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Development and Popularity of the Keyboard Concerto

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Published: Thu, 17 May 2018

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 development of the keyboard concerto during the 18th century considering its precursors, social and economic context and the advent of the piano. By exploring the work of key composers during the 18th century, it will be shown how musical and social shifts created an environment in which enduring, 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. This technique was used in orchestration during the 17th century in works such 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 three composers.

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

Torelli, composing at the turn ofthe century, wrote concerti grossi and solo concerti. He established the three movement (fast-slow-fast) structure that was widely adopted. Torelli also explored the use of contrasting thematic elements within concertos and increased 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 perhaps better described as motifs than themes.

Although these three composers werekey to the emergence of the concerto form, their instrumentation focused on strings. Vivaldi wrote some flute and bassoon concerti, and orchestras would typically include a continuo keyboard part, but the first composers to use solo keyboard 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 organ concertos, 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 ritornello structure.

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

However, recent research suggests that, even earlier than this, William Babel was writing concerted movements for harpsichord. 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 to developing the keyboard concerto, provides interesting insights into the nature of performance and developments in amateur music-making at the time. Handel hadmoved to London, where he spent most of his adult life, in 1712, establishing himself as something of a celebrity. Initially finding success with Italian-style opera, the wane in the popularity of the form caused him to switch to oratorios. The virtuoso castrati, who had played a major role inopera, were not appropriate for oratorios, where virtuoso performance was considered not to be in the spirit of the work. By composing organ concerti tobe performed alongside the oratorios, Handel preserved an element of virtuoso performance popular with audiences, and as one of the leading organists of his day, he was able to showcase his skills through these works..

As the English organ had no pedals, music written for it transferred easily to the harpsichord, and Handel’s publisher could promote his second set of organ concerti as ‘for harpsichord or organ’, broadening its appeal (Rochester 1997).

Mid-Century Developments

The popularity of the Baroque concerto may have hindered the development of the concerto form. Wellesz and Sternfield 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 the Baroque structure, with a number of tuttis punctuating solo passages in the ritornello style, but was innovative in other respects: his device of running one movement into another is more often associated with 19th century music.

Wellesz and Sternfield establish three main elements where there is a clear differentiation in style between Classical and Baroque concerto forms: tonality, form and co-ordination of musical elements (1973: 435-6).

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

In the Baroque concerto, exposition and development are often combined, while in the Classical era there is clearer demarcation, pointing towards sonata rather than ritornello form.

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

Also key to the development of the keyboard concerto was the emergence of the piano. The prototype instrument was developed 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, was more of an inspiration than the plucked harpsichord. This gave scope to developa keyboard instrument with greater dynamic versatility. However, composers were initially sceptical. In 1736, Gottfried Silbermann invited J S Bach to try one of 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 found success in Britain. During the 18th century, Britain, and especially London, was cosmopolitan: Handel had had great success, and records show that many musicians from the continent made Britain home. Britain offered an environment of relative political stability compared with many areas of Europe. There was a keen 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 from Saxony 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 had advantages over the harpsichord and other types of piano which were a similar shape to the harpsichord. It was quicker and cheaper to manufacture, and remained 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 range of commercial interests, and became Zumpe’s London agent, providing an incentive to write material to show the instrument to its best advantage. He had other business interests too: on arrival in London in 1762, he shared lodgings with Carl Abel, also a German composer. They developed a partnership running subscription concerts, which proved hugely popular until after J CBach’s death in 1782, and had a stake in the Hanover Square Rooms, which they used as a venue for their concerts.

Johann Christian had been a pupil of his older brother Carl Philip Emmanuel, but it was the younger brother who was the more influential on the development of the concerto form, particularly with regard to exposition themes. He often used a triadic primary theme and more cantabile secondary theme, suggesting elements of sonata form, although ritornello style is still evident.

J C Bach wrote around 40 keyboard concertos 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’ (six concertos for harpsichord or piano). The title itself is significant.Harpsichord manufacture was still on the increase in the 1770s, but the instrument 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 goes some way to realising the Classical concerto form, it was Mozart who pushed theform forward to create a precedent for concerto composition in subsequent centuries:

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

Grout 1987: 614

Mozart’s Piano Concertos

Mozart’s move to Vienna from Salzburg 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 in Salzburg service (Mersmann 1938: 161): he had been frustrated by the limited opportunities of his employment at court. The joy of leaving Salzburg for Vienna seems to have been musically inspiring, and the next few years were prolific, not least in the composition of piano concertos: Mozart wrote 12 between 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 rearranging three of J C Bach’s sonatas. Beyond the concerto structure, the detail of Mozart’s music suggests Bach’s influence. His subtle ornamentation and cleveruse of suspensions and ambiguities of tonality also characterises J C Bach’s work.

Mozart’s use of keys is particularly innovative: in the first movement of the A major Piano Concerto K488, the development section incorporates a passage of dialogue between thewinds and a larger grouping of piano and strings, modulating through E minor at bar 156, C major at bar 160, A minor at bar 164 and then through F major at bar 166 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 of departure from the safety and stability of the home key, making its eventual return in the recapitulation stronger and more satisfying.

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

Conclusion

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

For the composer, working patterns were changing, away from the often creatively restrictive nature of patronageto an environment of more freedom, with composers having more control of performances as events – J C Bach is a particularly good example of this. With many composers also being gifted performers, who could attract audiences by way of their virtuosity, the concerto offered scope to write exciting, challenging passages within the context of a major work, giving their performances real impact.

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 which connoisseurs 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 after their composition, enjoyed by a huge audience and also highly regarded by musicologists.

The development of the keyboard concerto in the 18th century demonstrates how changes in the social landscape and innovations in instrument technology planted the seeds of avibrant music industry. This helped set up the piano concerto to become an indispensable ingredient in the concert hall and a contributing factor in the phenomenon of the virtuoso in the 19th century and beyond.


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