Classical Concerto: Definition & Form

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  • 0:02 What Is a Classical Concerto?
  • 1:17 The Form
  • 3:36 Concertos Today
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erika Svanoe

Erika has taught several college music courses and has a doctorate of musical arts in conducting.

In this lesson, you will learn about the classical concerto. You will understand what instruments would perform a concerto, the form of the concerto and its movements, and how its development still affects modern concertos today.

What Is a Classical Concerto?

The classical concerto is a piece of music composed for an instrumental soloist and orchestra. It is written to feature the musical skills and expressiveness of a single musician, the soloist, while being accompanied by a large group of musicians that make up the orchestra. It was developed and became popular during the Classical period of musical history, which occurred from about 1750 to 1830.

A violinist performing with an orchestra.
A violinist performing with an orchestra.

A concerto is usually performed with the soloist standing or sitting in front of the orchestra. This helps the soloist to be heard over the large number of musicians that are accompanying him or her. However, it is the contrast of one soloist verses the many other musicians of the orchestra that gives the concerto its unique sound.

A piano soloist performing a concerto with an orchestra.
A piano soloist performing a concerto with an orchestra.

Today, concertos are written for pretty much any solo instrument. During the Classical period, however, there were fewer instruments available and several that hadn't been invented yet. Composers typically wrote concertos for keyboard instruments, like the piano, or for the instruments of the orchestra, like the violin, cello, or wind instruments. Notable composers such as C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn wrote concertos for several different solo instruments. You can see a portrait of Mozart here sitting at a piano, an instrument he composed several concertos for:

Mozart at the piano.
Mozart at the piano.

The Form

A classical concerto is typically a longer piece of music and is broken into three movements. A movement is a shorter piece that is put together with other movements in order to create a large, lengthy piece such as a concerto. The three movements of a concerto usually alternate in tempo, or speed, with the first and third movements using a faster tempo, and the second using a slower tempo. Let's take a closer look at each of the three movements.

The first movement of the concerto is usually set at a moderate to fast tempo. It is also usually the longest movement and uses a variant of the sonata form. A regular sonata form is built in three sections:

  • The exposition, where the main melodies are stated
  • The development, where musical ideas are developed
  • and The recapitulation, where the exposition is restated in the tonic key

However, the first movement of a concerto uses what is called a double exposition. This means that the first section of the movement is played twice, first by the orchestra alone, and the second time by the soloist accompanied by the orchestra. You can see an example of this form here:

A double exposition sonata form used in a concerto.
A double exposition sonata form used in a concerto.

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