Bach had already approached the idea of a harpsichord concerto before 1721 in the Brandenburg Concerto no. 5.