Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Katia and Marielle Labèque perform Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Solo Pianos. In the program notes John Henken says, ‘Stravinsky…[gave] a talk about his unusual concept of a concerto for two solo instruments sans orchestra. He stressed the competition element in the etymology of the word “concerto”…’
Wait. What? Doesn’t concerto mean playing together harmoniously, as in “a concerted effort” or “working in concert”?
According to the OED, the Italian word concerto, defined as ‘a composition for one, or sometimes more, solo instruments accompanied by orchestra,’ is the source of the English and French word concert. The first definition of concert, with a citation from Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590), is ‘agreement of two or more persons or parties in a plan, design, or enterprise; union formed by such mutual agreement; accordance, harmony.’ In the same year Marlowe used it to mean an ‘accordance of voices or instruments; harmonious combination of sounds produced by a number of performers singing or playing together’ and by 1654 it was used to mean ‘A musical performance (usually of a series of separate pieces) in which a number of singers or players, or both, take part.’
All very harmonious thus far. So, when did the discord erupt? Well, it seems the verb “concert” (stress on the second syllable) came into English from the Italian concertare via French concerte-r. The Italian word meant ‘to proportion or accord together, to agree or tune together, to sing or play in concert.’
The lexicographers note: ‘The Italian is identified by Diez with Latin concertāre intransitive, to contend zealously, dispute, debate. Such a change of sense might conceivably come about through an intermediate ‘argue out, settle by debate,’ whence ‘come to terms, arrange terms’; but evidence is wanting. They mention Latin *consertāre frequentative of conserĕre ‘to join or fit together, connect’ and speculate a confusion with concento, meaning ‘concent,’ but how discord came to mean accord is still a mystery.
Illustration by TheresaKnott (Open Clip Art Library image’s page), via Wikimedia Commons