Lectures/Scripts/WritingsTelevision ScriptsYoung People's ConcertsWhat is a Concerto?

Young People's Concert: What is a Concerto?

Air Date: 28 March 1959


Greetings. I'm afraid some of you may be alarmed at the size of the orchestra on the stage today. Don't worry--the Philharmonic has not come down with an epidemic of mumps or anything. You'll be seeing the rest of them soon enough, and in a few minutes I think you'll understand why we are beginning today's program with such a tiny orchestra.

This is our last program of the season, which I regret very much, and whenever people come to the end of anything, they always start asking themselves big questions, like "What are we really here for? What are we trying to accomplish? Are we really accomplishing it?"--questions like that. I guess everyone does the same. In fact, when the end of a year rolls around, people always begin asking themselves basic questions, trying to take stock of their lives, of what they've done all year, wondering how to change, and what resolutions to make for the New Year. Well, my big question is: have we been helping you to come closer to good music? Are you beginning to understand a little more about it, and learning not to be scared of it? Most of my young friends that I talk to say yes; that they are feeling closer to music--sort of friendly to it; they have begun to feel that music isn't such a hard, strange business, after all, too grownup or complicated or sissy-ish or whatever. One thing they all do worry about--and that's the words about music: hard words like recapitulation, fugue, rondo, Andantino, sinfonietta, G# minor, the inversion of the second theme backwards in the augmented fifth -- doubletalk like that.

Well, I've tried not to use those words whenever I could do without them; and when I have to say them, I have tried to explain them as clearly as I could. But there are some musical words which can't be explained in a second; it takes time to learn about them; and what's more, it takes listening to the actual music they describe before you really know what they mean. One of those hard words that bothers people is the Italian word Concerto, which you really should know about. It's really a very simple word, which in Italian means a concert: Concerto--concert [Eng. pron]--concert: do you get the point? They're all practically the same word. But in music the word has come to mean a lot of other things; and that's what we're trying to find out about today.

The original meaning of the word "concert" is the idea of things happening together: a football team performs in concert; the players make a concerted effort to win the game. As a certain magazine would say, it means "togetherness," which is a lovely idea but rather an ugly word. Well, in music the word "concert" means the "togetherness" of musicians, who come together to play or to sing in a group. So ever since music began to be written for audiences like yourselves, composers have used the word Concerto to name their pieces. All kinds of different musical forms used to be called concertos, even though they weren't pieces that we would call concertos today. You see, names can be used very loosely. For instance, all sorts of different pieces used to be called symphonies, too, or sonatas. Those were just general words to describe the same pieces the word Concerto described: symphony, for instance, also meant musical sounds being made together; and sonata meant simply anything that sounded, nothing more.

But slowly, as the years passed, the names began to be used more strictly. Sonata began to mean a piece for any solo instrument, like this harpsichord here; or for a violin, or a flute or a lute, or a cello, or a kazoo. Now our job of word-hunting becomes easier. Do you know what a trio is? Simply a sonata for three instruments, that's all. Then there's quartet, which is a sonata for four instruments--any four instruments; so a quintet is a sonata for--how many instruments?

Right: five. And an octet is a sonata for how many instruments?

Right: eight. Now, this is important: a sonata for a whole orchestra is called a symphony; isn't that simple? And a symphony that features a soloist, or a little group of soloists, separate from the big orchestra group, is called a concerto. And there you have it. That wasn't so hard, was it?

Now that we know that much, we have to find out the rest by just listening to different kinds of concertos; so the rest of this program is going to be mostly just playing music. We're going to go way back to the early classical days of Bach and Handel that we talked about a couple of programs ago, those days when the word concerto was still used pretty loosely, and could mean almost anything. There was a thing back then called a concerto grosso, which means in Italian a big concerto; and that simply meant a piece, it was usually in three movements, that was written for a big orchestra with a little orchestra attached to it, just like the earth which travels around through space with its little moon traveling next to it. Now it's fine for all those people to be playing together: but if you'll think about it for a second, you'll realize that they can't be playing together all the time; because that would become boring: there wouldn't be any relief from a sound that was always the same.

So that's why composers invented the idea of the small group, which is called the concertino, alongside the big group; and they simply took turns playing with the themes--first the big group, and then the small one, and then only part of the small one, and then the big group again, and then both groups together. That makes variety, change, contrast, which keeps you interested. Besides, it gives the musicians in the small group a chance to show off a little by themselves. We're going to play you an example of this kind of concerto by the great Italian composer, Vivaldi, who wrote hundreds of concertos for many different kinds of instruments. See Vivaldi was one of those marvelous composers who never seemed to run out of ideas and never seemed to run out of instruments to write them for. He spent about thirty years of his life as director of music in a girls' school, where he had a fine all-female chorus, and a strange all-female orchestra made up of whatever instruments the girls happened to be able to play. Of course, this made him write concertos with some very peculiar little groups in them. We're going to play you one--it's one of my favorites, for an orchestra that features in its concertino two mandolins -- imagine that.

That's pretty unusual. Would you hold those instruments up so they can see them? Thank you. Now some of the other instruments Vivaldi wrote for in this piece don't even exist any more--like the tiorba, which you don't even have to remember -- that was a sort of big guitar; so we perform the tiorba parts on those two harps. And then there were two instruments called trumpet-marines, which were, strange to say, stringed instruments--great big things with only one string, and which gave out a sound -- a very loud sound -- rather like a bad trumpet played out of tune. So we play those parts on real trumpets, as you see, and we hope they play them in tune. And besides we have a bass oboe -- that's an interesting looking thing, isn't it -- which replaces the old salmo, which is long since dead and gone, and finally we have two flutes -- regular flutes -- and that's all. Those nine instruments make up the concertino.

The main orchestra consists of the harpsichord, and the usual strings, with the solo violin and the solo cello also featured in the concertino group. All together, it's quite a hodgepodge of peculiar instruments; but they still make a very small orchestra compared to our present day standards. As you see, this big Carnegie Hall stage looks pretty bare; but what a delicious sound these twenty-three instruments make! Just listen to this first movement.

Isn't that lovely music? Now, around the time that Vivaldi was writing his concertos in Italy the great composer, Bach, was writing his concertos in Germany. We're going to play you the final movement of one of his most famous concertos, the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. As you can see, the orchestra is getting bigger; our stage is beginning to fill up. But the remarkable thing about it is that as the orchestra gets bigger the little concertino group, or soloist group, is going to get smaller. In this particular concerto of Bach there are only three soloists: the violin -- in this case John Corigliano --there always seems to be a violin solo, I don't know why -- then solo flute, Mr. John Wummer, and the harpsichord, John Bernstein. In this last movement you will hear very clearly that contrast and variety we talked about before as the theme gets tossed around from the violin to the flute to the harpsichord, and then to the whole orchestra, and then--well, you'll hear it for yourselves. Here we go.

Well, history moves on; and we now reach the later classical age of Mozart and Haydn. As you see, the orchestra is getting even bigger now; and again as the orchestra expands the concertino group gets smaller. Now why is this happening? It's because the show-off element of concertos was getting more important all the time. See, as time went on, the number of solo players in the concertino group grew smaller and smaller; but therefore their importance as soloists grew larger and larger. So now we arrive at a magnificent concerto by Mozart for only two solo instruments, a viola and a violin (as we saw before, no composer seems to be able to do without his solo violin); and, as you'll hear, they really get to show their stuff. The orchestra gets to play too, of course; but most of the time they're just playing accompaniment to the two big-shots here, who are the real stars of this piece. And this piece is called a Sinfonia Concertante, which means a Concerted symphony--you see the meaning? But the soloists' greatest moment comes toward the end of this second movement which we're going to play for you in a shortened version. Their greatest moment happens when the big orchestra stops completely, to let the two big-shots have a field-day of showing off in what is called a cadenza. Now remember that hard word: cadenza, which means the pause before the last cadence of a piece (cadenza-cadence, you see?) In this cadenza, Mr. Corigliano and Mr. William Lincer can really go to town by themselves. The thing about this beautiful slow movement is that it's so inspired that even Mozart's cadenza is beautiful--not just a show-off moment, but great and deeply moving music. Here is the second movement.

Well, we've listened to parts of concertos for all kinds of groups and of all sizes, from the Vivaldi, which had a twelve-instrument concertino, right up to this last Mozart duet. Now where is it all leading? Well, obviously down to the single solo performer--one pianist, one violinist, one kazoo-player, whatever it is -- but one--that's the main thing: the star, the virtuoso, the Heifetz, the Van Cliburn, the Pablo Casals. By Mozart's time the solo concerto was already pretty well developed -- he wrote twenty-eight solo piano concertos alone! Then Beethoven came along and wrote five great ones, and Brahms wrote two, and everybody's been doing it ever since. To say nothing of all the great violin and cello concertos that have been written. In other words, the solo concerto had come to stay; and almost every orchestra concert anywhere in the world probably has a solo concerto featured on its program.

Now there's a danger in the rising popularity of the solo concerto; and that is leaning too hard on the show-off side of things. You see, there are so many concertos that are useful and interesting more for their virtuoso display, their flashy technical goods, than for their real musical worth. In certain violin concertos I could name, for instance, but I won't, the whole point is in the cadenza, where the orchestra stops and lets the violinist go on endlessly showing off how marvelous he is, like an Olympic pole-vault champion or something. Now such concertos are usually praised for being what is called "violinistic"--that is, written to show the instrument in its most dazzling light; and there are terrible piano concertos that called "pianistic", and there are lots of bad cello concertos that are "cellistic"--another ugly word. But a great composer writes concertos that can show off the soloist beautifully and can also be great music at the same time.

Now at the risk of turning this program into a violin festival, we're going to play you an example of a great violin concerto by Mendelssohn. We're going to play you the last movement. Now here at last stands the virtuoso star in all his solitary splendor, in the person of John Corigliano, who has been working very hard today. What you will hear is music that makes a perfect combination of the "violinistic" element, the flash and all the rest, and serious, great, music. The orchestra, as you see, is by now practically full size, and they have much more interesting things to do than simply accompanying the big shot, but then the soloist has such difficult, fancy things to do himself that it evens out the balance. So here's the climax of our Corigliano festival: the last movement of the Mendelssohn violin concert.

It breaks my heart to stop your applause, but we are running over. So we now come to this twentieth century of ours, when composers have been showing a strong tendency to go back to the old concerto grosso idea. It's not that they don't write solo concertos any more; they do by the dozens; it's just that the solo concerto has become so big and so showy in our time that certain composers have begun to feel a need for the simple old forms of classical days; and such composers are called neoclassical composers. And so we've begun to have a new form in music -- the concert for orchestra -- which, as we've seen, is really a very old form that we've dug up again. These concertos for modern orchestras, which are huge, are very different from the old ones of Bach and Handel, which were small, and so these modern concertos have a great many things to show off.

We have concertos for orchestra by Bloch, by Piston, by Stravinsky, by Hindemith, and many others; but perhaps the most showy and effective and beautiful one of all is by the great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. This concerto shows off, (or I should say, lights up) every little department of this great body of musicians, so that everyone in the orchestra gets a chance to shine. Imagine, that in the tiny fourth movement of this concerto, which last only four minutes, you will hear all these solos; first an oboe playing the tune, then a flute, then a clarinet, than a horn -- all playing that tune. Then comes a new romantic tune for the violas, which is then repeated by the violins. Then another, jolly tune on the clarinet, with solo trombones snarling away deep down like caged animals at the circus, then comes another growling tuba solo; then a whole cadenza for the flute all by himself, and finally the little piccolo. Well that's practically everybody. All that in four minutes. And in the fifth movement, which is the final one of the concerto, everyone gets a workout, especially the strings, who really have to work for a living at an unbelievable rate of speed. But then eventually everybody gets into the act.

We're going to play for you now the last two movements of this delightful and thrilling piece --Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. This is modern music at its very best, and it's also the most democratic concerto ever written --because it's a concerto for a hundred soloists. Now just before we play it want to say that I'm looking forward with great eagerness to seeing you all again next year.