Friday, March 6, 2015

Sinfonie Concertanti

No. 188 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Concerto or symphony – what can we make of the sinfonia concertante?

In the Baroque period, the differences between a concerto and a sinfonia (the forerunner of what would become the "classical symphony") were initially not all that clear. As we hinted to in our last couple of montages, Antonio Vivaldi wrote "concertos" both for soloists and for “concertino” detachments, the latter being stylistically more or less indistinguishable from his "sinfonias" – these are more aptly referred to as concerti grossi; and we will get to those a couple of Fridays from now.
By the Classical period, both the symphony and the concerto had acquired more definite meanings, and the concerto grosso had disappeared altogether. This led in the last decades of the 18th century to attempts to combine the two genres, such as those by Johann Christian Bach (the so-called "London Bach" and youngest son of Johann Sebastian). He published some symphonies concertantes in Paris from the early 1770s on.

The Sinfonia Concertante genre is, thus, a mixture of the symphony and the concerto genres. It is a concerto in that soloists are on prominent display, and a symphony in that the soloists are nonetheless discernibly a part of the total ensemble and not preeminent. Among the most performed piece in this genre is by Mozart, for violin and viola (K. 364).

Today’s podcast presents three sinfonie concertanti from three different eras. Joseph Haydn, the acknowledge “perfecter” of the classical symphony wrote symphonies with long soloist parts, especially early in his career, such as the "Time of Day" symphonies (Matin, Midi et Soir, nos 6, 7 amd 8). These are, however, rightfully considered symphonies rather than sinfonie concertanti. Haydn did leave us with a Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello, Oboe and Bassoon, dating from his visit to London, in a friendly challenge to his former student Ignaz Pleyel, who also stayed in London at the time, and whose works in the genre were highly popular. This explains why the piece is assigned a number from Volume I in the Hoboken catalog (No. 105, right after the last of the “London” symphonies).

Few composers still called their compositions sinfonia concertante after the classical music era. However, some works such as Berlioz's Harold en Italie (for viola and orchestra) approach the genre. Beethoven did not write anything designated as a sinfonia concertante, although some feel his Triple Concerto qualifies as one. By the end of the 19th century, several French composers had started using the sinfonia concertante technique in symphonic poems, for example, Saint-Saëns uses a violin in Danse macabre . Edouard Lalo's best known work, the Symphonie espagnole, is in fact a sinfonia concertante for violin and orchestra. A work in the same vein, but with the piano taking the "concertante" part is Vincent d'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air, which is part of today’s podcast.

Composed soon after the War Requiem, Britten’s Cello Symphony is a concertante work devised for the great Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. As the title suggests, throughout the work the soloist and orchestra are treated on equal terms, sharing all the important melodic material. Although the cello is omnipresent, the final two movements are linked by an intricate cello cadenza.

I think you will love this music too.