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Imagine this scene right out from olden times - perhaps from Anglo-Saxon times, before Haering made a clearing in the North Middlesex forest, calling it "Haering-hege" or "Hareing's clearing" - the term which would eventually lend it's name to give "Haringey". Tribes of warriors, fighting under the control of a lord or baron, standing over newly-occupied ground. They hold their own weapons of choice - some swords, some axes, some staffs - and await the challenge of any remaining warrior from the other side; wondering if any one will be brave enough to come forward and take them on.
Then the sound of approaching footsteps - someone is taking up the challenge. Never mind that the challenger is heavily outnumbered. The challenger has skill, guile and courage. Despite the odds against him or her, the challenger takes on different pockets of opposing individuals at the same time using a weapon they have trained with for much of their lifetime, and have attained a higher level of skill at. There may be opposing fighters wielding the same kind of weapon but none demonstrating the same level of skill. But it is not just the prowess the challenger demonstrates that showcases his skill. It is his awareness, his movement, and his innate knowledge of when to attack, when to hold back, how to lull an opponent forward and then strike, among other things, that reveal to all present they are in the presence of a skilled individual.
Now transplant the location of the scene so it takes place not in woodland, but on a wooden platform. Musicians from different groups - woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion - and all under the baton of the conductor await to do musical battle with the soloist emerging from the wings, footsteps clunking across the stage. The musical weapon of choice may be a traditional instrument like violin, piano or a flute, or perhaps contextually a more unusual one like the bassoon. The challenger, the soloist, musically takes on the orchestra and all the little groups and combinations, displaying awareness and sensitivity blended together with a high level of technical skill for the instrument.
You have the solo concerto.
The solo concerto had its roots in the concerto grosso of the Baroque era. In the concerto grosso, a small group of instruments took on a larger group (the orchestra). Johann Sebastian Bach himself wrote concerti grossi such as the Brandenburg Concertos. Towards the end of the Baroque the trend moved towards solo performers - and while the earliest known solo concertos are by Giuseppe Torelli in 1698, the evolution of the solo concerto owes much to Antonio Vivaldi, who composed 350 solo concertos mostly for solo violin. These include the famous work, The Four Seasons.
The invention and popularity of the piano in the 18th century meant that from about 1770 piano concertos became the most popular form of keyboard concertos, supplanting organ and harpsichord concertos. The early Classical piano concertos allowed the pianist to showcase technical skills such as trills, scales and arpeggiac patterns and their abilities to play them at various speeds and volumes.
But then the opponent grew in size.
The classical orchestra had consisted of strings, two each of woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) and two each of trumpet and horns. The percussion section of the classical orchestra consisted of two timpani.
But fast forward to decades later and the orchestra had swelled in size to include more numbers of players at existing positions, as well as new instruments. String sections grew in size. The woodwind section was augmented by additions such as the piccolo and cor anglais. A brass section could contain up to four each of horns, trumpets and trombones. How could a soloist like a pianist distinguish himself or herself against such numbers?
Going head to head and competing on volume was not the solution. The pianists would be drowned out in no time. But the pianists could grab the audience's imagination by demonstrating greater skill than before, pushing the envelope further. And they did. The larger the orchestra, the more skill the pianist had to display to combat it. In the Romantic era, pianists were routinely playing double octaves and other chords at high speeds, thundering down the length of the keyboard manual as the pedals sustained the rich sonorities. Composer-performers like Liszt furthered displaced the boundaries and wrote their own music, taking care to write in parts that could highlight their skills. (If Liszt were alive today he might be going by the modern label of singer-songwriter.)
Composers realised that the secret ingredient for a successful solo concerto was not in the warring of two forces, but in the telling of the story. They realised that the direct triumph of one over the other would not make for good listening. If, for example, you are listening to a piano concerto where the orchestra is noticeably and consistently subservient to the piano, doing little else other than background chords, it is unlikely you would sit through the three or four movements of the work. But if the protagonists seemed to be winning at different points at the music, and participated fairly equally in the music, sharing themes and prominence, all this would make for an evenly matched recount, one that would keep you engaged for the duration of the tale, and your personal involvement in the twists and turns would lead you to enjoy it more.
The Austrian-American pianist Paul Wittenstein lost the use of his right arm in World War I; undeterred, he carried on playing pieces for one hand. He also commissioned famous composers to write one-handed pieces for him, the most famous of which is probably Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand. There are also piano concertos for the left hand by other composers, elevating the level of skill required of the pianist while adding more intricacies to the recount!
Looking for a piano teacher in Muswell Hill? I give lessons in N10. Learn through playing songs you know and like!
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