Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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Ostiano, Vincenzo

(fl late 16th century). Italian composer, poet and organist. His only known publication is a book of 22 napolitane for three voices (Venice, 1579). It is dedicated to Nicolo Lanzanico, a nobleman from Treviso, who had a country estate at Seravalle where Ostiano served as organist. In the dedication Ostiano claimed that enjoyment is the ultimate goal of music; therefore, ‘napolitane deserve more than the usual praise for the great pleasure they impart’. His book contains songs of homage to patrons, a strophic paraphrase of the madrigal Poiche morte and two proposta–risposta exchanges; the remainder are Arcadian villanella types. Tripartite musical forms, short points of imitation, syncopated rhythms and occasional parallel 5ths characterize his style.



G.M. Monti: Le villanelle alla napoletana e l’antica lirica dialettale a Napoli (Città di Castello, 1925)

E. Gerson-Kiwi: Studien zur Geschichte des italienischen Liedmadrigals im XVI. Jahrhundert (Würzburg, 1937)

R.I. DeFord: ‘The Influence of the Madrigal on Canzonetta Texts of the Late Sixteenth Century’, AcM, lix (1987), 127–51



(It.: ‘obstinate’).

A term used to refer to the repetition of a musical pattern many times in succession while other musical elements are generally changing. A simple and easily remembered method of construction, ostinato is extremely widespread in oral musical traditions. It has also been used in Western art music, one of the earliest surviving examples being the 13th-century canon Sumer is icumen in. Ostinato enjoyed a Golden Age during the Baroque period (see Chaconne; Passacaglia; Folia; Ruggiero; and Borrowing, §8) and, after a decline during the Classical and Romantic eras, it reappeared in other guises in the 20th century (see also Ground and Variations).

1. Types.

2. Ostinato variations.

3. The place of ostinato in musical structure.

4. Ostinato as a means of expression.




1. Types.

The adjective ‘ostinato’ first appeared in a musical context in 1687 in Berardi’s Documenti armonici, where the expression ‘contrapunto ostinato’ is found, although Zarlino had already described its use in 1558 in his Le istituzioni harmoniche under the name ‘pertinacie’. In the music dictionaries of Brossard (1703), Walther (1732) and J.-J. Rousseau (1768) the terms ‘contrapunto perfidiato’ and ‘contrapunto obligato’ are used in the same sense.

The use of the term as a noun, without specifying which is the ‘obstinate’ element, is relatively recent (Hermann Mendel first used it in his Musikalisches Conversations-Lexicon in 1877), and the term has long been understood, even in some 20th-century dictionaries, to be an abbreviation of basso ostinato.

The regular repetition of a pattern requires, as a minimum, the existence of a rhythmic structure, to which other elements may be added. Several types of ostinato may thus be distinguished according to the elements involved.

An exclusively rhythmic ostinato can be stated in a single instrument (as in the side drum in Ravel’s Boléro), by many instruments (as in ‘Mars’ from Holst’s The Planets) or by different instruments in opposition (ex.1). This type of ostinato is found above all in oral musical traditions, in jazz and in popular music. The rhythm in ex.1 uses the pitches of the piece’s scalar system, but a rhythmic ostinato may also be on a single, repeated pitch. Examples are found in Schubert’s lied Die Sterbende, the first of Jolivet’s Cinq danses rituelles for piano (ex.2) and ‘Le gibet’ in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. In notated Western music, however, a rhythmic ostinato is usually applied to non-repeating or ‘free’ pitches. This type of ostinato is common, ranging from 13th-century rhythmic modes to the characteristic rhythms of individual dances. Among the many examples are the ‘Course à l’abîme’ from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust and Purcell’s air ‘The pale and the purple rose’ (ex.3).

When two elements, rhythm and pitch, are both ‘obstinate’, either their respective periodicity coincides or it does not. If it does not, the melodic phrase usually includes the repetition of the rhythmic structure. Purcell’s ground basses contain several examples of this (ex.4). In some isorhythmic motets of the Ars Nova, the two elements, called ‘color’ (pitch organization) and ‘talea’ (rhythmic period), are treated independently (see Isorhythm). When a melodic-rhythmic ostinato is in the bass it may form a harmonic ostinato or Ground (see §3 below). This is commonly found in music of the Baroque era, and also in jazz (notably Boogie-woogie), and it may be considered the ‘high point’ of ostinato, since it involves three ‘obstinate’ elements – rhythm, pitch and harmony. The character of an ostinato bass varies according to whether its function is essentially harmonic – with equal, sometimes long, note values, particularly when it supports instrumental variations (e.g. the English ‘divisions upon a ground’) – or whether, on the other hand, it has its own distinct melodic-rhythmic line (e.g. numerous vocal pieces by Purcell and Blow). The harmonic function of the bass line can dominate to such an extent that any sense of a melodic bass is obliterated, the realization of the chords being left to the performer’s inspiration. In jazz, for instance, it is often the type of chord only that is indicated; the internal organization of the notes (i.e. whether root position or an inversion) is not specified.

Conversely, in contemporary music an ostinato rhythm may be applied to a series of chords that have no harmonic function, as, for example, in Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock (ex.5). Examples of earlier chordal ostinatos include Soler’s Fandango and Chopin’s Berceuse op.57.


2. Ostinato variations.

An ostinato is often used to support variations in other voices, when it may be repeated strictly or varied. It serves here as the ‘reference model’ which imprints itself in the listener’s memory and secures the identity of the pattern throughout the variations. This is why in ground basses of the Baroque period the variations begin only after a number of strict repetitions, which varies according to the ostinato’s length and character. The reference model is often reintroduced in the middle of the variations and almost always at the end of the piece. The descending minor tetrachord is the only formula to have become so stereotyped that it can be presented from the outset in a varied form (the reference model in this case being implicit).

Variations may operate on two different levels, affecting the regularity of the repetitions or the motif itself. First, variations in periodicity may involve elongating or shortening the pattern (as in Blow’s ‘Oh when ye powers’; ‘Anco in cielo’ in Stradella’s S Giovanni Battista; Khachaturian’s Ostinato for two pianos), temporarily interrupting it (as at the beginning of Falla’s El amor brujo) or even inserting a new element between two repetitions (as in Bach’s Cantata no.78). At the second level of variation, the ostinato may move to a different voice, perhaps entailing changes in harmony (as in Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor for organ) or in instrumentation (as in Bach’s Cantata no.78; the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony; the ‘Carillon’ from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite no.1). The pattern may also be affected by internal transformations: in addition to the traditional melodic and rhythmic modulations (rhythmic mutation, addition of passing notes, filling in etc.). There may be more specific modulations, borrowings or simple transpositions (as in Blow’s ‘The sacred nine’, Dido’s first air in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Jacob and George’s duet in his Timon of Athens), as well as the stereotyped variations (in Baroque music) of the descending minor tetrachord, such as statement in the major, inversion, chromatic inflection and metric transformation (triple to duple) (see Ground).

The repetitive structure of minimalist music in the 20th century introduced a new type of ostinato variation – progressive transformation – where there is no longer a single reference model but each transformation is repeated and becomes in its turn the model for the following one (e.g. in Ligeti’s Continuum).


3. The place of ostinato in musical structure.

The structural importance of an ostinato varies according to whether the support it provides is continuous (as in the chaconne and passacaglia), partial (as in the A section of an ABA structure, e.g. the ‘Carillon’ from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite no.1) or only sporadic (as in many of Stravinsky’s works).

Although melodic-rhythmic ostinatos generally appear in the bass, 20th-century composers, particularly Stravinsky, also used them in the highest voice or in an intermediate voice, thus changing the way they are perceived. Some composers incorporated a change of register into the ostinato pattern (as in the third of Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine; ex.6), sometimes combining this with a change of instrumentation, following the concept of Klangfarbenmelodie (e.g. in the Passacaglia of Stravinsky’s Septet).

When an ostinato is accompanied by free (‘non-obstinate’) voices, the regularity of its repetition may be affected. If it functions as a framework for variations (as in the English ‘divisions upon a ground’), its periodicity coincides exactly with that of the parts playing the variations, generally in a ratio of one (sometimes two) statements to one variation in the upper parts. If the bass accompanies a vocal line, however, the ends of the vocal phrases may not coincide with the ends of the bass pattern, resulting in overlapping, as used by Monteverdi (Lamento della ninfa), Cavalli (Erisbe’s aria in L’Ormindo) and especially Purcell (Dido’s airs; O solitude, my sweetest choice). In order to avoid or, at least, mask the monotony of too frequent and too regular cadences the voice may be particularly charged at the link between statements of the ostinato (ex.7). The overlap in periodicity thus creates variety while maintaining unity, and allows great freedom in the vocal part. Furthermore, the use of a repeated formula in the bass allows attention to be focussed completely on the text and the emotional power of the voice.

Sometimes several ostinatos may be superimposed, with or without their phrases coinciding. The best examples of this art, which may involve up to four different ostinatos, are found in the traditional polyphony and polyrhythms of Central Africa. The superimposed phrases are usually of different lengths but always in simple ratio, such as 2:1, 3:1, 3:2, 4:2 and their multiples (ex.8). Western composers in the 20th century have used both superimposed ostinatos of the same length with overlapping statements (e.g. Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Reich’s Clapping Music) and those of different lengths (e.g. the third of Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine; the first of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for string quartet).


4. Ostinato as a means of expression.

The regular and persistent repetition of an ostinato facilitates the perception and understanding of a motif: only after several repetitions will a listener associate a descending 3rd with the cuckoo’s song, for example. Composers using ostinato have thus sought expression on two levels – in the repetition and in the character of the repeated elements. In the 15th century, for instance, the Gloria ad modum tube attributed to Du Fay provides an example of an ostinato imitating the sound of trumpets. From the 16th century, especially in England (in the works of Byrd, Morley and Weelkes), ground basses imitating bells and carillons became widespread. In Romantic music an ostinato commonly consists of a single repeated note, imitating a death knell (as in Schubert’s Die Sterbende; ‘Le gibet’ in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit). The regular repetition of a rising and falling melodic outline often evokes the rocking motion of a swing (as in Satie’s La balançoire), a lullaby (as in many berceuses, such as that by Chopin or Fauré’s Dolly) or the waves of the sea (as in Debussy’s La mer; ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ from Ravel’s Miroirs; Satie’s Le yachting).

Imagery may also be derived from rhythm, and there are many examples of ostinatos that suggest the rhythm of horses’ hooves (e.g. the piano part of Schubert’s Erlkönig; the ‘Course à l’abîme’ from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust). Often a more abstract notion is represented: since the development of diastematic notation a series of sounds moving from high to low has been associated with descent and, when repeated obstinately, can symbolize depression or even moral failing (e.g. Bach’s organ chorale Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt).

Repetition itself can be used to symbolize moral restraint or obsessive torment (indeed, in the 17th century the French term for an ostinato bass was basse contrainte), as in the second act of Lully’s Acis et Galatée or Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade. This becomes even more plaintive when combined with the descending minor tetrachord, with its closing minor 2nd, which in the 1640s came to symbolize lamentation. Cavalli used this in several of his operatic laments, and chromatic versions of it (e.g. Climene’s aria in Cavalli’s Egisto; Dido’s final air in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas) serve as even stronger symbols of suffering (see Lamento).

Repetition, especially when unvaried, can cause the loss of a sense of time and induce a torpor that, by association, may be used to evoke sleep. In Baroque opera ground basses were used in this way, not only in laments but also in sleep scenes, where dreams were used to justify the intervention of gods and supernatural apparitions. In the 20th century repetition, perhaps surprisingly, is associated with one particular form of sleep – death (e.g. Ravel’s ‘Le gibet’), especially in opera (e.g. the passacaglia in the fourth interlude of Britten’s Peter Grimes; Act 2 scene iv of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; the beginning of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi).

Ostinato repetition, particularly at high pitches, can also be an effective way of establishing an atmosphere of insecurity and suspense: this technique has been freely exploited by composers of film music (e.g. Bernard Hermann for Hitchcock’s Vertigo). An ostinato may also be articulated by dynamic variation: decreasing the tempo, intensity or dynamic may create an impression of appeasement (as at the end of Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète); more commonly, increasing the dynamic can suggest the onset of a trance or madness (as in Ravel’s Boléro and, in oral traditions, the music accompanying trances).

While repetition in itself is expressive, contrast is also important, the simplest and most effective contrast being to stop the repetition dead. Monteverdi interrupted the ostinato in Zefiro torna in this way in order to emphasize the lover’s complaint ‘sol io per selve abbandonate et sole’. In Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre the ostinato slows and stops completely at the image of the heart ceasing to beat, following Schubert who, at the end of Erlkönig, slows the rhythm of the horses and stops it completely to symbolize the end of life at the words ‘in seinen Armen das Kind war tot’.



MGG2(‘Ground’; E.H. Meyer/M.H. Harras)

H. Riemann: ‘Das Ostinato’, Grosse Kompositionslehre, ii (Berlin, 1903), 402–38

H. Riemann: ‘Basso ostinato und basso quasi ostinato’, Festschrift Rochus Freiherrn von Liliencron (Leipzig, 1910/R), 193–203

H. Riemann: ‘Der “Basso Ostinato” und die Anfänge der Kantate’, SIMG, xiii (1911–12), 531–43

P. Nettl: ‘Zwei spanische Ostinatothemen’, ZMw, i (1918–19), 694–8

L. Propper: Der Basso ostinato als technisches und formbildendes Prinzip (Hildburghausen,1926)

R. Litterscheid: Zur Geschichte des Basso Ostinato (Dortmund, 1928)

P. Mies: ‘Die Chaconne (Passacaille) bei Händel’, HJb 1929, 13–24

L. Nowak: Grundzüge einer Geschichte des Basso ostinato in der abendländlichen Musik (Vienna, 1932)

O. Gombosi: ‘Italia, patria del basso ostinato’, RaM, vii (1934), 14–25

O. Gombosi: ‘Zur Frühgeschichte der Folia’, AcM, viii (1936), 119–29

H.W. Shaw: ‘Blow’s Use of the Ground Bass’, MQ, xxiv (1938), 31–8

W. Meinardus: Die Technik des Basso ostinato bei Henry Purcell (diss., U. of Cologne, 1939)

L. Walther: Die Ostinato-Technik in den Chaconne-und Arien-Formen des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts (Würzburg, 1940)

M. Bukofzer: ‘Sumer is icumen-in’: a Revision (Berkeley, 1944), 79–114

W.G. Allt: ‘Treatment of Ground’, PRMA, lxxii (1945–6), 73–95

A. Machabey: ‘Les origines de la chaconne et de la passacaille’, RdM, xxviii (1946), 1–21

H.M. Miller: ‘Henry Purcell and the Ground Bass’, ML, xxix (1948), 340–47

R.H. Turrill: The Soprano Ostinato Technique in the Works of Igor Stravinsky (diss., UCLA, 1951)

J. Ward: ‘The “Dolfull Domps”’, JAMS, iv (1951), 111–21

K. Westphal: ‘Der Ostinato in der neuen Musik’, Melos, xx (1953), 108–10

W. Osthoff: ‘Le forme più antiche della passacaglia nella musica italiana’,Musiche popolari mediterranee: Convegno dei bibliotecari musicali: Palermo 1954, 275–88

A. Elston: ‘Some Rhythmic Practices in Contemporary Music’, MQ, xlii (1956), 318–29

K. von Fischer: ‘Chaconne und Passacaglia: ein Versuch’, RBM, xii (1958), 19–34

L. Stein: ‘The Passacaglia in the 20th Century’, ML, xl (1959), 150–53

F. Mathiassen: ‘Jeppesen’s Passacaglia’, Natalicia musicologica Knud Jeppesen septuagenario collegis oblata, ed. B. Hjelmborg and S. Sørensen (Copenhagen, 1962), 293–307

E. Apfel: ‘Ostinato und Kompositionstechnik bei den englischen Virginalisten der elisabethanischen Zeit’, AMw, xix–xx (1962–3), 29–39

M. Schuler: ‘Zur Frühgeschichte der Passacaglia’, Mf, xvi (1963), 121–6

R.B. Lenaerts: ‘Zur Ostinato-Technik in der Kirchenmusik der Niederländer’, Festschrift Bruno Stäblein, ed. M. Ruhnke (Kassel, 1967), 157–9

W.T. Marrocco: ‘The Newly-Discovered Ostiglia Pages of the Vatican Rossi Codex 215: the Earliest Italian Ostinato’, AcM, xxxix (1967), 84–91

G. Berger: Ostinato, Chaconne, Passacaglia (Wolfenbüttel, 1968)

T. Walker: ‘Ciaccona and Passacaglia: Remarks on their Origin and Early History’, JAMS, xxi (1968), 300–20

D.D. Handel: The Contemporary Passacaglia (diss., U. of Rochester, 1969)

R. Hudson: ‘The Passacaglia and Ciaccona in Italian Keyboard Music of the 17th Century’, The Diapason, lx/12 (1969), 22–4; lxi/1 (1969), 6–7

R. Hudson: ‘Chordal Aspects of the Italian Dance Style 1500–1650’, JLSA, iii (1970), 35–52

R. Hudson: ‘Further Remarks on the Passacaglia and Ciaccone’, JAMS, xxiii (1970), 302–14 [reply to Walker, 1968]

R. McGuinness: ‘The Ground-Bass in the English Court Ode’, ML, li (1970), 118–40, 265–85

R. Hudson: ‘The Folia Danse and the Folia Formula in 17th-Century Guitar Music’, MD, xxv (1971), 199–221

R. Hudson: ‘The Ripresa, the Ritornello, and the Passacaglia’, JAMS, xxiv (1971), 364–94

E. Apfel: ‘Rhythmisch-metrische und andere Beobachtungen an Ostinatobässen’, AMw, xxxiii (1976), 48–67

E. Apfel: Entwurf eines Verzeichnisses aller Ostinato-Stücke zu Grundlagen einer Geschichte der Satztechnik (Saarbrücken, 1977)

D. Caux: ‘Cette musique que l’on dit “répétitive”’, Musique en jeu, xxvi (1977), 81–6

I. Stoianova: ‘Musique répétitive’, ibid., 64–74

E. Rosand: ‘The Descending Tetrachord: an Emblem of Lament’, MQ, lxv (1979), 346–59

R. Hudson: Passacaglio and Ciaccona: from Guitar Music to Italian Keyboard Variations in the XVIIth Century (Ann Arbor, 1981)

R. Hudson, ed.: The Folia, the Saraband, the Passacaglia, and the Chaconne, MSD, xxxv (1982)

H. Zajaczkowski: ‘The Function of Obsessive Elements in Tchaikovsky’s Style’, MR, xliii (1982), 24–30

S. Burstyn: ‘Gerald of Wales and the Sumer Canon’, JM, ii (1983), 135–50

R. Legrand: Chaconnes et passacailles dansées (diss., U. of Paris, 1984)

S. Arom: Polyphonies et polyrythmies instrumentales d’Afrique centrale: structure et méthodologie (Paris, 1985; Eng. trans., 1991)

O. Delaigue: ‘Mouvement et répétition dans la musique américaine des années 1960–1980’, Analyse musicale, viii (1987), 36–8

S. Gut: ‘Le phénomène répétitif chez Maurice Ravel: de l’obsession à l’annihilation incantatoire’, IRASM, xxi (1990), 29–46

L. Schnapper: ‘L’idée de modèle dans le principe de la chaconne’, Analyse musicale, xxii (1991), 79–86

L. Schnapper: ‘L’ostinato dans tous les sens’, Les universaux en musique: Paris 1994, 375–84

L. Schnapper: ‘Analyse et typologie de l’ostinato’, Musurgia, ii (1995), 80–90

L. Schnapper: ‘L’apport de l’ethnomusicologie à l’analyse de l’ostinato’, Ndroje balendro: musiques, terrains et disciplines: textes offerts à Simha Arom, ed. V. Dehoux and others (Paris, 1995), 275–83

L. Schnapper: ‘Une forme particulière d'ostinato: le motet isorhythmique’, Sillages musicologiques: hommages à Yves Gerard, ed. P. Blay and R. Legrand (Paris, 1997), 151–60

L. Schnapper: L’ostinato, procédé musical universel (Paris, 1998)

G. Starobinski: L’ostinato dans l’œuvre d’Alban Berg: formes et fonction (Berne, 1999)
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