The Classical Concerto

Photo of two small sculptures: a flute player in the foreground and violin player in the background.


A concerto (from the Italian: concerto, plural concerti or, often, the anglicized form concertos) is a musical composition usually composed in three parts or movements, in which (usually) one solo instrument (for instance, a piano, violin, cello or flute) is accompanied by an orchestra or concert band.

The etymology is uncertain, but the word seems to have originated from the conjunction of the 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 episodes of opposition, cooperation, and independence in the creation of the music flow.

The concerto, as understood in this modern way, arose in the baroque period side by side with the concerto grosso, which contrasted a small group of instruments with the rest of the orchestra. The popularity of the concerto grosso form declined after the baroque period, and the genre was not revived until the twentieth century. The solo concerto, however, has remained a vital musical force from its inception to this day.

The concerti of the sons of Johann Sebastian 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 concerti 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.

Violin Concertos

Mozart wrote five violin concertos, in quick succession. They show a number of influences, notably Italian and Austrian. Several passages have leanings towards folk music, as manifested in Austrian serenades.

Haydn wrote four violin concerti.

Beethoven wrote only one violin concerto.

Cello Concertos

Haydn wrote at least two cello concertos which are the most important works in that genre of the classical era. However, C.P.E. Bach’s three cello concertos are also noteworthy.

Keyboard Concertos

C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard concertos contain some brilliant soloistic 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 boy, made arrangements for harpsichord and orchestra of 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. Some of his twenty-seven piano are considered central in the instrument’s repertoire.

Haydn wrote a dozen keyboard concertos, although a couple of them are considered spurious.

Concertos for Other Instruments

C.P.E. Bach wrote four flute concertos and two oboe 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, a Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, and Exsultate, jubilate, a de facto concerto for soprano voice. They all exploit and explore the characteristics of the solo instrument.

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

Listen: Violin Concerto

Please listen to the following composition by Beethoven with the score (linked below):