VIDEO: Oliver Condy on The History of the Piano Concerto

Oliver Condy guides us through the history of the Piano Concerto.


From the middle of the 18th century to the end of the 19th, the piano changed beyond all recognition. Yes, it still had a keyboard, hammers and strings, but everything had practically been transformed. In Mozart’s day, the piano was an elegant, refined instrument with a wooden frame and a subtle, gently expressive sound; the modern piano, on the other side of the industrial revolution, became a giant – thick metal strings, complex action and an iron frame, all producing a sound that could be heard above a modern symphony orchestra.

The piano concerto followed suit, changing from chamber music intimacy to a platform for a kind of hero-worship where the soloist’s technique and stamina could be tested to its absolute limits.

But that didn’t happen overnight. As the piano grew gradually in size, so did composers’ ambitions. Mozart might have been the first to give the pianist a taste of the limelight, but it was Beethoven who saw the soloist as, essentially, a human being – struggling in life, emotionally complex. An individual fighting for his musical freedoms.

It wasn’t just the piano that grew in stature. Pianists’ technique had to strengthen to keep up with the growing demands laid down by Beethoven, then Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and, perhaps the king of them all, the fearsome Franz Liszt. Huge, pounding chords, scales at breakneck speed, eye-wateringly difficult leaps and finger-twisting challenges – all of this would have reduced the 18th-century piano to a pile of splinters, but the modern piano took it in its stride.

And the piano concerto today is guaranteed to bring in the audiences – because it’s like watching a climber scale the most impossible of summits. We all want to see pianists tackle works that none of us mortals would ever be able to get anywhere near. No wonder more concertos have been written for the piano than any other instrument.

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Further Reading

If you would like to know more about Tchaikovosky and his ‘warhorse’ Piano Concerto click this link

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