See A. Veinus, The Concerto (rev. ed. 1964); D. F. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Concertos (1936, repr. 1972).
The etymology of the word "concerto" is somewhat problematic, as the Italian ‘concertare’ can mean ‘to contend, dispute’ but it also has the contrary meaning of ‘to agree’. The idea of two opposing forces is inherent in the use of the term. During the baroque period concertato, a principle of great importance to this period, referred to a principle "of opposing, commonly in alternation, two sonorous elements" .
In the late 16th century there is often no clear distinction made between a concerto and a sinfonia. Both of these terms were even used throughout the 17th century, in Italy, to describe vocal music with instrumental accompaniment; Giovanni Gabrieli published motets using either of these terms indiscriminately. Viadana’s Cento concerti ecclesiastici (1602) are examples of the early concerto for limited forces: he uses one to four voices with continuo, composed in such a way that the works can still be performed if one or more of the voices is absent.
From about 1675 composers started to write works for divided orchestra, the standard term for which is concerto grosso. The smaller division, which was effectively a group of soloists, was referred to in these works as the concertino and the accompanying instruments were called the ripieno, while tutti was used to indicate the two groups playing simultaneously. The earliest examples of these works can be found in the group of serenatas entitled "Quel prodigo e ch'io miri" by Alessandro Stradella. In the concerti grossi of Arcangelo Corelli and Giuseppe Torelli, the violin in the concertino is sometimes given extended solo passages. These are the beginnings of the solo concerto. In Torelli's Concerti Grossi, op.8, six of the twelve concertos are true solo concertos and all exhibit, to greater or lesser extent, the characteristics that would make up the "Venetian design" : 3 movements (fast-slow-fast), virtuosic writing and ritornello form.
The most influential composer in the history of the Baroque concerto was Antonio Vivaldi, who was the first to develop the formal and stylistic potentialities of the Torellian model. He wrote 50 ripeno concertos, 350 solo concertos and a relatively small number of concerti grossi. His 12 Concerti, Op. 3 "L'estro armonico" are also arguably the most influential pieces of the first half of the Eighteenth Century. some of his concerti are programmatic, notably The Four Seasons. Some of the concerti use winds, as Vivaldi had access to wind players at the Ospedale della Pietà
By Johann Sebastian Bach's time the concerto as a polyphonic instrumental form was thoroughly established. The term frequently appears in the autograph title-pages of his church cantatas, even when the cantata contains no instrumental prelude. He also wrote an Italian Concerto for solo harpsichord, which reduces the idea of ritornello form and concerto style onto a single instrument. His set of six "Brandenburg concertos" consist of three ripieno concertos (1,3,6) and three concerti grossi (2,4,5). The fourth has a very prominent violin part while the other two soloists (recorders) are reduced to a much smaller role. The fifth is in effect a solo harpsichord concerto. The origins of the keyboard concerto are to be found in such concertos by Bach. He also wrote about six solo concertos for violin, only two of which are extant, and a concerto for two violins and orchestra. Bach’s concertos are modeled on those of Vivaldi, but they expand the form, giving a coherent motivic unity to the contrapuntal textures of each movement.
The great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was a legendary figure who, as a composer, exploited the technical potential of his instrument to its very limits. Each one exploits rhapsodic ideas but is unique in its own form. The Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps contributed several works to this form. Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole (1875) displays virtuoso writing with a Spanish flavor. Max Bruch wrote three violin concertos, but it is the first, in G minor, that has remained a firm favorite in the repertoire. The opening movement relates so closely to the two remaining movements that it functions like an operatic prelude. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto (1878) is a powerful work which succeeds in being lyrical as well as superbly virtuosic. In the same year Brahms wrote his violin concerto for the virtuoso Joseph Joachim. This work makes new demands on the player, so much so that when it was first written it was referred to as a "concerto against the violin". The first movement brings the concerto into the realm of symphonic development. The second movement is traditionally lyrical, and the finale is based on a lively Hungarian theme.
The piano concertos of Mendelssohn, Field, 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 two concertos 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.
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 Bb 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 Grieg-inspired Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote 4 piano concertos between 1891 and 1926. His 2nd and 3rd, being the most popular of the 4, went on to become among the most famous in piano repertoire and shining examples of Russian musicianship.
Besides the usual three-movement works with the title "concerto", many 19th-century composers wrote shorter pieces for solo instrument and orchestra, often bearing descriptive titles. Schumann called such pieces Concertstück and Phantasie. Liszt wrote the Totentanz for piano and orchestra, a paraphrase of the Dies Irae. Max Bruch wrote a popular Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, César Franck wrote Les Djinns and Variations symphoniques, and Gabriel Fauré wrote a Ballade for piano and orchestra.
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 (four piano concertos), 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 which 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, Stravinsky 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, 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 in order to include new and extended instrumental techniques as well as a focus on aspects of sound that had been neglected or even ignored before such as pitch, timbre and dynamics. In some cases, they also brought about a new approach to the role of the soloist and its relation to the orchestra.
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 both wrote two concertos while Khachaturian wrote a concerto and a Concerto-Rhapsody for the instrument. Paul Hindemith’s concertos hark back to the forms of the 19th century, even if the harmonic language which he used was different.
Three violin concertos from David Diamond show the form in neoclassical style.
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.
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. His creations include such masterpieces as 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, Witold Lutosławski's cello concerto, Dmitri Kabalevsky's two cello concertos, Aram Khatchaturian's Concerto-Rhapsody, Arvo Pärt's Pro et Contra, Alfred Schnittke and Krzysztof Penderecki second cello concertos, Sofia Gubaidulina's Canticles of the Sun, James MacMillan's cello concerto and Olivier Messiaen's Concert à Quatre (a concerto for cello, piano, oboe, flute and orchestra which was almost finished at the time of his death and completed by Yvonne Loriod and George Benjamin).
In addition, it must be noted that several composers who were not directly influenced by Rostropovich wrote important cello concertos: Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger, Samuel Barber, Joaquín Rodrigo, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, William Walton, Heitor Villa-Lobos, György Ligeti, William P. Perry and Einojuhani Rautavaara for instance. This shows that the cello had become a major concertante instrument like the violin and the piano.
Ravel's Piano Concerto in G and Concerto for the Left Hand are among the best examples of the form in the early 20th century.
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. Prokofiev, another Russian composer, wrote no less than five piano concertos which he himself performed. Shostakovich composed two. Both are superb works, amongst the finest that he wrote (the same can be said of his other four concertos - see above). Fellow soviet composer Khatchaturian contributed to the repertoire with a piano concerto and a Concerto-Rhapsody.
Bartók also wrote three piano concertos. Like their violin counterparts, they show the various stages in his musical development.
Ligeti's concerto is a good example of a more recent piece (1985) that uses complex rhythms.
The 20th century also witnessed a growth of the concertante repertoire of instruments which had seldom or never been used in this capacity. As a result, almost all the instruments of the classical orchestra now have a concertante repertoire. Examples include:
Amongst the works of the prolific composer Alan Hovhaness may be noted Prayer of St. Gregory for trumpet and strings.
Many composers also wrote concertos for two or more soloists, for example Vivaldi (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.) and Bach (for 2 violins, for 2, 3, or 4 harpsichords). Following the tradition of Mozart who wrote concerti for both two pianos and three pianos, Poulenc wrote a concerto for two pianos. Mozart also wrote a concerto for flute and harp. In the Romantic era, Beethoven wrote a triple concerto for piano, violin, and cello, Brahms a double concerto for violin and cello and Bruch a double concerto for viola and clarinet. Notable examples in the 20th century include Ligeti's Concerto for flute and oboe, Lutoslawski's Concerto for oboe and harp and Messiaen's Concert à Quatre for piano, cello, oboe and flute. Benjamin Britten wrote a double concerto for violin and viola and Michael Tippett a triple concerto for violin, viola, and cello.