Concertos and Concertante Music

Concertos and concertante music.

The 19th-century virtuoso vehicle for soloist and orchestra is represented in Canada by the two violin concertos (1860, 1874) of Frantz Jehin-Prume, two violin concertos (1891, ?) by von Kunits and a cello concerto (1887) by Lavallée (probably identical with the 4-movement Suite performed by cello and piano in Cleveland in 1888 and repeated in Detroit in 1890). Of these only Jehin-Prume's Concerto No. 2 was composed in Canada. Émiliano Renaud's Concertstück, performed in Montreal in 1900 and 1903 with the composer as soloist, appears to be the first Canadian piano concerto. Continuing the virtuoso concept into the early 20th century are works by Donald Heins, Allard de Ridder, Frederic Lord, and Rosario Bourdon (Poème élégiaque, cello and orch). To this small cluster of titles of works either lost or forgotten can be added Colin McPhee's Piano Concerto No. 2 (1924; the score is lost), an isolated attempt whose initial performance in Toronto was regarded, because of the work's modernity, as just short of scandalous.

The Ballade (1938) for viola and string orchestra by the 20-year-old Godfrey Ridout and the Concerto (1939; earlier title, Capriccio) for the unexpected medium of timpani and orchestra by the 26-year-old Violet Archer were harbingers of a sudden increase of interest in concerto writing. The new impetus in creative life after 1945 was an obvious factor in maintaining this increase, and the expansion of performing outlets, broadcasting, and recording at that time were challenges for which many composers evidently found the concerto an attractive and exuberant response.

The 1940s and 1950s were especially productive of new works. A full chronology would show, for example, performances of 13 new piano concertos between Willan's (1944) and Pépin's second (1949). While further works for piano were added in the 1950s, attention seems to have shifted to the violin, with premieres of nine new concertos for the latter instrument between Alexander Brott's (1950) and Murray Adaskin's (1956).

The concertante principle - soloist(s) versus ensemble - seems in fact to have had a special attraction for several of the most prominent composers of the generation born 1910-20. One notes major works in the genre by Adaskin (three), Archer (four), Coulthard (four), Morawetz (four), and Pentland (three), and in the work of two other composers the attraction had a deeper hold, resulting in series of works of fundamental importance in their output - Papineau-Couture's five variously scored Pièces concertantes, as well as his three concertos; and Weinzweig's Divertimentos (11 works by 1991; all but No. 9 juxtapose a solo instrument and an orchestral or semi-orchestral ensemble), as well as his three concertos. These are referred to in more detail below.

The piano concertos of the 1940s revived with gusto the romantic and vehicular concepts of this instrument's traditional literature. The most immediately successful specimen was the Quebec Concerto (published in 1948) of André Mathieu. It was an abridgement of the third work written in this form by a composer then in his mid-teens. It was a stormy and exhibitionistic piece and was introduced with the composer as soloist:;comparable cases are the Alberta Concerto (1947) by Minuetta Kessler, Somers' First Concerto (1947), and the two by Pépin (1946 and 1949). The concertos in this group by older and more established composers also adopted the conventional three-movement form and the rhetorical solo style with heavy octave underlining and bravura runs. They tended towards minor rather than major keys: Willan's in C minor and Champagne's (1948) in D minor. The former is Franckian in its melodic flavour, turning rather stiffly to the major near the end of the finale; the latter shows a few bolder and more dissonant harmonies amid a prevailing Rachmaninoff-like continuity. Exceptional in this flurry of piano showpieces is Maurice Blackburn's Concertino (1948) written for an ensemble of 14 winds only. Despite its subtitle 'en do majeur,' tonality is treated freely; motives are more diatonic than was usual in the predominantly chromatic pieces of the period. The music has a Poulenc-like wit and freshness to which the wind-instrument support gives an appropriate clarity. Perhaps because it, too, has a 'period' character, the composer later withdrew this work from circulation for performance purposes, although the score and an early recording exist as reminders.

Later piano concertos expand on the 'grand tradition' approach, with somewhat more original compositional ideas and resources. Three in particular may be mentioned - Archer's (1956; called by Kenneth Winters 'possibly the best concerto by a Canadian' - Contemporary Canadian Composers, p 14), Morawetz's (1962), and Eckhardt-Gramatté's (Symphony-Concerto, 1966-7). The latter two were made more widely known through recordings with Anton Kuerti as soloist. Gerhard Wuensch's Piano Concerto (1971), with chamber orchestra, revives the neoclassic approach with special smoothness. That of Jacques Hétu (1969) has been played frequently.

The violin concertos of the 1950s represent a stronger, more original, and more professional level of achievement than the previous works for piano, although, like them, they seldom depart from traditional structure. Brott's Concerto (alternatively titled Concertino) uses a chamber orchestra of classical size. Its frequent scale motion with augmented-second gaps suggests an influence from the string music of composers such as Bloch; its motor rhythms are akin to those of Stravinsky. After a New York performance the US composer Henry Cowell described this work as 'skillfully written, the work of a sophisticated conservative modern' (Musical Quarterly, vol 50, January 1954). The Concertante 1 (1955) of Otto Joachim, however, sets a quite different course - mildly radical for the time - by its less developmental mode of construction and by its unusual basic timbre, a string orchestra with solo drums as a co-ordinate to the solo violin.

More ambitious pieces of those decades were the Second Piano Concerto (1954-6) of Somers and the Violin Concerto (1955) of Kasemets. Both represented attempts to infuse the standard forms with greater depth of expression by means of contrapuntal textures rather than sheer rhetoric and bombast. Both were longer than usual - the Somers 43 minutes, the Kasemets 35. Neither is as completely successful as other works by these two composers, but they remain interesting pointers.

Among later concertante pieces with solo violin may be cited Lothar Klein's Paganini Collage (1967), a novel treatment of themes from the Paganini Caprices, and Pépin's Monade III (1972). The latter is in three continuous movements but resembles the traditional concerto in few respects. Its first movement is a recitative, begun by the soloist alone, and its third is a dialogue between the soloist and some prerecorded bird-calls. In between is a long movement of driving energy; its many-layered pizzicatos for the orchestral strings are an especially well-developed feature.

Papineau-Couture's Pièces concertantes highlight a remarkable concentration on structural experiment in his work of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is significant that he chose concertante media for this purpose. Each of the five Pièces has a different instrumentation, and each focuses on a unique formal idea: retrogradation of a large continuous structure in No. 1 for piano ('Repliement'), fanning-out of motives in No. 2 for cello ('Éventails'), constant metamorphosis in No. 3 for five soloists ('Variations'), and additive rhythmic procedures somewhat à la Messiaen in No. 4 for oboe ('Additions'). These four pieces all belong to the same year, 1959. No. 5, composed in 1963 and subtitled 'Miroirs,' is a study in musical inversions and applies concertante treatment to the full orchestra.

Weinzweig's Divertimentos, by contrast, represent a form in which he has shown recurrent interest over a period of more than 40 years involving several style-changes in his work. No. 1 (1946) for flute and strings and No. 2 (1948) for oboe and strings are deft, transparent mini-concertos in a three-movement pattern of fast-slow-fast, clear, unpretentious, and engaging in their handling of timbre (for example, the oboist plays against only low strings in the first movement, only upper strings in the second, and full string orchestra in the third). Their suggestions of quirky, jazz-like rhythmic motion (perhaps derived from some of Stravinsky's neoclassic ballet scores) were more fully apparent in No. 3 (1960) for bassoon and strings, with its references to 'swing' in the tempo directions. No. 5 (1961), for trumpet and trombone with wind ensemble, is consistent with this style, despite its different background instrumentation. In No. 4 (1968) for clarinet and strings a more radical view of solo-timbre possibilities results in an abandonment of the three-movement framework in favour of a freer continuity. The tendency toward a wide gamut of timbral effects continues in No. 6 (1972) for saxophone and strings and No. 7 (1979) for horn and strings; both are marked by cadenzas of an exploratory rather than merely brilliant sort and by passages in free-form notation - while both occasionally recall the composer's rhythmic trademarks. Spareness of texture marks both No. 8 (1980) for tuba and orchestra and No. 10 (1988) for piano and orchestra. In the one, the tuba's quirky conversations with percussion or piccolo culminate in a joyous ragtime finale à la Stravinsky's Circus Polka, while in the other the soloist at times retains central attention with mere single notes deftly placed both in range and in time - a cheeky send-up of soloistic display. No. 11 (1989), for cor anglais and strings, revisits the 'swinglike' territory of No. 3, towards the end interspersing solo cadenzas in the manner of No. 6 and No. 7.

An interesting point of comparison between Papineau-Couture and Weinzweig may be made in their piano concertos, written a year apart, in 1965 and 1966 respectively. These works share two traits: an exceptional economy, amounting almost to pointillism, in the solo writing; and a freshness of structural design. Conventional octaves and 'passagework' for the piano are spurned; few chords have more than four notes. Papineau-Couture's work is in one movement, a long rondo-like form which he has called a fantasy. The Weinzweig is in five continuous sections, alternating slow and fast tempi, and - an exception for a piano concerto indeed - it actually ends softly. But a basic difference is to be noted in the rhythmic character of the two pieces. Papineau-Couture's is marked by busy, motoristic passages, while Weinzweig's deliberately evokes jazz, bebop, and swing in its rhythms (as well as in its melodic elements).

After the mid-century, composers often turned their attention to instruments other than the piano and the violin - notably the flute (William McCauley, Five Miniatures, 1958; Norma Beecroft, Improvvisazioni concertanti no 1, 1961; Koprowski, 1982; Beckwith, A Concert of Myths, 1983; Schafer, 1985); the clarinet (Archer, 1946/56; Turner, 1948; Hétu, 1983; Cardy, Virelai, 1985); the bassoon (Eckhardt-Gramatté, 1950; Adaskin, 1960; Hétu, 1979); the trumpet (Hétu and Forsyth, both 1987); the horn (McCauley, 1959; Beckwith, Concertino, 1963; Michel Perrault, 1967); the tuba (Robert Fleming, 1966); the double bass (Brott, Profundum praedictum, 1964, alternatively playable by viola or cello; Allan Rae, 1977); the mandolin (Morris Surdin, 1966); the guitar (Somers, 1984; Steven, Ordre sans ordre (sans désordre), 1984; Brégent, Concierto flamenco, 1987-8; Schafer, 1990); and the organ (Pentland, 1949; Gerald Bales, 1957; Healey, 1960; Wuensch, 1979; Daveluy, 1981).

The cello, romantic soloist par excellence, has been less cultivated, but major compositions appear in late years from Ernst Friedlander (1959), Coulthard (Symphonic Ode, 1965), Morawetz (Memorial to Martin Luther King, 1968), Eckhardt-Gramatté (Konzertstück, 1974), André Prévost (1976), and Donald Steven (For Madmen Only, 1978). Viola concertos have been written for Rivka Golani by Barnes (1977), Surdin (1980), Glick (1981), Colgrass (Chaconne, 1984), and Turner (1987). The harp has drawn characteristic pieces from Somers (Suite, 1949), Weinzweig (1967), Morawetz (1976), and Schafer (1988). Works with solo accordion, nearly all composed for Joseph Macerollo, include two concertos by Surdin (1966 and 1977) and one work each by Buczynski, Dolin, George Fiala (Sinfonietta concertata, 1971), Klein (Invention, Blues, and Chase, 1975), and Wuensch (Concerto Grosso, 1979); all are with string orchestra, the Fiala adding also a harpsichord.

Concertante pieces with multiple soloists are more frequent in the later decades, corresponding perhaps to composers' increased appreciation of timbre and to their greater freedom in instrumental mixtures in chamber music. The concertante principle in fact becomes applied at times to works for a soloist with a small one-to-a-part ensemble (see Chamber music for some examples). Works for two pianos and orchestra have been contributed by Pépin (Nombres, 1962), Matton (1964), Turner (1971), and Archer (1987); works for solo string quartet and orchestra by Pierre Mercure (Divertimento, 1957/8), Joachim (Concertante 2, 1961), Prévost (1978), and Forsyth (Concerto grosso 3, 1981); and for brass quintet and orchestra by Morawetz (1968), Forsyth (Concerto grosso 1, 1975, and Concerto grosso 2, 1977), and Freedman (Royal Flush, 1981). In this group, Matton's Concerto for Two Pianos has been much played, especially by Bouchard and Morisset Double concertos for different instruments are those of Hétu (1962) for violin and piano, and Talivaldis Kenins (1965) for violin and cello with strings only; the latter's Sinfonia concertante (1967, subtitled Symphony No. 2) for flute, oboe, and clarinet also may be mentioned. A particularly assured treatment of a complex plan of textures and contrasts is found in Robert Aitken's Concerto for Twelve Soloists and Orchestra (1968), essentially a 'concerto for orchestra' with a fixed, rather than flexible, solo component.

There are several Canadian examples of the 'popular' concerto - ie, either a/one which strives deliberately for a familiar style, in romantic or folk-like vein, or b/one which applies the principle by juxtaposing the sounds of popular music and those of symphonic music. Sometimes thought of as a new phenomenon, in reality it dates in Canada from Quentin Maclean's Concerto Grosso in Popular Style (1942), subtitled Electric Concerto, a work calling for electronic organ, electric guitar, solovox, and theremin, among other instruments, and reflecting the composer's experience as a theatre and broadcast organist. The concerto-grosso format is adopted again in Norman Symonds' 1958 work of that name for jazz quintet and symphony orchestra. A companion-piece is his Democratic Concerto (1967) for the same combination. Steven Gellman's Odyssey (1971) co-ordinates a rock group and a solo piano with the symphony orchestra and uses free improvisation in the rock idiom in some sections, culminating in a vocal refrain. Similar influences are seen in François Dompierre's Piano Concerto (1978) and Paul Hoffert's Violin Concerto (1979), both composed specifically for discs. Popular in a different sense are the folk-derived works Steelhenge (1974) by Eldon Rathburn, for steel band and orchestra; Victor Davies' Mennonite Piano Concerto (1975) utilizing chorale melodies of the Mennonite tradition; the Piano Concerto (1979) by Ben McPeek, based on Canadian folksong material; and André Gagnon's Petit Concerto pour Carignan (1976), with its juxtaposition of fiddling and baroque style. Serious in a different sense are Gagnon's four piano concertos Mes Quatre Saisons (late 1960s) which reconceive pop tunes by leading chansonniers in terms of the Vivaldian namesake.

Bearing in mind the original early-baroque application of the term 'concerto' to works for solo voice with instrumental ensemble, brief mention is made of a few Canadian concert works for voice and orchestra. A strong streak of what the German critic H.H. Stuckenschmidt calls 'music of commitment' is found in this category - a significant number of composers choosing texts which express firm religious, ethical, or political views. Examples are Ridout's three Cantiones mysticae (1953, 1962, and 1972), Somers' Five Songs for Dark Voice (1956), Weinzweig's Wine of Peace (1957), R. Murray Schafer's Protest and Incarceration (1960), Morawetz's From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970), and Pentland's News (1970). More purely lyrical in outlook are Brott's Songs of Contemplation (1945, with string orchestra only), Fleming's Our Mind Was the Singer (1972), and two pieces by Coulthard, Night Wind (1951) and Spring Rhapsody (1958). Klein's The Philosopher in the Kitchen (1974) is a whimsical combination of classical music and classical gastronomy. Textual experiment occurs in Bruce Mather's Au Château de Pompairain (1976), with its phonetic text, and in Schafer's Arcana (1972), with an English text by the composer that was then translated into middle Egyptian hieroglyphics by D.B. Redford.

Schafer's works for voice and orchestra constitute a sizeable portion of his repertoire and cover a variety of types. One may add as further examples the dramatic solo cantata Brébeuf (1961) on texts from the Jesuit Relations and Adieu Robert Schumann (1976) on texts from the diaries of Clara Schumann dealing with Schumann's last illness. The former contains an imaginative orchestral depiction of the Canadian north woods (the insects, the ice breaking up on the lakes, and so on), while the latter is bound together with numerous fragmentary quotations from the piano music and songs of Schumann, a composer for whom Schafer has felt a close sympathy.

In 1965 the Montreal International Competition began commissioning short works for soloist and orchestra to be performed by its finalists. Buczynski, Forsyth, Louie, François Morel, Papineau-Couture, Pentland, Prévost, and Jean Vallerand are among the composers who have responded. Similarly, John Armstrong's Circle's End, for guitar and chamber orchestra, originated as a test-piece for the Guitar Society of Toronto's first Canadian guitar competition in 1986. The organizers of these and other contests may be seen as providing an incentive for additions to the concerto and concertante repertoire.

In the period 1979-90, the concertante principle appeared if anything more attractive to composers than ever before, and the resulting works applied it for a wider variety of purposes than ever before - exhibiting programmatic schemes, electronic amplification of the soloist, quotations, and formal patterns as diverse as variations and collage. New acquisitions in this repertoire during this period by the CMCentre from its associate composers totalled 99 works, of which the piano was the featured solo instrument in 23. The violin, the viola, and the flute were featured in 8 works each, the cello in 7, the clarinet in 6, percussion or timpani in 5, and the trumpet, the guitar, and the double bass in 4 each.

Schafer was one senior composer who felt ambivalent about continuing to contribute to the concerto literature while at the same time developing new multi-media and theatrical extravaganzas in his Patria series. In a talk at the University of Toronto in 1988, remarking on the readier availability of commissions for concertos than for other musical genres, he said: 'I'd rather be doing something more interesting. But... you only get paid for the things the public wants. The public wants concertos and the performers want concertos'. Of his 4 later works in this form, the first 3 (for flute, 1985; harp, 1988; guitar, 1990) use the title 'concerto' while the fourth (for violin, 1991) is called The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller. In Schafer's Harp Concerto the problem of imbalance between solo and orchestra is solved in the finale by the use of increasing amplification, whereby the harp volume overrides the full orchestra. The Darkly Splendid Earth's double-barreled title symbolizes independence of solo and tutti materials, a departure from the star-vehicle view of concerto writing, aligning this work with the tradition of Harold in Italy, Don Quixote, and Petrushka.

While the 3-movement format and the title 'concerto' remained in use among Canadian piano-and-orchestra works of the 1980s, some pieces rejected both these conventions. Peter Paul Koprowski's Souvenirs de Pologne (1983) is a neo-romantic rêverie based in part on compositions he produced during student days in his native Poland. Robert Rosen's From Silence (1983) takes its title from a text adapted by the composer from classical Greek sources and sung by a mezzo-soprano towards the end ('From silence I came and to it I return'). Several passages for the complex score are freely coordinated and layered, recalling Ives. In his The Transparency of Time (1986), a series of variations on a theme marked 'cantabile meditativo,' Raymond Luedeke, like Rosen, explores novel tempo and durational relationships between solo and orchestra, employing in part a flexible 'spatial notation'.

Among concertante works with two foreground soloists produced in the 1980s are Somers' Concertante (1982), Papineau-Couture's Clair-obscur (1986), and Beckwith's Peregrine (1989). Concertante and Peregrine both combine solo percussion with a solo string instrument - violin in the first and viola in the second. Percussion is also a strong factor in Clair-obscur. Concerante defines the opposition of forces by assigning the soloists a different metre and tempo from that of the string orchestra for over half the length of the work - resulting at times in an interplay of slow and fast motion. Peregrine (based on the medieval 'tonus peregrinus' or 'meandering chant') adds a scenario of processional actions involving both soloists, as well as conductor and orchestra. Clair-obscur tackles the unprecedented combination of contra-bassoon, double bass, and orchestra - here a large orchestra containing neither bassoons nor double basses. The sonorities - macabre and whimsical by turns - maintain interest through imaginative devices such as the higher intonation of the solo bass and a recurrent colloquy between the two soloists and a bass drum. (A comparable low-register essay is Mather's Dialogue (1988) for viola, cello, double bass, and orchestra.)

Works from the 1980s for solo voice with orchestra include Claude Vivier's Lonely Child (1980), on his own French-language text; Hétu's Les Abîmes du rêve (1982) and Les Clartés de la nuit (1987), both on poems by Nelligan; Hope Lee's Liú Liú (1985), whose accompaniment includes the p'ipa; Schafer's Letters from Mignon (1986); and Denis Gougeon's Heureux qui, comme... (1987).

The literature cited above is extensive and contains works of exceptional quality, deserving far more performances than they usually enjoy. A handful - the concertos for two pianos by Matton or flute by Schafer, for example - receive hearings over a number of seasons. But few survive an initial 2 or 3 concert performances, and revivals of worthy pieces from decades or generations past are rare - all of which continues to discourage all but a few intrepid performers from devoting time to their preparation.

Further Reading

  • Papineau-Couture, Jean. Analysis of 'Pièce Concertante No. 1 for Piano and String Orchestra' (Repliement)/Notes sur la 'Pièce concertante No. 1', CMCentre Study Course No. 1 (Toronto 1961); French text repr in Musicien éducateur du Québec, vol 5, no. 1 1974

    Somers, Harry. Analysis of 'Suite for Harp and Chamber Orchestra', CMCentre Study Course No. 1 (Toronto 1961)

    Owen, Stephanie O. 'The piano concerto in Canada since 1955,' PH D thesis, U of Washington 1969

    Webb, D.J. 'Serial techniques in John Jacob Weinzweig's five divertimentos and three concertos,' PH D thesis, U of Rochester 1973

    Zuk, Ireneus. 'The piano concerto in Canada (1900-1980): a bibliographic survey,' DMA thesis, Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins U 1985