Ritornello Form

Ritornello Form

Many Baroque concertos are structured in a form known as ritornello form. In this form, a repeated section of music, the ritornello (literally, "the little thing that returns") alternates with freer episodes.
Initially ritornellos were found in trecento Italian madrigals, such as those of Jacopo da Bologna. In these works, their structural significance is uncertain, Marocco claims that they were almost certainly not repeated musical segments, a practice borne out in many recordings of this repertoire.

Later the ritornello makes another appearance in early opera, here its use has changed significantly. As used in operas such as Monteverdi's Orfeo,stable instrumental interludes, known as ritornellos alternated with verses of singing over a continuo accompaniment, thereby creating a structure of call and orchestral response. The verse and chorus sturcture of modern popular song derives from this form. A structure of alternating solo verse and choral response is evident in for instance, The Beatles's Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.evident. .

Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she's gone.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Ah... Ah...

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmellow pies,
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,
That grow so incredibly high.
Newspaper taxis appear on the shore,
Waiting to take you away.
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds,
And you're gone.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Ah... Ah...

Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties,
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstyle,
The girl with the kaleidoscope eyes.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Ah... Ah...

In Lucy the verse, sung by John Lennon, alternates with a chorus, sung by the full band. To diagram the structure we could use V for the verse and R for the refrain to yield the following chart.

Formal Structure: "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"



Ritornello form in early opera is quite similiar. A glance at the text of the Prologue of Monteverdi's Orfeoprovides a good indication of the work's form.


Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vegno,
Incliti eroi, sangue gentil di Regi,
Di cui narra la Fama eccelsi pregi,
N giugne al ver, perch' tropp'alto il segno.


Io la Musica son, ch'ai dolci accenti
So far tranquillo ogni turbato core,
Et hor di nobil ira, et hor d'amore
Posso infiammar le pi gelate menti.


Io su cetera d'or cantando soglio
Mortal orecchia lusingar talhora,
E in guisa tal de l'armonia sonora
de le rote del Ciel pi l'alme invoglio.


Quinci a dirvi d'ORFEO desio mi sprona
D'ORFEO che trasse al suo cantar le fere,
E servo f l'Inferno a sue preghiere
Gloria immortal di Pindo e d'Elicona.


Hor mentre i canti alterno hor lieti, hor mesti
Non si mova augellin fra queste piante,
N s'oda in queste rive onda sonante,
Et ogni Auretta in suo camin s'arresti.


Analyzing the structure of the Prologue of Orfeo we can find something similar to the structure of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Labelling the ritornello, R, and the verse: V, we come up with the structure:

Formal Structure: Prologue, Orfeo


In both Monteverdi and the Beatles a stable, relatively unchanging musical idea played by a group, (the ritornello), alternates with material performed by a soloist. In both instances, the composer has set up an expectation for the return of the stable material and its alternation with the soloist.

In the Baroque Concerto Grosso: a concerto for multiple soloists (Soli) and ensemble (tutti), this operatic notion of the ritornello was adapted and combined with the newfound interest in the tonal system. Again there is a group playing a relatively stable musical idea, the ritornello, that alternates with flights of fancy, known as episodes, by the soloists.

To this simple structural alternation is added a tonal dimension. Typically, the ensemble maintains a stable tonal center, while the soloist is more dynamic: changing pitch centers and modulating (moving) to more complicated and distant tonal areas.

During the course of the concerto movement, the ritornello will return at moments that are structurally important, for instance, the beginning and the end, as well as points that are harmonically important, for instance a shift from a major key to a minor key.

The archetypal ritornello form in a Baroque Concerto Grosso is shown below.

Basic Ritornello Form of Concerto Grosso


Solo Episode 1


Solo Episode 2


Solo Episode X


Some people find it helpful to have the form or structure of the work in mind while listening to a piece that utilizes that structure. Doing so, allows them to listen wondering whether the piece will adhere to the structure or not.

With this in mind, its important to bear a few things in mind: first, you often will not hear the entire ritornello each time it is played, often you will hear only parts of the ritornello; second, some concertos may have more alternations of Ritornello and Episodes than are indicated in the chart. Most Baroque concertos fit this form; ones that don't are anomalies. Vivaldi's works tend to fit the form much better than Bach's.

The Sonic glossary has an entry on ritornello form as well.


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.