Mixed-Up Concertos


Like painters, composers love to mix colors. Symphonies blend strings, brass, winds and percussion to create a rich texture of sound. Most concertos, however, feature a single instrument – a piano or violin, usually – backed by an accompanying ensemble. But there are works that spotlight multiple voices, creating new colors for a concerto. Whether it's Mozart, writing for violin and viola, or Bach, combining flute, violin and harpsichord, or Vivaldi, masterfully blending fifteen solo instruments, there is pleasure in variety – and great music, too, as we'll discover in this lively Active Minds program.


Creative people are always looking for something new, something challenging and, let's face it, something fun. And so, as the skills of musicians started to improve back in the Baroque Era (1600-1750ish), composers began to take advantage of these skillful players by creating a vehicle for them to show their talents. This was the birth of the concerto, a work that places a virtuoso in front of an instrumental ensemble, where a sort of musical conversation could ensue. The orchestra began things by introducing a theme (or themes), which the soloist would embellish with fancy twists and turns. It didn't take long for Baroque composers to experiment with more than one soloist, thus creating new possibilities for this lively exchange of musical ideas, and a new genre: the concerto grosso (“big concerto”). In Venice during the early 1700s, Antonio Vivaldi wrote hundreds of concertos for one violin – but he also created works for two, three and even four violins. With this sort of freedom, he and his fellow composers soon dabbled in new combinations of multiple out-front solo voices. For some of these concertos, the goal often seemed to be “the more the merrier.” For example, Georg Phillip Telemann (a pal of Bach's) penned a work for two oboes, two recorders and two violins. Vivaldi went way beyond that: He wrote a concerto for (take a deep breath) three violins, oboe, two recorders, two viola da gamba (an early cello), chalumeau (ancestor of the clarinet), two cellos, two harpsichords and two trumpets. Bach picked up the concept and wrote a series of works for various combinations of instruments and sent them off to the Margrave of Brandenburg up in Berlin. Though the Margrave showed no interest, the world would soon embrace the brilliance of these six Brandenburg Concertos. The concept of blending various solo instruments didn't fade with the end of the Baroque Era. In the late 1700s, Mozart and Haydn produced works for a quartet of different instruments in what they titled a Sinfonia Concertante. Some years later, Mozart wrote one of those for violin and viola (perhaps as a come-together piece for his estranged father and himself). Beethoven penned a Triple Concerto for piano, violin and cello, and some years later, Brahms produced a brilliant Double Concerto for violin and cello, written as a way of patching up a feud between himself and his old friend and violinist Joseph Joachim.

Exploration Questions

  • What was the chalumeau and how did it evolve into the clarinet?
  • What is meant by “concertino” and “ripieno”?
  • What combination of instruments did Bach use in his 2nd, 4th and 5th Brandenburg Concertos?
  • How did Beethoven come to write his Triple Concerto?
  • What is the background of Mozart's Flute and Harp Concerto?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you prefer a concertos for a single solo instrument, or “mixed-up” concertos?
  • Compare Mozart's and Haydn's Sinfonia Concertantes for winds and pick your favorite.

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Veinus, Abraham. The Concerto From Its Origins to the Modern Era. Dover Books. 2012. 336 pages. A thorough, readable history, if maybe a bit dry in its approach. An early chapter on the concerto grosso is enlightening and well-researched.
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  • Roeder, Michael Thomas. A History of the Concerto. Amadeus Press. 2003, 484 pages. Once again, a detailed look into the birth and development of the concerto, here presented in more detail (lots of excerpts from musical scores). This excellent book is recommended for the seasoned music lover.
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