Obbligato is an Italian word meaning “essential,” or “obligatory.” During the Baroque era, but even as late as Beethoven’s time, composers used the term obbligato to describe instruments or instrumental parts that were essential to a composition. Sometimes the essential instruments were the solo instruments in a concerto, and sometimes the term was applied to important instrumental parts in vocal compositions – a prominent trumpet part in a soprano aria, for example, would be called a “trumpet obbligato.” The opposite of obbligato is ad libitum, or “optional.” In the nineteenth century, however, through a mysterious musical and linguistic transformation, obbligato merged with its opposite, and the term started being applied to parts that were in fact optional. In the early 1900's, for example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler added violin parts to a number of songs that were originally just for voice and piano, so that he could perform the songs with the tenor John McCormack. Kreisler’s optional violin parts are called violin obbligatos.
A Minute with Miles - a production of ETV Radio made possible by the JM Smith Corporation.