A term often applied in the 17th century to ensemble music for voices and instruments (concertato style); since then it has usually denoted a work in which a solo instrument (or instrumental group) contrasts with an orchestral ensemble.

The "Concerti grossi" op.6 of Corelli, some of which probably date from the 1680s, resemble amplified trio sonatas and could be played by as few as three or four players or by orchestras of over 100. They were imitated by his pupils in Italy and by composers in Germany and England, where Handel's "Grand Concertos" op.6, while drawing also on other traditions, represent the summation of the Corelli type. Most were heard as interval music in oratorios, as were Handel's organ concertos, a form he seems to have originated and one which became popular among English composers.

The concerto grosso is probably the most important type of Baroque concerto, characterized by the use of a small group of solo instruments, called "concertino" or "principale", against the full orchestra, called "concerto", "tutti" or "ripieni."  The concertino usually consists of two violins and continuo (the same ensemble that constitutes the Baroque trio sonatas).  The ripieni are a small string orchestra, later occasionally including wind instruments (trumpets, oboes, flutes, horns).

The six Brandenburg Concertos of Bach derive less from this tradition than from the type of ripieno and solo concertos composed by Torelli and others at Bologna and by Vivaldi and others at Venice.


It was the three-movement solo concerto of the Vivaldi type, with the quick movements usually in ritornello form, that survived the Baroque period and developed into the Classical concerto represented at its finest and most sophisticated in the 23 piano concertos of Mozart. Beethoven's are on a larger scale, but they adhere to the principles of the Classical design despite innovations such as the linking of movements, the participation of the soloist in the initial ritornello (foreshadowed by Mozart in K 271) and the writing of a cadenza into the score (Piano Concerto no.5).

The development of the concerto from Mozart to the present day generally follows that of the sonata, from which it borrowed its chief features of form and style.  There are, however, the following differences:

  • the concerto practically always has only three movements, the scherzo being omitted;
  • the first movement is written in a modified sonata form in which the exposition, instead of being repeated in full, is written out twice, first in a preliminary and abbreviated form with the tonic as the main key throughout and for the orchestra only, then in its full form for the soloist and orchestra and with the proper modulation into the dominant, a form known as "concerto-sonata form";
  • the last movement is usually in rondo form, whose light character lends itself well to displays of brilliance and to a "happy ending";
  • a soloist cadenza appears regularly in the first movement, usually near the end of the recapitulation but sometimes, less elaborately, in the other movements as well.
  • Romantic

    While many early Romantic composers, including Chopin and Paganini, retained the ritornello design as an effective framework for virtuoso display, the 15 violin concertos of Spohr, dating from 1802-27, show structural innovations which anticipate Mendelssohn.

    Mendelssohn was influential in:

    Liszt treated the form even more freely, at the same time introducing an element of passionate rivalry between soloist and orchestra which established the expressive climate for concertos by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and others.

    The Romantic concerto became more symphonic than its 18th-century counterpart, and technical demands made the solo parts more spectacular.  To a large degree the musical development of the Romantic concerto was dependent on the orchestra rather than on the solo instrument.  The double exposition of the Classic concerto was usually abandoned.  The Romantic predilection for cyclic form was also apparent in the solo concerto.

    A more conservative late Romantic tradition, retaining the ritornello design for the first movement but in a strongly symphonic manner, is represented by the concertos of Brahms, Dvorak (for cello) and Elgar (for violin).

    20th Century

    20th-century composers such as Stravinsky and Bloch have turned to Baroque models for concertos, while others (Bartók, Tippett, etc.) have exemplified a new type of orchestral concerto in which different instruments or groups are highlighted in turn. But the traditional three-movement solo concerto inherited from the 19th century has proved remarkably resilient, and on the whole resistant to the programmatic elements that have often invaded the symphony.

    In the 20th century, the frequent return to ideas of earlier music (see Neoclassicism) was reflected in the revival of the concerto grosso.  Solo concertos were also frequently written.  The orchestral concerto, in which many of the instruments act as soloists or in which groups of instruments are pitted one against the other, was typical of the return to earlier forms but with 20th-century idioms.  In the solo concerto, composers handled their material in much the same way as in the symphony.  The solo instrument was no longer exploited only for virtuoso effects, although virtuoso techniques were required for performance.  The tendency to exhibit solo instruments at the expense of the orchestra was abandoned in favor of a kind of composition in which the soloist and orchestra exploited the musical material together.  Cadenzas were employed primarily as means of developing the musical material.