Ritornello: Definition & Form

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The ritornello, which means 'little return' in Italian, was a popular Baroque compositional device. Explore the definition and form of the ritornello, focusing on its development and role in both vocal and instrumental music. Updated: 10/17/2021

What is Ritornello?

It's the year 1710, and on a trip to Venice, you just heard the most wonderful new composition by Antonio Vivaldi. You want to hear it again. You quickly scan the Venetian concert schedule for the week, but alas, there are no more Vivaldi concerts planned. It is not possible for you to hear this beautiful music another time. Fortunately, Vivaldi is a master of the ritornello, so the lovely melody lingers in your memory long after your return home.

The ritornello, Italian for 'little return,' is one of the most frequently used compositional techniques and it involves a musical theme that returns repeatedly, with sections of different music in between each return. Imagine we are diagramming the sequence of themes in a composition using letters. For example, if we use the letter ''R'' to represent the ritornello and the letters ''A'' and ''B'' to represent different musical sections, we can diagram a piece with a ritornello in this manner: R A R B R A R.

You can see that the piece begins and ends with the ritornello and that the ritornello is played again between each section of music. While this is a common example of the ritornello form, composers were not bound by this and would experiment with the number of returns and where they were placed. However, the basic behavior of the ritornello stays the same, being repeated at least a few times, and appearing between contrasting sections of music.

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The Development of the Ritornello

Scholars are unsure about when exactly the ritornello was developed. However, it's generally accepted that the technique didn't become popular until the Baroque period, which lasts roughly from 1600 to 1750.

Its direct lineage is not certain, but songs of the Medieval Period often used refrains, that is, chorus sections repeated after each verse, and the ritornello may have been derived from those refrains. Composers were quite fond of the ritornello form because it gave the audience the opportunity to hear the main theme more than once and imprint it into their memories.

Remember, this was before recording technology existed. Listeners could only hear a piece in live performance, so extra repetitions of the ritornello theme helped ensure audiences could recall the piece after the performance.

The Ritornello in Vocal Music

In operas and cantatas, the dominant vocal forms of the Baroque, ritornello was performed by the instruments that accompanied the singer for an aria, a solo song that give the singer an opportunity to show their technical and interpretative skills. In a typical aria, the instruments played the ritornello as the introduction, then the singer sang the ''A'' section. The instruments played the ritornello again, as an interlude. The singer sang the ''B'' section. Often the ''B'' section would be in a different key, perhaps the dominant key or relative minor. The instruments would again play the ritornello, although this return was sometimes omitted, and the singer sang the ''A'' section once more. Then the instruments ended the piece with the ritornello.

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