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In The Bluffers Guide to Music, it is stated that pianists exist to play piano concertos. This may or may not be quite true, but it is worth exploring the origins of the word ‘concerto’. We find it great fun hearing a great musician of our day performing their best in front of an orchestra. What are we looking for? Is there some element, however unconscious, of the bull ring here, I wonder? Does part of us want the soloist to fall flat, to be drowned by the orchestra, to have some terrible memory lapse, to scream and run off stage? Or is it all serious stuff about the delicate phrasing of Mozart, the wonderful cantabile in Schumann, and discovering new depths in Rakhmaninov?


The etymology (I am told) of the word ‘concerto’ is not quite clear. It could derive from the verb concertare (‘to compete’), or maybe from conserere (‘to consort’). This is quite fascinating, because we can soon hear that composers in different times and places had contrasting conceptions about the matter.


It’s all Vivaldi’s fault, originally, because concertos were at first a dialogue between two groups of players, one large one small. Then he introduced the solo concerto to make the question between competing and consorting even sharper. Bach’s concertos are very much about consorting, with the distinction blurred between “solo” and tuttie passages.


With Mozart you have the perfect consorting between equal partners. It is significant that he performed his concertos the same way as his operas: the orchestra would have been in the pit, and he would have been on stage. You will have noticed that his arias are mini-concertos.


Everything fell apart with Beethoven. If you have been in an orchestra, or, like me, have played orchestral reductions of Mozart and Beethoven concertos, you will know exactly what I mean. When you play the orchestral part of a Mozart concerto, you are having a wonderful time, as busy as the soloist. In Beethoven, apart from the orchestral exposition, you simply plonk down chord after chord, interspersed with bars of rests. It’s hardly dialogue at all, and, if a concerto is about competition, the orchestra is defeated before it begins.


Perhaps surprisingly, Brahms comes nearer to Mozart in equality (if not partnership) between soloist and orchestra. But the element of competition is strong, because the sense (much of the time) is that the soloist is battling against titanic forces.


It is interesting that competitions conclude with a concerto performance. Are we throwing young musicians to the lions? And does this reveal that The Bluffer’s Guide is actually correct?

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I wouldn't say Bluffer is correct in his assumption of the concerto. One has to look at the concerto in context of when it was written. We have a shift from equal parts orchestra and soloist in the romantic period starting with Beethoven because there was a shift in how musicians saw themselves. 

Prior to Beethoven, musicians and composers were still just servants. Reading through Haydn's contract with the Esterhazys you can see that musicians were encouraged to write their own concertos and solos as their were financial incentives to do so. They didnt have to be flashy, they just had to be solos to get the bonus. 

Come Beethoven, and he introduces the fully formed celebrity composer and musician. Though their were some celebrity aspects of musicians before, they begin to climb exponentially. The need for musicians to draw a crowd became greater thus music that featured them and their talents became such.

Fast forward to today, though concertos being written are not being written in such a way, the desire of the public to be impressed is still there. Much like how people would go see a magic show, acrobats, athletes, or dare devils, people want to see solo musicians doing something above average. Something spectacular. Yeah, there are those who still like the older concertos of the baroque and early classical periods because they are still beautiful pieces of music. However, when a soloist blows into town, people don't just want pretty music, they want to be impressed by your skills. For most people not educated in music, that means flashing fingers and the whole nine yards.

Having sat through a piano and violin concerto competition, thats also what judges want to see. yeah you can do simpler music, but you run into the way to subjective field of judging. Like ballet dancers or athletes in the olympics, judges want to see a musicians catalog of virtuosic skills, and the romantic concerto is the perfect way to display that. 

Bob is correct, of course, especially now that a poet such as Charles Bukowski has raised the status of the bar room brawl to that of a supreme work of art. He did this well before the success of films like "Fight Club," which is itself a superb work of art, perhaps the best film of the past 30 years.


For Bukowski (and Mozart), see :

(My posting of this link does not represent an endorsement of Bukowski, or his poetry.  I just include it to illustrate Bob's point).

A film like "The Competition," with Richard Dreyfuss illustrates many of the points made on this thread, and continues to be one of the best films "about serious music," ever made.


I agree with most of what Tyler said, though we cannot exclude the new imperatives that come with the advent of modern, post modern, and contemporary music.


I am not sure, but I think this short film excerpt from


The World of Henry Orient


sums up the reservations people have about "modern" music and prima donna-ism, both on the part of the pianist and the composer (played here by famed comic actor, Peter Sellers).


Regarding the function of Piano Concerti in our society, we can't go backwards to Mozart.  Sorry.  It's just impossible.  


If someone wrote something like a "Concerto for Seven Pianos and Orchestra," that might democratize things a bit, and perhaps indicate a move away from the "personality cult" of the concert pianist.


The Swiss have seven "Presidents" on their executive council, and have probably the best government of any single nation on the planet (having done away, to a large extent, with prima donna-ism in politics—something which badly afflicts governments in the US, UK and most powerful, aggressive and bullying states).


A "Concerto for Seven Pianos" would be an excellent thing, especially if it were the baton were held by seven conductors, working in synchrony.


Bob Porter said:

Funny. I thought pianists existed to provide background music during a bar room brawl. In that case, it could be both.

"Concerto" means different things to different people... A Beethoven concerto is indeed a contrast ("competition") between the soloist and the orchestra, but a Rachmaninov concerto is more like piano with orchestral accompaniment. And I don't agree with wanting to see the soloist fail, I'd say rather, that we want to see him triumph, we want to see the display of extraordinary skill and flourish.

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