The Piano Concerto The development of keyboard music reached staggering new heights at the turn of the 18th century. It was during this time that the idea of the concerto became a very innovative and popular style of music which combined a large symphony setting and a virtuoso. With the growing popularity of the piano, the end of the 18th century saw a new and more innovative genre of piano concertos. However this concerto received a great deal of criticism due to its lack of proper form and balance between symphony ensemble and soloist.
Eventually classical composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perfected the form of the piano concerto and his approach to writing the concerto was used throughout the classical period. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that other composers had expanded on this idea and found different ways of keeping the piano concerto relevant. The evolution of the piano concerto from the mid-18th century through the 19th century became a detrimental part in music and has solidified its place in music history.
The piano concerto did not become relevant until the late 18th century. The Baroque keyboard instruments (Harpsichord, clavichord, and organ) were primarily used throughout the 18th century to write keyboard music. While Mozart’s concept of the concerto was the model for many composers throughout the 19th century, the keyboard concerto was said to have originated in the family of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s greatest contributions to the concerto are his six Brandenburg concertos.
Although he primarily wrote these for chamber and orchestral instruments, it was not until the fifth Brandenburg concerto that Bach chose to raise the status of the harpsichord from continuo part to principal soloist, which in essence became the first keyboard concerto. Manfred Bukofzer, German American musicologist has continually stated that the Brandenburg concertos are “the most inspired and complex concerti grossi of the baroque era” (Nelson 10).
Bach’s concerto approach consisted of the “alternation between solo and tutti sections as the subject material continually expanded and unfolded” (Nelson 11). Although there was no sense of key relationship, Bach would often utilize the tonic-dominant relationship in the order of themes and keys. This would later become the cornerstone of the sonata form. It is important to note the vast difference between a Baroque concerto and a modern concerto. A modern concerto assumes the use of sonata form which was not fully developed during the Baroque period.
Baroque concerto movements often use many themes that expand and evolve by means of various techniques as the movement progresses (Nelson 13). With the use of thematic and key contrast, the Baroque concerto was able to bridge a point of contact between its era and the classical period. The period of music known as Rococo preceded that of Joseph Haydn yet took place after the years of J. S. Bach. The music has been described as “graceful, courtly, and euphonious” (Nelson 17). Among the best known composers of this time were the sons of J. S.
Bach, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach. C. P. E Bach is best known for his contributions to the sonata form and his role for the development of piano music; however of the fifty-two keyboard concertos he has written, none of them have gained any recognition or become part of any regular repertoire. Johann Christian Bach had a profound impact on the piano concerto of this period. J. C. Bach, who had a very profound influence on Mozart, wrote prolifically in the concerto style. The structure he used was closely related to the form that Mozart would later use.
While predecessors of J. C. Bach elaborated on only one theme in multiple variations, Bach had formally organized his movements, and the familiar pattern of sonata form is clearly evident in his pieces. The Cembalo Concerto, Op. 13, No. 4, clearly demonstrates Bach’s use of a second subject in a dominant key (Nelson 18). During the development section of this piece, Bach also introduces a new theme not heard in the exposition. This particular style of the concerto became very relevant among many composers during this time.
This particular style of the concerto would be further expanded by Mozart who fully established the piano concerto form during his time. Before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was able to establish and standardize the piano concerto, the entire genre faced a great deal of criticism. The main critiques are focused on the form of the concerto as it lacked balance between symphony and virtuoso which inheritably affected the music. American critic and musicologist Joseph Kerman spoke out on the issue stating “a form hich depends on instrumental virtuosity has gained the reputation of occupying a lower plane of musical excellence. ” He goes on to say “the element of virtuoso display is over indulged” and that “the form itself has been open to charges of showiness and lack of substance” (Lindeman 7). The baroque conception of the piano concerto form typically has the material contained from each ritornello unrelated to the content of the soloist section. In a typical Mozart piano concerto the first ritornello contains a series of ideas, all principally found in the tonic, which imply different functions.
The functions include the primary melodic idea, transition passage, contrasting melody, and closing themes. “All of the Mozart piano concertos are cast in three movements consisting of an opening allegro, a subsequent slow movement, and a rondo or sonata-rondo finale” (Lindeman 10). This is an expansion of J. C. Bach’s two movement concerto as well as Mozart’s inclusion of other subtleties of the form. The first movements of the Mozart concerto employ a double exposition form divided in seven parts as well as the proper procedures of the sonata form.
This consisted of: “Ritornello 1 (tutti exposition), solo exposition, ritornello 2, development (dominated by soloist), recapitulation (dominated by soloist), tutti statement leading to cadenza, cadenza (sometimes omitted), and finally ritornello 3” (Lindeman 10). The presentation of the melodic material in the first ritornello comes to be articulated with increasing clarity and defined into distinct themes. Mozart also added ritornelli at the beginning, middle, and end of already preexisting sonata form movements while refashioning other composer’s sonata concertos.
Mozart’s blending of the ritornello and sonata helped the form become more substantial in both length and content. While other composers found it difficult to provide material for the soloist during the sections he was not featured, Mozart accomplished this feat with ease. Mozart also saw that the soloist’s entrance offered a number of possibilities for dramatic contrast. Beginning in 1784 Mozart employed a new expansion of the concerto on a harmonic level. Mozart exploited “areas of harmonic digression, which often wandered through a myriad of keys” which also employed using distantly related keys (Lindeman 14).
Mozart’s piano concerto form was the model that classical composers and composers of the Romantic period would regard while writing their own concertos. The 19th century saw the creation of concerto literature which figures very prominently in the repertoire of the modern virtuoso. This new literature “[reflects] virtually every major tendency, movement, and direction in nineteenth-century music” (Lindeman 20). Beethoven composed only five piano concertos during his life time.
Beethoven had struggled while composing in this genre, having admittedly had difficulties with the understanding of its form. Despite this set back Beethoven did not stray away from the model that Mozart had set for the piano concerto. Perhaps one of Beethoven’s biggest contributions to the Piano concerto can be seen in his C-minor concerto. A new romantic world is entered with the rich and unexpected E major of the slow movement, whereas there was little in the first movement to suggest that Beethoven was thinking in different terms other than following the classical concerto form. The second movement of this form ends on a g# which is enharmonically transformed into an a-flat, which is the second tone of the subsequent rondo” (Lindeman 17). By doing this Beethoven inheritably links the second and third movement creating a tenuous connection. Beethoven would continue to use this technique in the two piano concertos that followed and this idea would be a “salient feature of almost all early romantic concertos” (Lindeman 17). Beethoven also explored a new dynamic of moving to foreign keys and in his later concertos would come dangerously close to breaking the double exposition set forth by Mozart.
Beethoven took the first step towards breaking down the system of a double exposition, a cardinal principle in the sonata-form concerto. However, the collapsing of the two expositions remained for the accomplishment of later composers. Later on Mendelssohn, taking his cue from Beethoven’s fourth and fifth concertos, discarded the orchestral preamble altogether, and his three main published concertos are all single exposition works (Lindeman 77). Although many contribute Mendelssohn to “killing” the double expositions, it is not true.
Mozart’s idea was simply becoming less relevant as music continued to evolve during the Romantic period. Music during the 19th century started to shift and several Romantic composers found new ways to add on to or refine the piano concerto. By doing this, the genre of the piano concerto remained relevant to musicians today. The 18th and 19th century saw a vast evolution of keyboard music. In particular the piano concerto became one of the more popular genres of its time.
Dating back to its origins in the mid-18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach first revolutionized the idea of the keyboard concerto. And it would be this idea that would transform keyboard music and bring about a new era of piano concertos. Mozart is highly credited for modernizing the piano concerto in which his model would become the basis for every composer after him. Due to the radical changes that would take place during the 19th century, the piano concerto still holds a significant place in music history and remains relevant today.