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Development of the Keyboard Concerto | Example Music Essay

Development of the Keyboard Concerto | Example Music Essay

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Example Music Essay

Describe the development of the keyboard concerto from c.1710-1790, and assess why the form became so popular with both composers and public.

This essay explores the developmentof the keyboard concerto during the 18th century considering itsprecursors, social and economic context and the advent of the piano. Byexploring the work of key composers during the 18thcentury, it willbe shown how musical and social shifts created an environment in whichenduring, popular and technically adventurous piano concertos could emerge.

Early Concertos

Concertos are typically defined asinstrumental works where a smaller group (in a concerto grosso) or soloist (ina solo concerto) contrasts against the sonority of a larger grouping. Thistechnique was used in orchestration during the 17th century in workssuch as canzonas (Grout 1988: 473), with the concerto form emerging towards theend of the 17th century. Possibly the most influential composers ofearly concertos were Corelli, Torelli and Vivaldi. Wellesz and Sternfield(1973: 435) trace the emergence of the early concerto form through these threecomposers.

Corelli’s twelve Opus 6 concertigrossi were written at the end of the 17th century using a structureconsisting of a somewhat random alternation of slow and fast movements.Movements were ritornello-based (a ritornello is like a refrain), withalternating tutti and concertino passages showing limited decoration orexploration of thematic material.

Torelli, composing at the turn ofthe century, wrote concerti grossi and solo concerti. He established the threemovement (fast-slow-fast) structure that was widely adopted. Torelli alsoexplored the use of contrasting thematic elements within concertos andincreased the complexity of solo lines.

Vivaldi, writing in the early 18thcentury, refined the form, with more exploration of thematic contrasts,although Kolneder (1986b: 307-8) argues that Vivaldi’s material is perhapsbetter described as motifs than themes.

Although these three composers werekey to the emergence of the concerto form, their instrumentation focused onstrings. Vivaldi wrote some flute and bassoon concerti, and orchestras wouldtypically include a continuo keyboard part, but the first composers to use solokeyboard in concertos were Bach, Handel and Babel.

The First Keyboard Concertos

There is debate over which piece ofmusic qualifies as the first keyboard concerto. Handel wrote the first organconcertos, with a set of six published in 1738, but used a concerto-likestructure very much earlier, in his cantata ‘Il trionfo del tempo e deldisinganno’ of 1707, contrasting the organ with the orchestra in a ritornellostructure.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 5,composed around 1720, is widely held to be the first harpsichord concerto, anddevelops the concept of the virtuoso soloist, featuring an extensive soloharpsichord cadenza towards the end of the first movement.

However, recent research suggeststhat, even earlier than this, William Babel was writing concerted movements forharpsichord. The dates of composition are uncertain, but appear to be at leastas early as 1718, and possibly 5 or 6 years prior to that (Holman 2003).

Handel’s work, in addition todeveloping the keyboard concerto, provides interesting insights into the natureof performance and developments in amateur music-making at the time. Handel hadmoved to London, where he spent most of his adult life, in 1712, establishinghimself as something of a celebrity. Initially finding success withItalian-style opera, the wane in the popularity of the form caused him toswitch to oratorios. The virtuoso castrati, who had played a major role inopera, were not appropriate for oratorios, where virtuoso performance wasconsidered not to be in the spirit of the work. By composing organ concerti tobe performed alongside the oratorios, Handel preserved an element of virtuosoperformance popular with audiences, and as one of the leading organists of hisday, he was able to showcase his skills through these works..

As the English organ had nopedals, music written for it transferred easily to the harpsichord, andHandel’s publisher could promote his second set of organ concerti as ‘forharpsichord or organ’, broadening its appeal (Rochester 1997).

Mid-Century Developments

The popularity of the Baroqueconcerto may have hindered the development of the concerto form. Wellesz andSternfield argue that even such original composers as Sammartini and C.P.E.Bach could not rid their minds of Baroque preconceptions. (1973: 434)

C P E Bach regularly used theBaroque structure, with a number of tuttis punctuating solo passages in theritornello style, but was innovative in other respects: his device of runningone movement into another is more often associated with 19th centurymusic.

Wellesz and Sternfield establishthree main elements where there is a clear differentiation in style betweenClassical and Baroque concerto forms: tonality, form and co-ordination ofmusical elements (1973: 435-6).

Classical concerto style developsthe concept of opposing tonalities, placing tonic and dominant against each other,while the Baroque style, though often using modulation, maintains morestability.

In the Baroque concerto, expositionand development are often combined, while in the Classical era there is clearerdemarcation, pointing towards sonata rather than ritornello form.

The Baroque form entwinescontrapuntal elements over a more independent bassline, while the Classicalform prefers all elements – including harmony, melody, orchestration and rhythm- to be held together within the same overall plan.

Also key to the development of thekeyboard concerto was the emergence of the piano. The prototype instrument wasdeveloped by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the final years of the 17thcentury and called the gravicembalo con piano e forte, meaning harpsichord withsoft and loud, although the dulcimer, where strings are hit by hammers, wasmore of an inspiration than the plucked harpsichord. This gave scope to developa keyboard instrument with greater dynamic versatility. However, composers wereinitially sceptical. In 1736, Gottfried Silbermann invited J S Bach to try oneof his instruments. Bach was critical, but Silbermann worked to improve hispiano, and Bach subsequently acted as an intermediary in its sales.

The new instrument also foundsuccess in Britain. During the 18th century, Britain, and especiallyLondon, was cosmopolitan: Handel had had great success, and records show thatmany musicians from the continent made Britain home. Britain offered an environmentof relative political stability compared with many areas of Europe. There was akeen appreciation of music among the upper classes, and a growing middle classwith money to spend on leisure pursuits – including music.

However, in 1740 there was only onepiano in the country. In 1756, the Seven Years War resulted in an exodus fromSaxony to Britain, and their numbers included a group of harpsichord makers,one of whom, Zumpe, began to make pianos and invented the square piano. It hadadvantages over the harpsichord and other types of piano which were a similarshape to the harpsichord. It was quicker and cheaper to manufacture, andremained popular until the middle of the next century.

Johann Christian Bach, son of J Sand younger brother of C P E, arrived in London in 1762. He developed a rangeof commercial interests, and became Zumpe’s London agent, providing anincentive to write material to show the instrument to its best advantage. Hehad other business interests too: on arrival in London in 1762, he sharedlodgings with Carl Abel, also a German composer. They developed a partnershiprunning subscription concerts, which proved hugely popular until after J CBach’s death in 1782, and had a stake in the Hanover Square Rooms, which theyused as a venue for their concerts.

Johann Christian had been a pupilof his older brother Carl Philip Emmanuel, but it was the younger brother whowas the more influential on the development of the concerto form, particularlywith regard to exposition themes. He often used a triadic primary theme andmore cantabile secondary theme, suggesting elements of sonata form, althoughritornello style is still evident.

J C Bach wrote around 40 keyboardconcertos between 1763 and 1777 (Grout 1987: 560). Midway, dating from 1770,are the Opus 7 concertos: ‘Sei concerti per il cembalo o piano e forte’ (sixconcertos for harpsichord or piano). The title itself is significant.Harpsichord manufacture was still on the increase in the 1770s, but theinstrument was soon to be overtaken in popularity by the square piano, and Bachwas the first to use the instrument for public performance (Grout 1987: 562).Grout suggests that the E flat major concerto, no. 5 of the set, hassignificant structural similarities to Mozart’s K488 (Piano Concerto No. 23 inA major), with a similar combination of Baroque ritornello structure and sonataform, contrasting keys and thematic material.

While Johann Christian’s work goessome way to realising the Classical concerto form, it was Mozart who pushed theform forward to create a precedent for concerto composition in subsequentcenturies:

Mozart’s concertos are incomparable. Not even thesymphonies reveal such wealth of invention, such breadth and vigor ofconception, such insight and resource in the working out of musical ideas.

Grout1987: 614

Mozart’s Piano Concertos

Mozart’s move to Vienna fromSalzburg in 1781 heralds musical developments and reflects social changes. On 9May 1781, he wrote to his father I am no longer so unfortunate as to be inSalzburg service (Mersmann 1938: 161): he had been frustrated by the limitedopportunities of his employment at court. The joy of leaving Salzburg forVienna seems to have been musically inspiring, and the next few years wereprolific, not least in the composition of piano concertos: Mozart wrote 12between 1784 and 1786.

The influence of J C Bach on Mozartwas significant. The two had met in London in 1764, when Mozart was still aboy. In 1772, Mozart created his first three piano concertos by rearrangingthree of J C Bach’s sonatas. Beyond the concerto structure, the detail ofMozart’s music suggests Bach’s influence. His subtle ornamentation and cleveruse of suspensions and ambiguities of tonality also characterises J C Bach’swork.

Mozart’s use of keys isparticularly innovative: in the first movement of the A major Piano ConcertoK488, the development section incorporates a passage of dialogue between thewinds and a larger grouping of piano and strings, modulating through E minor atbar 156, C major at bar 160, A minor at bar 164 and then through F major at bar166 to D minor at bar 168. The more obvious, related tonalities for a work in Amajor would be D and E major, the subdominant and dominant keys, and F# minor,the relative minor key. This type of harmonic device gives a strong sense ofdeparture from the safety and stability of the home key, making its eventualreturn in the recapitulation stronger and more satisfying.

This passage also shows examples ofMozart’s innovative orchestration: the small group-large group contrast ofearlier concertos becomes a three-way interchange, with piano, winds andstrings forming three groups which are united and contrasted in a range ofcombinations.


Mozart’s innovations took thekeyboard concerto to a new level, and give some indication of why the formbecame so popular with composers and the public.

For the composer, working patternswere changing, away from the often creatively restrictive nature of patronageto an environment of more freedom, with composers having more control ofperformances as events – J C Bach is a particularly good example of this. Withmany composers also being gifted performers, who could attract audiences by wayof their virtuosity, the concerto offered scope to write exciting, challengingpassages within the context of a major work, giving their performances realimpact.

Yet the economic reality was thatincome depended on the success of concerts and the ability to please a fickle audience.Mozart was clearly aware of the need to please a range of Viennese listeners,writing of his 3 concertos written for the 1782-3 season:

There are passages here and there from whichconnoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction, but they are written so that thenon-connoisseurs cannot fail to be pleased even if they don’t know why.(Quoted by Steinberg 1998: 279)

Taking the above into account, itis surely not insignificant that Mozart’s piano concertos are, 200 years aftertheir composition, enjoyed by a huge audience and also highly regarded bymusicologists.

The development of the keyboardconcerto in the 18th century demonstrates how changes in the sociallandscape and innovations in instrument technology planted the seeds of avibrant music industry. This helped set up the piano concerto to become anindispensable ingredient in the concert hall and a contributing factor in thephenomenon of the virtuoso in the 19th century and beyond.

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