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What Is a Divertimento?

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  • Written By: Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 September 2016
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A divertimento is a work of classical music, particularly popular in the 18th century. Designed for entertainment, it consists of several small movements. Generally, composers wrote divertimenti as music to accompany dinners or banquets. They also wrote them for the general mingling and dancing that occurred following meals. The multiple movements were supposed to keep the pace of the evening moving and lively.

Although most divertimenti have between three and ten movements, they do not have any strict set form. Whether a work should be classified as a divertimento thus relies on the origin of the term "divertimento." This term comes from the Italian and means "to divert or amuse." Amusement usually is associated with happiness, so people generally label divertimenti as light music. Diversion simply means to do something different or go off in a new direction, however. It does not necessarily imply lightness, so some divertimenti are quite serious.

Even though a divertimento does not have a predefined form, the movements it contains typically do. For instance, movements can be in rondo or sonata form. Composers were still expected to follow formal theory rules when writing divertimenti as a result. In fact, many divertimenti contain advanced, mature musical concepts that make the works true masterpieces despite the setting for which they were intended. Experts often cite Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "String Divertimento K. 563" as an example of this.

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In terms of divertimenti orchestration, composers can use woodwinds, brass, strings or a combination of these, as well as supplemental percussion. Some divertimenti are designed for chamber orchestras. People often did not have the space or money to use chamber orchestras, however, so composers looked to other instrumental combinations. Thus, divertimenti played a major role in developing specific chamber forms, such as the string quartet and woodwind quintet. Some of the best examples of musical experimentation and pushing instrumental performance limits are found in these pieces.

Although some contemporary composers are writing new divertimenti using a mixture of tonal and atonal methods, divertimenti are not nearly as popular as they were during the 18th century. The reason is that, with the exception of formal dinners, people generally do not use live musicians or even use music at all. As people became busier and meals subsequently became functional rather than social, divertimenti became largely antiquated. When new divertimenti are performed, it is usually in a formal concert setting where the music is the emphasis, not a dining hall.

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