Stretto is a term used in music theory to describe a technique where a musical theme or melody is repeated in overlapping or imitative entries. This technique is commonly used in fugues, which are complex compositions that employ multiple voices and intricate counterpoint.

Origins of Stretto

The concept of stretto can be traced back to the Baroque period, when composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel used it extensively in their works. The term “stretto” comes from the Italian word for “tight” or “narrow,” which reflects the way that the entries overlap and create a sense of compression or intensification.

How Stretto Works

In its simplest form, stretto involves repeating a melody or theme in different voices with progressively shorter time intervals between each entry. For example, if a theme is introduced in the first voice, it might be repeated immediately afterwards in the second voice, and then again in the third voice after an even shorter interval. This creates a sense of increasing tension and complexity as the voices converge on each other.

Example:

Let’s consider an example from Bach’s famous fugue in C minor from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier. In this fugue, the main theme (known as the subject) is introduced in the first voice:

Subject: C# – E – A – B – F# – D – G# – C#

The second voice enters immediately afterwards with a slightly modified version of the subject:

Voice 1: C# – E – A – B – F# – D – G# – C#

Voice 2: E – G#- C#- D – A – F#- B – E

Notice that the second voice begins with the same notes as the first voice, but shifted up a third. This creates a sense of imitation or echo, which is a hallmark of stretto. The third voice enters after another short interval with an even more compressed version of the subject:

Voice 3: A – C#- F#- G – D – B- E – A

Again, notice that the third voice begins with the same notes as the first and second voices, but shifted up to start on A. This creates an even tighter sense of overlap and convergence.

Why Stretto Matters

Stretto is an important technique in music composition because it allows composers to create complex and intricate textures using simple melodic material. By overlapping and imitating themes in different voices, composers can create a sense of unity and coherence while also building tension and drama.

Conclusion

In conclusion, stretto is a powerful technique used in music theory to create complex compositions that employ multiple voices and intricate counterpoint. By repeating a melody or theme in overlapping or imitative entries, composers can create a sense of increasing tension and complexity that draws the listener into the music. Whether you are a composer or simply a lover of music, understanding stretto can deepen your appreciation for the artistry involved in creating great works of music.