‘Menuetto 1 da Capo’, or the dilemma of the ritornello

Updated: Mar 13

‘Menuetto I da Capo’

Or the dilemma of the ritornello

One of the most rewarding experiences in a musician’s life is undoubtedly to play music by J.S.Bach. Many of us have certainly spent wonderful hours playing on the guitar some of his immortal works! Ever since I was a little kid, I loved to play his Bourrèe from the 3rdCello Suite BWV1009, I simply could not have enough of it. Yet, I found the fact that the Bourrè was followed by a second Bourrèe and that at the end of it there was the indication "Bourrèe 1 da Capo", quite peculiar . Apparently, a clear guideline from the composer, one should repeat Bourreè no.1 from the beginning, but…what does it really mean?

We will try to give an answer, and arise many more of them, through our first blog!

Many musical pieces are composed in the ‘da Capo’ form (Italian: from the head/beginning), e.g. that from a certain bar the piece must be played again from the beginning till a point which is marked as the end of it through the Italian word ‘fine’ or, like in the baroque and classic, through a fermata.

As players we meet very often in Bach’s, Sor’s or Giuliani’s works Menuets, Gavottes, Marches or Bourres composed in ‘da Capo’ form (we will not treat here the Bach’s ‘da Capo’ Fugues, for they don’t fall among the special kind of ‘da Capo’ form which is the topic of this short article). What makes this kind of piece so interesting is that we have a bipartite dance (e.g. in two parts, each of which is repeated twice= A+A / B+B) which is followed by a second dance of the same kind (called also Trio) at whose end we find the indication ‘(first dance) da Capo’. At this point the question arises: should we repeat the first dance entirely, e.g. with all the repetitions? Or without? Or with only the first repetition? By which criteria have we to decide so?

Bourrèe I

A+A + B+B

Bourrèe II

C+C + D+D (da Capo)

Bourrèe I da Capo

A+A + B+B ? or A + B ? or A+A + B ?

Interesting question. Probably there is not one clear answer to it, for the answer probably lies with the general knowledge of the musicians who lived at the time these compositions were written. They could easily recognize under which category that particular dance fell and, consequently, choose the best option for the repetition. Even though, we will see that there is hard evidence in the scores themselves which make one solution more plausible. Here are some examples.

One of the most astonishing chamber works by W.A.Mozart is undoubtedly the Divertimento for string trio K.563. This monumental work, due to its size has 2 Menuets. At the end of the Trio of the first Menuetto the composer wrote ONLY ‘Menuetto da capo’. The second Menuetto has 2 Trios. At the end of the 1st Trio Mozart wrote ‘Menuetto da capo, le repliche piano’ (Menuetto from the beginning, the repetitions "piano"), whereas at the end of the Trio 2 he wrote ‘Menuetto da capo, senza replica e poi la coda’ (Menuetto from the beginning without repetitions, it follows the Coda).

I think these 2 indications leave no doubt about the fact that, in the absence of them, the Menuetto should have been re-played with ALL repetitions. For one, Mozart would not have needed to specify that the repetitions had to be played piano (for normally they were played with the same dynamic like the first time). In addition, he wouldn’t have needed to state that after the 2nd Trio, the player has to re-play the Menuetto without repetitions, if that was the normal way of re-playing it.

Another great example is also Beethoven’s Scherzo from his 7th Symphony, as we can easily draw a line between it and Mozart’s Menuetto.

The Beethoven’s Scherzo has the exact same structure as Mozart’s Menuetto:

  • Scherzo – Presto meno assai (much less Presto, the Trio factually)

  • Scherzo (repetitions ‘piano’) – Presto meno assai

  • Scherzo (without repetitions) – Coda.

The Scherzo is played 3 times and every repetition is written down, e.g. both times there is no indication ‘Scherzo da capo’ at the end of the 'Presto assai meno'. The reason is clear: Beethoven changes the dynamic in the ritornello into piano the by the first repetition of the Scherzo. He is so worried that the musicians would follow the common way of playing that he even writes several times ‘sempre P’ (always piano). The third time that the Scherzo is played he writes it without repetition. Exactly the same structure like in Mozart’s Menuetto. The reason why he didn’t write like Mozart ‘Scherzo da capo, le repliche piano’ and ‘Scherzo da capo, senza replica e poi la coda’ is maybe to find in some more nuances Beethoven uses in the dynamic, which would make a plane repetition impossible.

As I suggested in the beginning, some might think that, when one of the 2 part of which a Menuetto/Scherzo is composed is clearly shorter, one should play ‘da Capo’ only the repetition for this part (I think for instance to the Menuetto of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony). Interesting theory.

Nowadays we hear quite rarely performances where the ‘da Capo’ is played in its completeness. I asked myself why and I would like to share with you my thoughts on this topic.

The reason of this performance practice lies very likely in the adaptation of it to the new technologies. When the first recordings begun to be produced there was in fact a quite big practical problem, particularly for the recording of large pieces: the plate couldn’t hold more than a certain number of minutes of music on each side, so that the players were ‘forced’ many times to increase the Tempo in order to squeeze the piece into those limited minutes.

We all, as guitar players, know the almost ‘caricatural’ recording of Barrios playing his own music: some pieces are played too fast and with a kind of ‘anxiety’. I cannot believe that the lovely and poetical Vals op.8 n.3 should be played, especially in some parts, so fast and straightforward as we can hear in the recording of Barrios himself (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pNbIcp0Ye0). Another famous example is Coste’s study n.23 played by Llobet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwLZgyP2XT0).

The latest example is recorded on a 78rpm disc. Things did get better with the fabrication of the 33rpm, e.g. the LongPlaying plate. I remember I had a recording of Beethoven’s Eroica with the Marche Funebre cut in the middle to enable the listener to turn the plate. It took me a long time to get rid of the feeling that this piece was finished on that point…

It is easy to guess that in a situation like this, in order to gain minutes on the recording, the first victim would have been the ‘ritornello’: why repeating something which has already been heard? The consequences have been in some cases really dramatic (musically speaking): it is unthinkable to play the first part of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier without repetitions, and yet, this happened oftentimes, harming the meaning of this wonderful movement completely. The ritornello, in a general way, gives us the opportunity to listen to the part which was played from a different point of observation (the final tonality before the ritornello), it is a fundamental element of music!

On the other side, it is a fact that the world develops at an always more increasing speed, everything must happen fast and effectively and I think that music has been the victim of this mentality. I asked some esteemed colleagues why they think one shouldn’t play the ritornellos (in a very general way), the answer was: otherwise it becomes too long.

Too long?

Because of 2 more minutes?

People in the audience very rarely have the last train waiting for them at the end of your concert! :D

The great N. Harnoncourt recorded Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with ALL repetitions. The Scherzo becomes a granitic movement of over 1.000 bars. The same could be said about the classic Menuetto in Haydn’s or Mozart’s symphonic works, if played with ALL repetitions. From a short and ‘superficial’ moment between the lyrical second movement and the brilliant Finale it develops into a solid and independent part, the dancing part, of the Symphony.

Dear friend, thank you so much for your attention, if you have any thoughts to share with our community, please do so in the comment session below. Your comment will contribute to the richness of the discussion and will contribute to our community. Thank you in advance!!!!


Carlo Marchione

522 views1 comment

Website Designer Merce Font