A ricercar (Italian pronunciation: [rit͡ʃɛrkar], also spelled ricercare, recercar, recercare) is a type of late Renaissance and mostly early Baroque instrumental composition. The term means to search out, and many ricercars serve a preludial function to "search out" the key or mode of a following piece. A ricercar may explore the permutations of a given motif, and in that regard may follow the piece used as illustration. For example, "Ricercar sopra Benedictus" might develop motives from a motet titled "Benedictus". The term is also used to designate an etude or study that explores a technical device in playing an instrument, or singing.
In its most common contemporary usage, it refers to an early kind of fugue, particularly one of a serious character in which the subject uses long note values. However the term has a considerably more varied historical usage.
In the sixteenth century, the word ricercar could refer to several types of compositions. Terminology was flexible, even lax then: whether a composer called an instrumental piece a toccata, a canzona, a fantasia, or a ricercar was clearly not a matter of strict taxonomy but a rather arbitrary decision. Yet ricercars fall into two general types: a predominantly homophonic piece, with occasional runs and passagework, not unlike a toccata; and a sectional work in which each section begins imitatively, usually in a variation form. Examples of both types of ricercars can be found in the works of Girolamo Frescobaldi. The second type of ricercar, the imitative, contrapuntal type, was to prove the more important historically, and eventually developed into the fugue. Marco Dall'Aquila (c.1480–after 1538) was known for polyphonic ricercars.
This second, imitative type first appeared in the middle part of the sixteenth century, and developed parallel to the motet, with which it shared many of its imitative procedures. Instrumental transcriptions of motets were common in the early sixteenth century, and clearly composers began to create works which were like them in character but written for the instrument alone (keyboard or lute were common instruments represented in this development). Since the text of the motet was no longer available as a structural or unifying device, some other method of musical organization needed to be found: variation form proved the most malleable and durable.
During the Baroque era, the imitative ricercar gradually evolved into the fugue, just as the instrumental canzona evolved into the sonata. Some works which are indistinguishable from fugues were called "ricercars" even as late as Bach, with the difference that the note values were generally longer and the character slightly more serious. Good examples are the three-part and six-part ricercars from The Musical Offering (1747) by Johann Sebastian Bach.
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, which includes a section entitled "Six-part Ricercar".
- Randel, Don Michael (1999). The Harvard concise dictionary of music and musicians.
- "Ricercar," "Fugue," "Counterpoint" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
- Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4
- Manfred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1947. ISBN 0-393-09745-5
- Ursula Kirkendale, "The Source for Bach's Musical Offering," Journal of the American Musicological Society 33 (1980), 99-141.
- The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-674-61525-5