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What Is a Violin Concerto?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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A violin concerto is a piece of music written for a solo violin accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, typically a full orchestra. Some concertos are also designed for two or three principal violins, while others are written for a small chamber ensemble of four or five string-instrument musicians. This type of piece is often considered a staple of classical music, and many concertos are well known among violin players of various levels. Performing a violin concerto is frequently viewed as an opportunity for an accomplished violinist to demonstrate both technical skill and emotional interpretation of the music.

The origins of the violin concerto date back to the Baroque era of the 1600s through the mid-1700s. Classical composers of this period made a range of expansions to the scope and complexity of musical notation and playing techniques, and the structure of the concerto is one example. The earliest violin concertos were written in three sections, known as movements, each with its own distinctive melody, harmony, and mood. Later, concertos were expanded to four movements and included an improvisational section known as a cadenza. Solo violin cadenzas can be developed on the spot by a skilled violinist during a performance or can be written into the musical score ahead of time.

Baroque composers who developed early violin concertos also had goals of creating a new type of music that was purely instrumental and separate from the cantata, a previously-dominant form of music that featured singers as much as the orchestra musicians. The rising popularity of the violin as a solo instrument also paved the way for these composers to experiment with writing notations for only this instrument instead of for a group of vocalists. The word "concerto" was originally intended to designate a simple piece of music without a vocal section, but the violin concerto soon evolved into an intricate piece meant to feature the violinist rather than the vocalist as the center of a musical performance.

A famous piece of music that showcases the concerto's complexities and artistic virtuosity is the Mendelssohn violin concerto in E minor. This composer recognized that the sound of the violin is the closest possible to the human singing voice, and he wrote this concerto to showcase this instrument as much as possible. The piece is famous for its intricate melodies played primarily on the E string of the violin, and it is still a frequent choice for both music students and professionals to master.

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