The origins of the concerto go back to the vocal music being developed in Italy c. 1600 by composers like Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli.They were tired of the uniform Renaissance style and created a style which was called Concertato style. In the word concertato they read two meanings from the two languages they commonly used: the Italian “concertare”, implying two or more musicians playing in harmony (in concert) with each other, and the Latin “concertare”, meaning to contend or dispute. The style therefore deliberately emphasizes the contrast of one voice or instrument against others, or one small group against another larger one.

One of the most radical changes to musical taste which came with the Baroque period was the introduction of the concept of Basso Continuo. The basso continuo style aims to show off the potential of melody by simplifying the accompaniment down to a simple bass line. This supporting bass line was then usually supplemented by appropriate chords played (improvised) by a harpsichord-, organ- or theorbo (lute) player. In a Baroque concerto the soloist, whenever he or she plays alone, is always supported by the instruments of the basso continuo group.

Another feature of the Baroque musical revolution was to abandon the old scales (“modes”) of the church chants in preference to the major and minor scales which are still commonly used today. The concertos of the end of the 17th Century are amongst the first works to be unambiguously in major and minor keys. Particularly impressive composers of concertos at this time were Torelli (in Bologna) and Corelli (in Rome). Corelli’s concertos are known as concerti grossi or “big” concertos, because they used several soloists: a small group (usually 2 violins and cello) contrasted against the string orchestra.

By the early eighteenth century, the time of Antonio Vivaldi, most ‘solo concertos’ consist of a standard plan of 3 different movements – fast, then slow, then fast again. Most commonly these movements were built up using a structure known as RITORNELLO FORM.

Ritornello form: is the principal used to build up a musical structure in a Baroque concerto movement. It comes from the Italian word ritornare, meaning ‘to return’. We can therefore expect a plan to the music similar to that which we would find in a “rondo”, where the opening music returns several times within the movement. There are, however, three important differences between the two forms.

1. The Italian word ending (or suffix) ‘-ello’, meaning “small”, implies that, when the opening music returns, we hear a shortened version of the theme. In a rondo the whole theme is normally heard when it returns.

2. When the opening theme returns in a rondo it is nearly always in the same key as the opening theme. However, each new ritornello in ritornello form may be in any key of the composer’s choice.

3. In the episodes between the various ritornelli, the music features above all the soloist(s). In a rondo there is no clear-cut distinction as to who plays the returning opening theme and who plays the episodes.

As one might expect, ritornello form is only used where the music features a soloist with accompaniment from other instruments. e.g. in the Baroque concerto or in the operatic aria of the Baroque.

Optional Exercise 1:

Complete the these charts to show the application of ritornello form in the 1st movement and the 3rd movement of Vivaldi’s “L’Autunno” op.8 No. 3. You will need a score as well as the recording to do this. If you use this recording, the first movement lasts 3 minutes and the 3rd movement starts after 7 mins 40 seconds.

Optional Exercise 2:

Listen to the “Rondeau” from Bach’s 2nd Suite for Orchestra to hear the difference between ritornello and rondo form. A score may help you if one is available.


Purely instrumental music (Sonatas, Concertos etc.) in the Baroque period fell into two main categories linked to the place where the music was expected to be performed. If the music was to be performed in a church, it would be of the DA CHIESA (“for the Church”) category; if for performance at a society gathering, it would be DA CAMERA (“for the room”).

The musical styles of each type reflect their intended place of performance. Da chiesa music tended to be more restrained in style, with movements titled only by the tempo in which they would be played (Allegro, Largo etc.). It laid little importance on technical brilliance and aimed to avoid rhythmic features of dances popular at the time. Generally, the tempo of the movements followed the pattern: slow – fast – slow – fast.

The da camera music, by contrast, had an informal sequence of movements, often named after dances popular at the time. Often these works were devised to show the technical brilliance of a soloist or group of instrumentalists.

In the instrumental works of the first half of the 18th century (Bach, Handel, etc.) these stylistic divisions became less and less clear to define.


Concertos, too, were divided into two categories according to the number of soloists used in the concerto. If only one solosit was used (as in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Albinoni’s oboe concertos, etc.), then the concerto was known as a ‘solo concerto’. If several soloists (most commonly 2 violins and violoncello) dominated the concerto (as in Corelli’s concertos or Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos), then the concerto was known as a ‘concerto grosso’ (“big concerto”). Solo concertos tended to be the most virtuosic (or showy), while concerto grossos were often performed in churches and had many “da chiesa” features.


This caricature of Vivaldi was created by the artist Pier Leone Ghezzi in 1723, two years before his famous concertos “The Four Seasons” were published. Vivaldi wrote over 500 concertos, of which 350 were solo concertos. 230 of these feature the violin as soloist. His next most frequently featured solo instrument was the bassoon with 39 concertos.

© John Mason