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What the Fugue is a Concerto?

One of the most distinguishable forms of classical music is the concerto.

Concertos are defined as compositions for a solo instrument set against an orchestral ensemble. On November 12th, you’ll hear one of the most famous of the genre in Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto at Out of the Blue.


A concerto, which is typically comprised of three movements, is a derivation of a sonata: a blanket term for pieces composed around a solo instrument. Where concertos differentiate themselves is with the addition of an orchestra. Sonatas with an orchestra are called symphonies, and symphonies with a featured soloist separate from the orchestra are called concertos.

Don’t worry if it feels like we pressed start on a musical vocabulary blender; there’s reason for the interchangeability. These terms mix and crisscross in ways that are representative of their evolving history. In the past, they were used even more loosely. Many early composers named their pieces concertos even though they wouldn’t be considered concertos today.

18th century rendering of string and brass instruments on a table with a candle and royal, red cloth
Instruments de musique, 1770 Anne Vallayer-Coster Musée du Louvre, Paris

Concertos—particularly concerto grosso, pieces arranged for a small group of soloists against the greater orchestra—arrived in force during the 17th century. Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel were possibly the two most notable names associated with the form gaining prominence.

By the 18th century, the solo concerto was the new wave behind composers like Beethoven, Mozart and the romanticists: Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Brahms.

Fittingly, concertos don’t have a fixed structure, although many do adhere to the traditional sonata form (A B A) or rondo form (such as A B A C A). They generally contain several movements of contrasting styles, tones, and themes.

Any instrument or voice can be designated as the soloist, but some of the more common instruments to be written for concerto solos include the piano, violin, cello, trumpet, clarinet, and oboe.


Ludwig van Beethoven's artistic, pencil rendering over sheet musicLudwig van Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 between 1809 and 1811 in Vienna, Austria. It was the last of Beethoven’s multi-year run of piano concertos and was dedicated to one of his pupils, Archduke Rudolf. Its world premiere took place in Leipzig, Germany in November 1811 at the historic Gewandhaus concert hall. The soloist that night was pianist Friedrich Schneider.

Curiously, it is speculated that the piece’s nickname “The Emperor” was not given to it by Beethoven but rather by the concerto’s English publisher, J.B. Cramer. This was not unusual for publishers to do at the time, perhaps because catchy titles like “The Emperor” were far easier to market than their technical, wordy counterparts.

If you’re skeptical, try putting “Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73.” titling on a poster and see how it compares. Or imagine going around to all your friends, repeatedly and excitedly declaring, “Did you see the DPO’s performance of the ‘Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73’ yesterday? Fantastic, wasn’t it? I’d definitely see them play the ‘Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73’ again. Talk about a can’t miss.”

Nonetheless, “The Emperor” concerto was likely named as such because of its regal sound. It bears resemblance to other E-flat major pieces which were popular with nobles in the Classical Era, and it was also longer—sitting around forty minutes in duration—than many concertos of its time, making it its own king among lords.

Don’t miss Canadian concert pianist, Sheng Cai, take on “The Emperor” with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra at Out of the Blue, November 12th at Antonia Brico Stage, Central Presbyterian Church.

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For more information on concertos and Beethoven’s 5th, check out these sources:

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Cassie LeFevre

Marketing Assistant

Cassie LeFevre is the marketing assistant for the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. As well as contributing to the DPO’s various campaigns and social/web content, she is an award-winning storyteller/filmmaker/writer operating freelance…

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