The baroque concerto refers to a specific kind of concerto developed during the Baroque era. During this period, the concerto came to be represented by three distinct types of composition. They share in common the theme of contrasting or competing instruments within a composition of three movements. The concerto type was determined by the number and kind of solo instruments being played in conjunction with the orchestra. Each type of arrangement is considered baroque.
The Baroque era covers roughly the period from 1580 to 1750. Although the concerto had its beginnings as a concept in the Renaissance of the previous era, the concerto as a unique form of composition was established during the Baroque period. Baroque music in general was known for its ornate and imaginative style.
By the 1700s, there were three types of baroque concertos. The solo concerto was composed for one instrument, usually the piano or a string instrument, and an orchestra. A grosso concerto was written for two or more soloists accompanied by an orchestra. Orchestral concertos were performed by a single orchestra applying the same principles of contrasting instruments as did the solo and grosso concertos. All three types of concerto share a common compositional structure, style, and execution.
Any baroque concerto contains three movements. Each movement is a distinct piece within the composition but is linked with the other two. The arrangement is analogous to stanzas in a poem. The three movements’ tempos are played as fast/slow/fast, and the second movement leads into the third without pause.
A shared device of each type of baroque concerto is the “basso continuo," which calls for the use of a tone instrument such as a cello or viola playing the bass line. A chordal instrument such as a harpsichord, organ, or lute plays harmonies over the bass line. This results in two simultaneous and continuous harmonies.
Each movement is executed as a musical conversation of contrast and concord. It can be thought of as a kind of dialogue between the soloists and the orchestra. Throughout the first and second movement there is musical contrast that is almost a competition, as the different instruments vie to express the music. The soloist in a sense acts in the role of a virtuoso competing for the audience’s attention. The final movement results in a musical reconciliation of all the instruments.
At one time, the term concerto encompassed vocal solos accompanied by an orchestra, but by the mid 1600s the term meant only orchestral compositions. One type of baroque concerto, the solo concerto, has been in continual use to the present. As a compositional form, the basso concerto fell from favor at the end of the Baroque era but was revived in the 20th century.