What Is a Concerto for Orchestra?

Peter Hann
Peter Hann
Orchestras often play concertos.
Orchestras often play concertos.

A concerto for orchestra is a musical work in which various instruments or groups of instruments play passages in dialogue with the whole orchestra. The particular instruments that perform in this way may vary from one work to another, and different instruments may take over in different parts of the work. The concerto for orchestra is different from the usual concept of a concerto, which features one particular instrument — such as an oboe or clarinet — that engages in a dialogue with the orchestra throughout the work. This musical form has not been used very frequently by composers, but there were some notable examples of this form written in the 20th century.

Works in the form of a concerto for orchestra were written by a variety of composers in the 20th century, including Paul Hindemith and Leonard Bernstein. The most well known example of this form was written by Bela Bartok in 1943. The concerto is in the composer's frequently used arch form, in which there is symmetry among opposite movements; for example, the first and last movements have some similar characteristics. The concerto form is evident throughout the work and, in the second movement, instruments such as the bassoons are given passages for themselves. In other parts of the work, groups of instruments such as woodwinds or strings take up the dialogue with the orchestra.

The form in which the concerto for orchestra is written varies greatly from one work to the next. Bartok wrote his work in an arch form, in five movements, while Bernstein wrote his work in two movements. The work by Thea Musgrave is written in five connected movements and builds up to a confrontation between the solo instruments and the orchestra. In the first decade of the 21st century, Christopher Rouse wrote a concerto for orchestra in two general sections, each containing its own movements and allowing each soloist a chance to play a lyrical or virtuoso passage.

The concerto for orchestra differs from the sinfonia concertante of the Baroque Period. Although that musical form also used a number of instruments to play in contrast with the whole ensemble, the concerto for orchestra does not use the same groups of concerto instruments in the course of the whole work. Certain symphonies of the Classical and later periods also feature solo instruments in some passages; however, the concerto for orchestra features such passages throughout the whole work and as an integral feature of the work.

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Discussion Comments


I am in a college symphony and we played the Thea Musgrave concerto for orchestra at our concert last semester. It was something I had never had a chance to experience, and it was a lot different than playing a normal concerto.

Typically, when you are playing, or even listening to a concerto, you get tuned into hearing the main instrument and trying to play along with their style and phrasing. With all of the different instruments playing their solos at different times, though, you really have to pay attention to what is going on.

One minute you might have a violin playing part of their solo and the next minute have part of the brass section playing something behind you. For anyone who has never had a chance to listen to a concerto for orchestra in person, it is definitely worth the experience.


@matthewc23 - You are right about the differences between a normal concerto and a concerto for orchestra. A regular concerto just features one instrument, and they are very common. Almost every famous composer has written a good number of concertos. I don't know why more concertos for orchestra aren't written, though. Listening to them is a nice change of pace from listening to regular concertos or symphonies.

Like cardsfan27 mentioned, a lot of the most famous composers never wrote one. I have not heard of some of the works that were mentioned here, though, so I think I'll look into them and see if I like them. Along those same lines, does anyone here know of any other good concertos for orchestra that weren't mentioned? Personally, I like the newer composers, but I can still appreciate composers from the earlier part of the 20th century.


@matthewc23 - The actual name of Bernstein's work is "Concerto for Orchestra." It was originally called "Jubilee Games" but was changed later on. It is a fairly recent work, but probably not one you would instantly recognize. I would definitely say Bernstein is most famous for writing the music to West Side Story and On the Waterfront.

Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he was fortunately enough to get the chance to write music for well known movies and plays, which helped to further his career. He is also pretty famous for conducting various orchestras.

Like the article says, concertos for orchestra are pretty uncommon, even among the famous composers of the 20th century like Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky. I don't think that either of them every wrote a concerto for orchestra.


So, if I understand this correctly, a concerto for orchestra is just a normal concerto that involves more than one instrument in a featured role. Is that correct? If that is the case, then what exactly separates a concerto from any other type of orchestral arrangement? Is it just the solo itself or is there actually something more about the way the music is arranged that plays a role?

I know there are a lot of other types of arrangements like fugues and symphonies and was just wondering if or how a concerto was different from those things.

I have heard of Leonard Bernstein, but don't really know much about his music. What was the name of his concerto for orchestra, and does he have any other concertos that I might recognize?

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    • Orchestras often play concertos.
      Orchestras often play concertos.