Perspectives on Rondo and Ritornello:  "Self" and "Other"

by William Renwick


Volume II of McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium explores the role and function of returning musical materials in Baroque and Classical forms.  Whereas the formal aspects of the pieces analyzed in Volume I were by and large non-controversial, the examples studied in Volume II have particular morphological difficulties.  The reader will therefore find a variety of points of view regarding the application of notions of ritornello and rondo in Volume II.   (A detailed discussion appears in the Appendix.)

The crux of understanding ritornello and rondo forms, which became apparent to us only as work progressed, is what may be seen as a subjective-objective dichotomy; a "self "--other" framework, if you will.  Central to the discussion is determining, if possible, whether the focus of a work--the "self" or "ego"--resides in the repeated material (rondo or ritornello), relegating the episodes to "other"; or whether it is really the episodes that are the "self" of the work, relegating the refrain to an "other" or foil.  As the analyses indicate, these issues are by no means as clear cut as one would be led to think from the theoretical literature on the subject.

This defining characteristic of the refrain forms must be seen in a wider context of the twin forces at work in most music--the generating force that leads to new ideas, developments, contrasts, expansions, and the limiting force that turns the music back to its origins, that provides stability and identity.  In the refrain forms these two forces are in a continual state of tension with each other.  It is ultimately the composer's ability to effectively balance of the narrative and dramatic elements with the static, repetitive elements, that determines the artistic success of the work.

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