The Drama Inside the Concerto

Joseph Kerman’s book on the concerto is too short, but it is otherwise splendid, entertaining, original, and often profound. Its excellence is partially disguised by a resolute assumption of modesty. It is also occasionally marred by a style that assumes the all-too-easy, popular approach of a freshman music course. For the most part, however, Kerman speaks directly and informally to a literate and educated public deeply interested in music. These six lectures (the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures of 1997-1998) are characterized by their dissatisfaction with the usual categories of both academic and popular writing about the concerto, although Kerman is always courteous and even grandly generous to his predecessors. His affable manner sometimes makes his approach to the subject seem obvious, the result of common sense, even when it is most innovative.

The first lecture begins at the beginning: how to start a concerto. Flouting the traditional approach, Kerman takes nineteenth-century practice as his model for the form, rather than eighteenth, as most scholars have done. In the eighteenth century, a concerto opened with a presentation of the principal material by the orchestra, a section called the ritornello because it continues to return and punctuate the solo passages. Kerman prefers to consider first the examples after 1800 when the soloist either opens the concerto or enters within a few seconds. The disadvantage of Kerman’s tactic is that it minimizes the extent to which the ritornello scheme continued to function as the normal form: composers who avoided it must, I think, have believed for many decades that they were doing something daring and original even after it had been done dozens of times.

Getting completely rid of the classical ritornello began as an experiment by the radical composers of the 1830s, principally Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. However, Chopin, whose two concertos were written by the time he was twenty-one, retained the ritornello in its most formal guise, and I suspect that many minor composers of the following age whom no one has any time for today continued to compose the opening, purely orchestral, section, following the established classical recipe.

Kerman thinks that Brahms “was reviving the eighteenth-century concerto ritornello,” and that “of all his many classicizing projects, this was perhaps the most extreme and the most obdurate.” I am not sure that this project was all that extreme, although the seriousness and the symphonic weight of Brahms’s ritornellos were indeed astonishing. For example, in the 1860s an uninteresting Italian composer, Giovanni Sgambati, a protégé and devout disciple of Liszt, and therefore unlikely to be influenced by the only example of Brahms published in 1861, began his piano concerto with a long classical ritornello. Music students at conservatories the world over must have been taught even into the twentieth century that this was the correct way to compose a concerto.

The advantage of Kerman’s approach, however, is that he is able to start by calling attention to the different ways that the relation of soloist to orchestral ensemble …

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