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In classical music obbligato usually describes a musical line that is in some way indispensable in performance. Its opposite is the marking ad libitum. It can also be used, more specifically, to indicate that a passage of music was to be played exactly as written, or only by the specified instrument, without changes or omissions. The word is borrowed from Italian (an adjective meaning fixed; from Latin obligatus p.p. of obligare, to oblige; in English the spelling obligato is also acceptable). The word can stand on its own, in English, as a noun, or appear as a modifier in a noun phrase (e.g. Organ obbligato).
Obbligato includes the idea of independence, as in C.P.E. Bach's 1780 Symphonies "mit zwölf obligaten Stimmen" ("with twelve obbligato parts") by which Bach was referring to the independent woodwind parts he was using for the first time. These parts were also obbligato in the sense of indispensable.
In connection with a keyboard part in the baroque period, obbligato has a very specific meaning: it describes a functional change from a basso continuo part (in which the player decided how to fill in the harmonies unobtrusively) to a fully written part of equal importance to the main melody part.
A later use has the contradictory meaning of optional, indicating that a part was not obligatory. A difficult passage in a concerto might be furnished by the editor with an easier alternative called the obbligato. Or a work may have a part for one or more solo instruments, marked obbligato, that are decorative rather than essential; the piece is complete and can be performed without the added part(s). The traditional term for such a part is ad libitum, or ad lib., or simply "Optional", since ad lib. may have a wide variety of interpretations.
The term has fallen out of use by modern-day practitioners, as composers, performers and audiences alike have come to see the musical text to be paramount in decisions of musical execution, and so everything has come to be seen as 'obbligato'. It is now used mainly to discuss music of the past. One amusing usage however, is that by Erik Satie in the third movement of "Embryons desséchés" (Desiccated embryos), where the obbligato consists of around twenty F-major chords played at fff (this is satirising Beethoven's symphonic style)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Obbligato". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.
Beethoven, L. van
Piano Sonata No. 14 "Moonlight"
2 Nocturnes Op. 27
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
Columbia Chamber Orchestra
Beethoven, L. van
Symphony No. 2 in D major
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra