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Three common musical markings for gradual slowing down are ritardando, rallentando, and allargando. How do these differ from each other in interpretation and execution? For example, I was taught many moons ago that where ritardando meant to slow down gradually, rallentando meant to slow down more dramatically, but others have said that rallentando can be more gradual, still allowing for rubato and such effects.

Is there a most common interpretation of these, or is it really up to the performer how it comes out? Does the execution change by the period of the music being played (e.g., a rit. in a Classical piece being more measured than the same in a Romantic one)?

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Ritardando and rallentando both mean gradually getting slower and according to my AB guide to music theory book they are both supposed to imply a gradual slowing down. And allargando means broadening, implying getting a little slower and probably also a little louder.

Without a doubt execution sometimes changes in some cases, since words can change meaning over time. For example, ritenuto originally meant an abrupt change, although now it carries the same meaning as rallentando or ritardando.

However, to my knowledge and access to information, I could not find any reliable citation anywhere that states that rallentando and ritardando may be interpreted differently. However, there is this blog where some worthwhile digging around has been done and the researcher indicates that there may be a subtle difference between the two words, as they are two different words of the Italian language. From an Italian-English dictionary the author found:

Ritardare: “be late, wait, retard, lag, stay, lose, delay, set back, defer, put off.”

Rallentare: “slow down, reduce speed, slacken, slow, die down, decelerate, check, put back.”

This implies that ritardando seems to be a deliberate slowing or being late, while rallentando seems to be more of a letting go or dying away.(although it becomes similar to smorzando and raising the same question all over again).

Therefore, I come to the conclusion that composers may have used all three words differently but what the differences were, especially between rallentando and ritardando (discounting allargando as my book has given distinct directions on that), might be too subjective and individual specific to define properly and therefore, if one must be pedantic, it is best to leave it to experts who have studied the composer to give the final opinion. The blog gives an idea on this. So yes, it should vary slightly not just from era to era but also from composer to composer.

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    "Ritardare" is like reining in a horse. The animal wants to go stampeding off, and you actively prevent it. "Rallentare" is simply any slowing down - even a rolling ball will slow down over time, but there is no willpower and no conflict involved. That may or may not be helpful in deciding how you interpret one of these "slow down" indications. – Kilian Foth Apr 18 '15 at 15:15
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    Kilian: great description. That helps me. – lobi Apr 22 '15 at 16:31
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Looking at the translations from Italian, I would say ritardando "holds back" the tempo to build tension and rallentando slows the music to a conclusion (decelerate, die down). I have noticed that rall. appears at the end of pieces or sections, where rit. appears before a tempo in the middle of a phrase or section. Examples: 1. Mozart's Magic Flute ( Die Zauberflöte, K.620) For a Girl or a Woman (Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen) has a rall. at the end. 2. Prokofiev The Cat, from Peter and the Wolf, which has both poco rit. where the cat is moving stealthily and rall. at the end.

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Yesterday a young American choral director said that the difference between ¨rallentando¨ and ¨ritardando¨ was that the first implies a diminishing of the volume as well as a slowing down of the tempo. I kept myself back from telling him that he was wrong, that I'm fluent in Italian and lived 20 years in Italy, that I've sung with prominent conductors (e.g. Riccardo Chailly at La Verdi di Milano), and that in my opinion they were synonyms. Instead I decided to do some research and find out if he knew of something that had previously eluded me. Well, I spent at least two hours researching and my conclusion is that there is some validity to his claim. "Rallentare" has a secondary meaning of dying away, or losing inertia, whereas "ritardare" means to make late. Emma, Azid, and Kilian's answers to this thread are the most enlightening. I think this is not common knowledge and most modern composers use the two terms synonymously, even in Italy. I'll be visiting there this summer and I'll talk with some musicians and update this post.

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Oxford Dictionary of Music gives the following help.

RITARDARDE, RITARDANDO, RITARDATO (It.) 'To hold back.' 'Holding back' Held back.' (gradually, ie the same as as Rallentando.)

ALLARGANDO (It.) 'Enlarging', ie getting slower and slower and fuller in tone.

Source THE OXFORD COMPANION TO MUSIC 10TH EDITION.

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Being a very visual person, I like to think of things graphically. I visualize "ritardando" as being a straight linear slope, whereas "rallentando" is more of a parabolic curve.

When choosing which one to write, the most important distinction in either case is knowing what the target is. Then you can implement the best tool to convey the correct sound.

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Every composer writes whatever the heck he wants. Ultimately we have to try to get into his head and FEEL what he wanted. However, I will give you my knee-jerk reaction to these terms when I come across them while sight-reading in an ensemble situation. I tend to think of rallentando as not particularly subtle. Ritardando could be subtle or it could be not subtle. Allargando, to me, has potentially a theatrical, dramatic (pompous) feel. I speak Spanish, which sometimes gives me a helpful clue for Italian. In Spanish, 'alargar' (the verb), talks about making something longer. So when I see this in a piece, my first reaction will probably be that I need to get significantly slower, and lengthen the notes in a dramatic way.

It's different when I'm studying a difficult solo piece. There I experiment with singing and conducting the phrase that has to slow down, so I can discover what seems to work well.

Does the execution change by the period of the music being played (e.g., a rit. in a Classical piece being more measured than the same in a Romantic one)?

Romantic pieces can have lots of rubato, lots of ebb and flow (which is not necessarily marked in the piece). Think Chopin! Classical -- often a more structured tempo.

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