What is…Ritornello?

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

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Here is a musical term that means what it purports to mean. The Italian ‘ritornello’ means ‘return’, and that, essentially, is what ritornellos do.

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Originally it was a literary label, signifying the couplet at the end of a verse of poetry that sometimes, but not invariably recurs.

As the Italian madrigal took shape in the 14th century, this feature in the sung texts began to acquire a musical life of its own. Musicians would mark off their ritornellos with special care, often changing the metre to underline the formal distinction.

Gradually the word ritornello lost its associations with literature. As the baroque concerto began its irresistible rise in the late 17th century, the ritornello became a key structural element.

It’s easy to forget just what a breakthrough the concerto was for music: a substantial composition, up to quarter of an hour in length, with no text, dancing, or any other kind of explanatory prop to guide the ears.

How do you keep the audience listening? Instrumental acrobatics could be captivating, but not all the time – too much and, in the words of Dr Johnson, ‘the attention retires’.

So the relationship between soloist or soloists and full orchestra became a fundamental dramatic ingredient. The orchestra prepares the themes, the soloist(s) treats them to virtuosic development, lightly accompanied, then the orchestra returns – ritornello – bringing back the basic thematic material.

The device ensured themes were well planted in the memory, and allowed for increasingly long and complex structures.

Inevitably with time the outlines began to blur, and the interplay between soloist and orchestra became more flexible and dramatic in its own right – play a mature Mozart Piano Concerto after one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and the change in the relationship is striking.

But when Beethoven created one of his most original movements – the emotional dialogue between strings and piano in the slow movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto – he did so partly by invoking the ghost of baroque ritornello form.

There it is in the background, in one of his most Romantic conceptions. And it stayed in the background, as a kind of misty but lingering archetype, until neo-classical composers like Stravinsky, Martin and Poulenc brought it back centre-stage.

Innovation is precious, but in music it seems you can’t keep a good form back for long. 

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This article was first published in the April 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine