Ostinato was a popular technique used during the 20th century that helped establish a tonal center and gave the pieces a sense of unification. Ostinato isthe Italian word for obstinate or stubborn. This popular musical sentence had its beginnings during the Baroque era. However, its popularity didn’t blossom again until the first half of the 20thcentury.
The ostinato used in each musical example can either be harmonic or melodic, as well as rhythmic. Like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth from the Mtsensk, Prokofiev utilizes an especially rhythmicostinato in the left hand.
In the Orchestral Interlude of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, there is a use of a passacaglia theme. Unlike a chaconne theme, where the ostinato is made up from a series ofrepetitive chords, the passacaglia is a melodic passage written in triple meter. With a relatively simple beginning, this repetitive melody in the strings is carried over later to develop the melodyin the flute and the horn. The different lengths of the ostinatos in these pieces vary from one with fewer notes, like in Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata, to a more extended Britten’s Serenade for Tenor,Horn and Strings.
The dotted rhythm is an important characteristic in Milhaud’s Botafogo, the constant left hand rhythm is easy to recognize and keeps a steady pace. Through various parts of the piecethe ostinato accompanies the ascending and later descending chord progression present in the right hand. The ostinato gives this piece a sense of unity and it helps to keep the ongoing intensitythroughout.
In contrast with the other pieces in discussion, in Britten’s Dirge for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the ostinato is present in more than one voice at the same time in a fugal, contrapuntaltexture. The tenor’s theme is a vocal ostinato with a repeated melody with a varying text. There is a constant emphasis on the interval of a half step and a suggestion of the Phrygian mode.