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Concertos for the harpsichord were written throughout the Baroque era, notably by Johann Sebastian Bach (see list of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach for a list). These harpsichord concertos are often performed with a piano as the solo instrument.
As the piano developed and became accepted, composers naturally started writing concertos for it. This happened in the 18th century, and so corresponded to the Classical music era. The most important composer in the development of the form in these early stages was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Mozart wrote many of his 27 piano concertos for himself to perform. With the development of the piano virtuoso many composer-pianists did likewise, notably Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.
Many other Romantic composers wrote pieces in the form, well known examples being those by Robert Schumann, Edward Grieg, Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. While these compositions seem to be the indisputable evergreens of concert hall programs and discographies, they represent only a minority of the piano concertos which proliferated on the European music scene during the 19th century. Critical opinion has generally dismissed the bulk of the Romantic piano concerto repertoire as vapid, mediocre showpieces (often slavishly based on opera tunes). However, these compositions were not simply wares hawked by traveling composer-virtuosos who toured Europe and America with sensational though ephemeral popularity. Far from suffering a dearth of musical quality, many of these “showpieces” have been a formative influence on the training and styles of the “canonical” composers whose concertos are still played today .
The piano concerto form survived through the 20th century into the 21st, with examples being written by Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, Michael Tippett, Witold Lutosławski, György Ligeti and others.
There are examples of piano concertos written to commissions by pianists. Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during World War I, on resuming his musical career asked a number of composers to write pieces for him which require the pianist to use his left hand only. The results of these commissions include the concertos for piano left hand by Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev (his piano concerto No. 4) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
A classical piano concerto is often in three movements.
- A quick opening movement in sonata form including a cadenza (which may be improvised by the soloist).
- A slow expressive movement
- A faster rondo
Examples by Mozart and Beethoven follow this model, but examples abound which do not. Many composers have introduced innovations - for example Liszt's single-movement concertos.
Other compositions for piano and orchestra
Concertos have been written where the piano is not the only solo instrument. A famous example is the Triple concerto (for piano trio and orchestra) by Beethoven.
There also exist a number of compositions for piano and orchestra which treat the piano as a solo instrument while not being piano concertos. Examples of such works are George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
There are also works written for orchestra or large ensemble requiring a solo pianist, such as Olivier Messiaen's Des canyons aux étoiles... and Turangalîla Symphony, and Karol Szymanowski's 4th Symphony.
Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto Series A project to record and reassess the work of Romantic composers whose contributions to the development of the piano concerto (in some cases entire careers) have been neglected or forgotten. Contains the sleeve notes of many of the recordings, offering both musical and biographical analysis. Streaming audio of selected movements also available.
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