Ritornello

INSTRUMENTATION
Flute
Oboe
Clarinet
Bassoon
Horn
Trumpet
Trombone
Tuba
Percussion (1 player)
Piano
Guitar
Strings (min. 1-1-1-1-1)
Duration: ca. 7’
Written for Great Noise Ensemble. Premiered by Great Noise Ensemble, Armando Bayolo, conductor, in
November, 2006 in Washington, D.C.

Ritornello is a brief work for ensemble based on the ritornello (a portion of music which returns relatively unchanged throughout the course of a piece, like the refrain or chorus in a song) in Michael Praetorius’ (1571-1621) motet “Puer Natus in Bethlehem” from the Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica (1619).  I have known this motet for many years and one night I found myself improvising on it and discovered the possibilities it holds within a post-modern, post-minimalist style.  The piece is, essentially, a deconstruction of the motet’s major themes built around the ritornello’s sixteenth-note pulse.  It is not, however, a collage but more of a gloss or free fantasy on the Praetorius original.  The piece begins with an outburst on the first four notes of the ritornello and continues with a quiet sixteenth-note pulse of seething intensity and growing chords.  Fragments from the motet’s opening instrumental “sinfonia” and its first verse are superimposed on these sonorities, which gradually build to a brief, yet incomplete statement of the ritornello.  Finally anticipation gives way to ecstasy and a brief dance in changing meters leads into a full statement of the ritornello theme after which the piece winds itself down to silence with fragments of the motet played “like something misremembered.”

In mood Ritornello owes much to the chorus “Glory to God in the Highest” from part one of Handel’s oratorio, Messiah.  In that work the chorus, representing angels, bursts forth as though unable to take the building intensity of the previous recitative, only to vanish like a will-o-the-whip into the heavenly ether.  Ritornello is, in a way, an extension of this mood, although there are no musical references to Handel in it.  The piece is also something of a rarity among contemporary art music: a celebration of Christmas.  I have been interested in religious music for some time and music written around the biblical passion narratives in particular.  The nativity stories, however, have not played as central a role in my musical thinking and this piece seeks to explore the mood of joyful excitement prevalent in these stories, if only in the briefest of ways.