What is a Sinfonia concertante?

David Threasher Wed 16th January 2019

David Threasher traces another form that reached its pinnacle with Mozart

Vilde Frang and Lawrence Power perform Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante

Vilde Frang and Lawrence Power perform Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante

The terms ‘symphony’ and ‘concerto’ have histories almost as long as Western art music itself and mean different things depending on the time and place of their application. ‘Sinfonia concertante’, on the other hand, refers to a particular type of piece, composed in a specific period – and, as so often, the usual suspects provided the works that represent the form at its finest.

At its most basic, it’s a concerto for multiple instruments, which not only function as soloists but also to a greater or lesser extent embed themselves, symphonically, into the wider musical texture. The concerto grosso came closest to this description during the Baroque; with the rise of the Romantics, the terms ‘double concerto’ and ‘triple concerto’ became more common. The sinfonia concertante, then, enjoyed its vogue in the second half of the 18th century. It was popular in Paris where, as symphonie concertante, examples by the likes of Davaux, Devienne, Gossec and Pleyel were enjoyed by the soloists of the Concerts Spirituels. JC Bach composed a string of such works in London, for the virtuosos of the orchestra he convened for the Bach-Abel concerts. Mozart would have heard JCB’s music as a child in the English capital, as well as further such works in Mannheim.

Mozart becomes one of those usual suspects for perhaps the finest work in the genre, his Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra. Having emerged imperceptibly from the orchestra, the two soloists subsequently share material, intertwining with suavity in the opening Allegro maestoso, more light-heartedly in the final Presto and with utmost seriousness in the central slow movement. Set in grave C minor, this is a masterpiece of dazzling maturity from the 23-year-old, stepping confidently outside the accepted emotional bounds of the concerto of the 1770s.

Haydn’s sole example was the result of a 1792 querelle that the London press confected between him and his erstwhile pupil Ignaz Pleyel. Haydn responded effortlessly to the challenge of the younger man’s concertanti in a work of the most delightful charm for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon.

The rise of the double and triple concerto led to the demise of the concertante, although works such as Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony or Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole nevertheless display many of its traits. More recently, a similar compositional style pops up in works such as Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony, with its prominent piano part, Litolff’s Concertos symphoniques and Prokofiev’s cello Symphony-Concerto. But these are works of their own time, a far cry from the origins of the form in 18th‑century Europe.

Listen to our Sinfonia concertante playlist on Qobuz

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