"Ritornello" is a term used in music to refer to a recurring instrumental passage or theme that returns multiple times throughout a composition, often in alternation with contrasting sections or solo passages. The word "ritornello" is Italian, meaning "little return" or "refrain", which accurately describes its role as a recurring musical element.
Ritornellos are commonly found in various musical forms, particularly in the Baroque concerto grosso and solo concerto genres. In these compositions, the ritornello serves as a unifying element that ties together the different sections, while also providing a familiar and recognizable theme for the audience.
In the concerto grosso, the ritornello is played by the tutti (full ensemble), while contrasting sections feature smaller groups of instruments (concertino). This alternation between tutti and concertino creates a dynamic contrast and highlights the soloistic qualities of the smaller ensemble.
In the solo concerto, the ritornello often serves as an introduction or an interlude between the soloist's passages. The soloist's virtuosic sections contrast with the more orchestral character of the ritornello, showcasing the performer's skill.
Ritornellos can be seen as a precursor to the modern concept of a "refrain" in popular songs. They provide structural coherence and help guide the listener through the musical journey. As the ritornello recurs, listeners become familiar with its melody and character, contributing to their engagement and understanding of the piece's overall architecture.
While the concept of the ritornello is most closely associated with the Baroque era, its influence can be seen in various forms throughout the history of music. Whether in concertos, sonatas, or other compositions, ritornellos continue to play a significant role in creating unity and contrast within a musical work.