What is a… Ricercar?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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A ricercar is an early type of fugue, written in long-note values.

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Its real meaning is rather more complex. If the Italian ‘ricercare’ sounds rather like the French recherché, that’s because they have the same root. OED defines recherché as ‘Carefully sought out; hence, extremely choice or rare.’

My Italian dictionary gives much the same for ‘ricercare’, though it adds both ‘affected’ and ‘wanted’ – as in police notices. So a term that once struck terror to the heart of composition students now does the same for members of the Mafia.

You’ll have noticed that I said ‘once’. The ricercare, or more usually ‘ricercar’, is largely a thing of the relatively remote past. The earliest examples appeared as the Renaissance was shading over into the early Baroque era – in other words, as composing for instruments, without voices, was becoming a respectable end in itself.

The first ricercars were conceived for solo instruments like bass viol or lute and seem to have been created largely for didactic purposes. ‘This kind of ricercar,’ the pioneering English musicologist Dennis Arnold tells us, ‘is artistically on a par with Czerny’s duller technical studies.’

Tracing the development of the ricercar is made so much harder by what seems to us the extraordinarily lax attitude of composers to formal terminology. For some it was a medium for virtuosic display, and often little more than that. At the other extreme, as in the ricercars of Andrea Gabrieli, we have the instrumental equivalent of the vocal motet.

Counterpoint – especially imitative counterpoint – is now a key ingredient. In other words it is becoming a form in which the composer, rather than the performer, can show his skill.  From this eventually emerged the fugue – soon a much more clearly defined entity.

Though we still find Bach using the term ‘ricercar’ for the two fugal movements in his contrapuntal The Musical Offering, his use of old-fashioned notation confirms the suspicion that the term has come to signify something venerable, matured over the ages, contrasting with the deplorable liberality and caprice of what we now call the early ‘classical’ composers.

What would Bach have made of Webern’s orchestral version of the six-part ‘ricercata’ from The Musical Offering? Here Bach’s lines are atomised into tiny motifs by passing them from instrument to instrument, creating a kind of pixilated counterpoint.

Screeds have been written about the brilliance of Webern’s analytic insight, but after decades of trying to understand his larger meaning I’ve finally given up. ‘Extremely choice’, or just ‘affected’?

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This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine