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In Baroque music, ritornello was the word for a recurring passage for orchestra in the first or final movement of a solo concerto or aria (also in works for chorus). In ritornello form, the tutti opens with a theme called the ritornello (refrain). This theme, always played by the tutti, returns in different keys throughout the movement. However, it usually returns in incomplete fragments. It was favoured by composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann and Handel and was used frequently in concertos, chamber works and vocal and choral pieces, though most prominently in the solo concerto where it created a ‘tutti-solo-tutti-solo-tutti’ pattern, with the ritornello being the ‘tutti’ section. At the end of the movement, the entire ritornello returns in the home key. In a concerto grosso, the solo sections offer fresh melodic ideas, softer dynamics, rapid scales, and broken chords unlike the tutti. Soloists may also expand short melodic lines from the tutti.

When the classical music era started, the ritornello form was altered to resemble sonata form, though it later transformed to become rondo form.

The final section of the fourteenth century madrigal was also called the ritornello and the ritornello technique was employed by Giovanni Gabrieli in his 16th century motets. The instrumental interludes that occurred during operas in the early Baroque were also termed "ritornellos."

The Ritornello form can be found in many Baroque and Classical period music such as J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Other pieces in ritornello form include a sonata in F Major by Joseph Haydn (using the form at a late date, as a classical period composer).

In opera seria, the ritornello functioned as the main structural support for the da capo aria, in which it was successively repeated.

Beginning with the late Classical and extending through the duration of the Romantic era, the use of the ritornello construction faded with the advent of the far more standard classical concerto; however, with the advent of the 20th century and the general feeling of malaise within the composition field regarding the limits of form, the ritornello experienced an uptake in interest.

References

  • Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
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