Concerto Grosso: Definition, Form & Movements

Instructor: Joseph Mann

Joseph has a B.M. in piano pedagogy and a M.M. in piano performance; he has taught music theory, history, and classic literature at the college level.

The concerto grosso is a type of instrumental concerto that was developed during the late 17th century. This lesson discusses the development of the form and its most common characteristics.

Definitions and Early Development

A gathering of Baroque musicians
A painting of a gathering of Baroque musicians

A big get-together of musicians can mean many things to many people, but it has a specific meaning when we use the Italian term concerto grosso. Concerto grosso literally means 'big group' (concerto=group and grosso=big), and the term not only implies a large ensemble of musicians (specifically instrumentalists playing string instruments, such as the violin, the cello, and the viola) but also refers specifically to a sub-genre of the concerto genre.

In the early days of the concerto, the early to mid 17th century, the term was applied to many types of music, including vocal and instrumental music. During the late 17th century, however, composers began to narrow their use of the term concerto to apply specifically to multi-movement instrumental ensemble pieces that involved the interplay of two groups within the ensemble, the soloist(s) and the accompanying group. Solo concertos are concertos that consist of a single soloist supported by the accompanying group, called the ripieno, while concerti grossi (the plural of the term) consist of a group of multiple soloists, called the concertino supported by the accompanying ripieno.

The Instrumentation of the Concerto Grosso

The ripieno group of the concerto grosso most often consists of two violin parts, a viola part, a cello part, continuo (a dedicated accompanying ensemble that consisted of a cello or viol and a harpsichord, organ, or lute), and sometimes a contrabass part. The solo group (the concertino) could be more varied, including string or wind instruments, but the standard instrumentation consists of two violin parts, a cello part, and continuo.

Movement Arrangement and Number within the Concerto Grosso

The concerto in general is a multi-movement form, which means that the work will have more than one complete section, complete in the sense that it can be performed on its own and sound complete in and of itself. The most common number of movements is three or four, though five or six movements is also possible. In general terms, movements are organized according to their tempo, their speed when performed. The most common tempo arrangements for concerto grosso movements of the time are fast-slow-fast for three-movement concertos and slow-fast-slow-fast for four-movement concertos, but any arrangement of fast and slow is technically possible.

Movement Types within the Concerto Grosso

There are two main types of movements that appear in concerti grossi, abstract designations of tempo and dance movement titles. In the first type, a movement's title simply refers to, and is synonymous with, the tempo in which the movement was to be performed. Examples of this abstract movement types include: allegro (fast), largo (slow), adagio (slow), vivace (very fast), grave (very slow), and moderato (moderate speed). In the second type, the movements are named after and written as specific dances. The most common dances that might be included in a concerto grosso are the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, but many other dances of lesser popularity could be included.

For Arcangelo Corelli, a famous composer of concerti grossi from Rome, which was the city in which concerti grossi were most intensely cultivated, these two types of movements were consistently grouped into two styles based on where they were primarily performed: camera, meaning chamber, and chiesa, meaning church.

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