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A ritornello [ritorˈnɛllo] (Italian; "little return") is a recurring passage in Baroque music for orchestra or chorus.


Early history

The earliest use of the term "ritornello" in music referred to the final lines of a fourteenth-century madrigal, which were usually in a rhyme scheme and meter that contrasted with the rest of the song. [1] Scholars suggest that the word "ritornello" comes either from the Italian word ritorno (meaning return), or from tornando (meaning turnaround or flourish). [2] . Literally, in Italian it means "little return".

Baroque music

The ritornello as a recurring tutti passage can be traced back to the music of sixteenth-century Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli. According to Richard Taruskin, these repeating passages are "endemic to the concertato style" which Gabrieli is credited with developing. [3]

The idea of an orchestral ritornello played an important role in the structure of opera in the eighteenth century. The most common form for an aria during the Baroque period was da capo form, which essentially consisted of an A section followed by a contrasting B section, which was in turn followed by a return of the A section. Many da capo arias could be subdivided further, with ritornello sections framing each of the singer's solo sections, forming the scheme | R--A1--R--A2--R | B | R--A1--R--A2--R ||. [4]

The ritornello was also crucial in the development of the Italian instrumental concerto during the Baroque period. Giuseppe Torelli wrote many violin concertos in which the fast movements used a recurring ritornello in between two extended solo passages of entirely new material. [5] This form was standardized by Antonio Vivaldi, who wrote hundreds of concertos using a modification of Torelli's scheme. Vivaldi's ritornello form established a set of conventions followed by later composers in the eighteenth century:

In these visits to different keys, ritornello form differs from the later Classical form rondo, in which the recurring section remains in the same key. [7] Vivaldi also established a convention of using ritornello form for the quick opening and closing movements, with a contrasting slow movement in between. Many later Baroque composers such as Bach and Telemann followed Vivaldi's models in composing their own concertos. [8]

Some scholars argue that "ritornello form quickly disappeared as a general constructive principle" in the early years of the nineteenth century, due to the structural innovations of Beethoven. [9] Others such as William Caplin suggest that the ritornello form did not disappear, but "was transformed into concerto form through the incorporation of classical formal functions, especially those associated with the sonata." [10] Caplin argues that the outlines of ritornello form persist in the alternation of solo and tutti sections, albeit subsumed within the tonal and formal plan of the sonata.

Ritornello construction faded with the advent of the new sonata form but received renewed interest in the 20th century.[ citation needed ]

Related Research Articles

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Piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's concertos for piano and orchestra are numbered from 1 to 27. The first four numbered concertos and three unnumbered concertos are early works that are arrangements of keyboard sonatas by various contemporary composers. Concertos 7 and 10 are compositions for three and two pianos respectively. The remaining twenty-one are original compositions for solo piano and orchestra. These works, many of which Mozart composed for himself to play in the Vienna concert series of 1784–86, held special importance for him.

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Concerti grossi, Op. 6 (Handel)

The Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, or Twelve Grand Concertos, HWV 319–330, are 12 concerti grossi by George Frideric Handel for a concertino trio of two violins and violoncello and a ripieno four-part string orchestra with harpsichord continuo. First published by subscription in London by John Walsh in 1739, in the second edition of 1741 they became Handel's Opus 6. Taking the older concerto da chiesa and concerto da camera of Arcangelo Corelli as models, rather than the later three-movement Venetian concerto of Antonio Vivaldi favoured by Johann Sebastian Bach, they were written to be played during performances of Handel's oratorios and odes. Despite the conventional model, Handel incorporated in the movements the full range of his compositional styles, including trio sonatas, operatic arias, French overtures, Italian sinfonias, airs, fugues, themes and variations and a variety of dances. The concertos were largely composed of new material: they are amongst the finest examples in the genre of baroque concerto grosso.

The Musette, or rather chaconne, in this Concerto, was always in favour with the composer himself, as well as the public; for I well remember that HANDEL frequently introduced it between the parts of his Oratorios, both before and after publication. Indeed no instrumental composition that I have ever heard during the long favour of this, seemed to me more grateful and pleasing, particularly, in subject.

Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938–39) is one of his most popular and frequently performed works.

Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014–1019 Works by J. S. Bach

The six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1014–1019 by Johann Sebastian Bach are works in trio sonata form, with the two upper parts in the harpsichord and violin over a bass line supplied by the harpsichord and an optional viola da gamba. Unlike baroque sonatas for solo instrument and continuo, where the realisation of the figured bass was left to the discretion of the performer, the keyboard part in the sonatas was almost entirely specified by Bach. They were probably mostly composed during Bach's final years in Cöthen between 1720 and 1723, before he moved to Leipzig. The extant sources for the collection span the whole of Bach's period in Leipzig, during which time he continued to make changes to the score.

Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings (Mendelssohn)

The Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Strings in D minor, MWV O4, also known as the Double Concerto in D minor, was written in 1823 by Felix Mendelssohn when he was 14 years old. This piece is Mendelssohn's fourth work for a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment, preceded by a Largo and Allegro in D minor for Piano and Strings MWV O1, the Piano Concerto in A Minor MWV O2, and the Violin Concerto in D minor MWV O3. Mendelssohn composed the work to be performed for a private concert on May 25, 1823 at the Mendelssohn home in Berlin with his violin teacher and friend, Eduard Rietz. Following this private performance, Mendelssohn revised the scoring, adding winds and timpani and is possibly the first work in which Mendelssohn used winds and timpani in a large work. A public performance was given on July 3, 1823 at the Berlin Schauspielhaus. Like the A minor piano concerto (1822), it remained unpublished during Mendelssohn's lifetime and it wasn't until 1999 when a critical edition of the piece was available.

<i>Brandenburg Concerto</i> No. 5 Instrumental work by J S Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his fifth Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1050.2, for harpsichord, flute and violin as soloists, and an orchestral accompaniment consisting of strings and continuo. An early version of the concerto, BWV 1050.1, originated in the late 1710s. On 24 March 1721 Bach dedicated the final form of the concerto to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg.

The Harpsichord Concerto in A major, BWV 1055, is a concerto for harpsichord and string orchestra by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is the fourth keyboard concerto in Bach's autograph score of c. 1738.

The Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052, is a concerto for harpsichord and Baroque string orchestra by Johann Sebastian Bach. In three movements, marked Allegro, Adagio and Allegro, it is the first of Bach's harpsichord concertos, BWV 1052–1065.


  1. Burkhart, J. Peter; Grout, Donald Jay; Palisca, Claude V. (2006). A History of Western Music (7 ed.). p.  136. ISBN   9780393979923.
  2. Taruskin, Richard (2010). Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 1: Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. Oxford University Press. p. 352.
  3. Taruskin 2010, p. 784.
  4. Kelly, Thomas Forrest (2011). Early Music: A Very Short Introduction . Oxford University Press. pp.  58–59. ISBN   9780199831890.
  5. Burkhart et al. 2006, p. 400
  6. Burkhart et al. 2006, p. 425.
  7. Renwick, William. "Rondo and Ritornello Forms in Tonal Music" . Retrieved 17 October 2015.
  8. Burkhart et al. 2006, p. 429.
  9. Talbot, Michael. "Ritornello". Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
  10. Caplin, William (1998). Classical Forms: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven . Oxford University Press. p.  243. ISBN   9780195104806.

See also

Further reading