© 2005 Chad Twedt
Not only is the ostinato greatly underexplored by history's composers, naturally, it is also underexplained by music textbooks and websites. In fact, as the first composer to explore the ostinato in any significant depth, I've even found it necessary to coin some terms (indicated in bold yellow) to help with complete understanding of the ostinato. Since the proposal of an "ostinato recognition week" national holiday probably won't fly, I felt the next best thing would be to inform visitors of my website about the ostinato.
Root, Meaning, and Usage
The word ostinato comes from the Latin root obstinatus, which means "obstinate" (stubborn, firm, resolved, and/or staunch). The musical ostinato refers to any short musical pattern that repeats itself for a significant portion of a composition. An ostinato pattern can be as short and simple as a repeating single note or drum tap, or as long and complicated as the bass note sequence in Bach's Passacaglia. However, this word "passacaglia" is a more fitting term to describe ostinatos of this length since listeners can sometimes finish an entire passacaglia without being aware that there was even a pattern in the bass at all. I would define "passacaglia pattern" to simply be a "long ostinato pattern".
Also, it is important to note that the word "ostinato" can refer to both a repeating musical pattern as well as a composition that contains a repeating musical pattern. For example, each of the movements of my ostinato suites can themselves be called ostinatos.
Every composer in history has probably used the ostinato technique at one point or another. The technique often appears over a duration of one or two lines of music. Fewer (but still numerous) composers have used the ostinato technique throughout an entire piece of music.
The ostinato can be broken down into four categories:
Most ostinato patterns are a combination of more than one of the above.
Alternate Classification of the Ostinato
It is also useful to think of ostinatos as either "open" or "closed":
The open ostinato is by far the easiest type of ostinato to write, and therefore the most common technique used. Famous examples already mentioned above would be Ravel's Bolero, Holst's "Mars" from The Planets, Mussorgsky's "The Old Castle" from Pictures at an Exhibition. My own ostinatos Outburst, Mother Nature's Clock, Victory Bells, Chinese Tea Dance, Nocturne, and Grand Ostinato would all be examples of open ostinatos.
Naturally, the closed ostinato is more restricting for a composer to write. Chopin's Berceuse is perhaps the most limiting of all closed ostinatos, constantly restricting Chopin to nothing but tonic and dominant chords. Chopin was surely using such a horribly limiting ostinato pattern to prove his skill as a composer to write a variety of right hand gestures to keep the audience's interest, which he does successfully. My own ostinatos Spellbound and Merciful Cry would be other examples of closed ostinatos.
What About Minimalism?
The ostinato technique is not to be confused with minimalism, since minimalism seeks to make music out of "minimal" musical ideas. An ostinato pattern itself may be a "minimal" musical idea in itself, but in a typical ostinato piece, the primary musical material is merely accompanied by the ostinato, which means the ostinato serves only a secondary purpose. In minimalism, the "minimal" musical ideas are the primary musical ideas.
Personal Note: Influences
When I first started writing my ostinatos, I did not consciously realize how much I loved the ostinato technique itself. I was just fascinated by what was possible to write with such simple restrictions. Only after writing Outburst and Mother Nature's Clock did I consciously set out to write an entire CD's worth of ostinato music. As I look back on my musical tastes even at a very young age, I am still amazed at how this taste for the ostinato was always there in the most natural, unnurtured way. I just didn't see it until I started writing my own music. The music that I had always loved the very most - the music that I could listen to hundreds of times without intellectual or emotional fatigue - all seemed to utilize the ostinato:
What sets my ostinatos apart from the ostinatos that other various composers have written? Two things: arch structure and melodic/harmonic content. Structurally, every piece I write has a clear emotional peak, and every piece is built around maximizing the emotional impact of this peak. Sometimes I spend more time on the structure of a piece than I do coming up with actual melodies and harmonies, such as with Grand Ostinato, which took me weeks to finalize the order in which each thematic idea would be presented.
As far as harmonic content is concerned, judging by what I see in other ostinatos written by past composers, I believe I spend more time coming up with a variety of themes that are all compatible with each ostinato pattern I use. I also believe the real beauty in a well-written ostinato lies in keeping the listener from becoming too aware of the repetition of each ostinato pattern. What happens on top of the ostinato makes all the difference.
Many of the greatest compositions are written with self-imposed limitations. Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn limited themselves to following a structural pattern in sonatas, rondos, concertos, etc. Shakespeare limited himself to 14 lines of iambic pentameter in the many brilliant sonnets he wrote. Scott Joplin mostly limited himself to the same jumping left hand bass pattern throughout his rags, just as Chopin did with most of his waltzes. It is wrong to say that one of these techniques is inherently flawed. Obviously, every composition must be judged on its own creative merit.
© 2005 Chad Twedt·