Stephen Smith

Vancouver pianist, composer/arranger, choral conductor, teacher, and writer on music


05 Feb 2021

Rits, ralls, and other rubbish

Why differentiating between a ritardando and a rallentando is, in my opinion, too fussy by half.

Google "rit vs rall" or some similar shorthand, and you’ll be instantly presented with a plethora of lengthy, and often heated, online debates about the difference between the musical terms ritardando and rallentando—not to mention the subtle shades of meaning to be found in their exotic siblings ritenuto, allargando, slargando, calando, and the like. (Should you encounter the word zurückhalten in one of these forums, you’ll know you’ve stumbled on a particularly thorough discussion of the topic—and one just as useless as all the rest!)

A very high percentage of the participants in these debates assert quite categorically that they "have always understood" the distinction between (or among) the terms in question to be such-and-so; and they often imply—or say outright—that they believe theirs to be the universally-accepted understanding of the matter. Yet everyone who professes to have absorbed the common wisdom on this subject along with their mother’s milk appears to have a completely different understanding from everyone else who so professes!

For some, the distinction is one of degree, while for others it is one of duration, rapidity, intensity, purpose, context, or any of a thousand highly-imaginative differentiations of quality, character, or style. One person describes rallentando as the equivalent of taking one’s foot off the accelerator when driving a car, and ritardando as being akin to putting one’s foot on the brake. (One wonders how pre-automobile-age composers could have anticipated those sensations… and whether a policeman watching your car do 80 in a 50mph zone can tell the difference!) Another correspondent compares a rall. to the effect of melatonin and a rit. to that of ambien!

In some cases the pontificators base their assertions on the literal meanings of the Italian words—forgetting, perhaps, that unless every English (and Russian, and Brazilian…) composer who ever used these terms consulted an Italian dictionary, the meanings found there may not really be all that relevant! In other cases, these musicians’ lifelong and unwavering commitment to their particular way of differentiating these terms may be based on: (1) the dictum of some long-deceased piano teacher or choirmaster, (2) their observation of a certain composer’s—or more likely a certain editor’s—usage, or (3) a peculiar need to enlist all manner of far-flung visual, physical, tactile, and emotional analogues in order to motivate and inform their interpretation of these essentially simple instructions, so commonly found in music.

It may well be that, at some point in the long-distant past, to some unremembered Italian composer who first employed it in a printed score, the word rallentando meant "slowing down" (with overtones of "relenting" and/or "relaxing"), while ritardando meant "slowing down" (with overtones of "being late" and/or "being sluggish"). Who knows? Who cares?! To billions of composers, performers, and students of music in every land and every century since, both words have always meant, and still mean, quite simply, "slowing down."

As to how much, how soon, and how grandly (or sleepily or haltingly…) to slow down, and whether to slow down in arithmetic or geometric increments, and whether to simultaneously increase or decrease the volume, and whether the slowing-down should feel like the effect of melatonin or ambien… well, of course, it depends!

Every single occurrence of a rit. or a rall.—and for that matter every riten. or slarg.—is in a completely different musical context from every other rit., rall., riten., and slarg., and so it must be judged and interpreted accordingly! If the composer has added a molto or a pochiss. to show relatively how much rit. he wants, or has included some dashes or an A tempo to show how long she wants the rall. to last, consider yourself lucky; otherwise, use your common sense and musicianship, and slow down in a way that is appropriate, tasteful, expressive, and effective in the context!

A  rit. in the penultimate bar of a slow alla breve fugue for organ is probably not going to have quite the same "feel" as a rall. in the second bar of a six-bar phrase, two-thirds of the way through a rhythmically-complex and harmonically-ambiguous German Romantic character-piece for piano marked "Lebhaft, aber nicht zu schnell," where it is one of nine indicated tempo alterations! But the difference between the two is not something that can be indicated by the word ritardando, or the word rallentando, or any other word or combination of words! The difference between them is what we call music.

Copyright © 2021 Stephen Smith