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Typical tonal structure of classical seven-part rondo, late 18th & early 19th centuries.[1]
A B A C A B' A
Major key I V I VI, IV or
parallel minor
Minor key I III
or V
I VI or IV I I I

Rondo and its French part-equivalent rondeau are words that have been used in music in a number of ways, most often in reference to a musical form, but also to a character type that is distinct from the form.


The term and formal principle may have derived from the medieval poetic form, rondeau, which contains repetitions of a couplet separated by longer sections of poetry.[1] (Arnold Schoenberg disputed this claim of origin in an essay in Style and Idea, noting that "if musical rondo form were really supposed to be modelled on the poetic form, it could only be so very superficially".[2])

In rondo form, a principal theme (sometimes called the "refrain") alternates with one or more contrasting themes, generally called "episodes," but also occasionally referred to as "digressions" or "couplets." Possible patterns in the Classical period include: ABA, ABACA, or ABACABA.[3] These are sometimes designated "first rondo", "second rondo", and "third rondo", respectively. The first rondo is distinguished from the three-part song form principally by the fact that at least one of the themes is a song form in itself, but the difference in melodic and rhythmic content of the themes in the rondo form is usually greater than in the song form, and the accompanimental figuration in the parts of the rondo (unlike the song form) is usually contrasted.[4] The number of themes can vary from piece to piece, and the recurring element is sometimes embellished and/or shortened in order to provide for variation.

A Baroque predecessor to the rondo was the ritornello. Ritornello form was used in the fast movements of baroque concertos, and in many baroque vocal and choral works. The entire orchestra (in Italian, tutti) plays the main ritornello theme, while soloists play the intervening episodes. While Rondo form is similar to ritornello form, it is different in that ritornello brings back the subject or main theme in fragments and in different keys, but the rondo brings back its theme complete and in the same key.[5] Cedric Thorpe Davie is one author, however, who considers the ritornello form the ancestor, not of the rondo form, but of the classical concerto form (which also occurs, as a form, in many a classical-era aria.)[6]

A common expansion of rondo form is to combine it with sonata form, to create the sonata rondo form. Here, the second theme acts in a similar way to the second theme group in sonata form by appearing first in a key other than the tonic and later being repeated in the tonic key. Unlike sonata form, thematic development does not need to occur except possibly in the coda.

This should not be confused with the rondeau, either the vocal Rondeau of the Medieval and early Renaissance period, or the French Baroque Rondeau usually associated with brief movements (for keyboard or larger ensemble) of the Baroque era and earlier, e.g. Jean-Philippe Rameau's "Rondeau des Indes Galantes" or Les Barricades Mystérieuses which is also not really a rondo, but a form of its own.


Character type

Rondo as a character-type (as distinct from the form) refers to music that is fast and vivacious – normally Allegro. Many classical rondos feature music of a popular or folk character. Music that has been designated as "rondo" normally subscribes to both the form and character. On the other hand, there are many examples of slow and reflective works that are rondo in form but not in character; they include Mozart's Rondo in A minor K.511.

A well-known operatic vocal genre of the late 18th century, referred to at that time by the same name but distinguished today in English and German writing by the differently accented term "rondò" is cast in two parts, slow-fast.[7]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 White, John D. (1976). The Analysis of Music, p.54-56. ISBN 0-13-033233-X.
  2. in part because repetition serves different functions in poetry and in music. See: For a Treatise on Composition, pp.264-67, ISBN 0 520 05286 2.
  3. Eugene K. Wolf, "Rondo", Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition, edited by Don Michael Randel. Harvard University Press Reference Library (Cambridge: Belknap Press for Harvard University Press, 2003). ISBN 978-0-674-01163-2.
  4. Percy Goetschius, Lessons in Musical Form: A Manual of Analysis of All the Structural Factors (Boston: Oliver Ditson Company, 1904): 117; Leon Stein, Anthology of Musical Forms: Structure and Style, expanded edition (New York: Summy-Birchard, Inc.. 1979): 87. ISBN 0-87487-164-6.
  5. Well- as a rule, generally...
  6. Thorpe Davie, Musical Structure and Design.
  7. Don Neville, "Rondò", The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, 4 vols., edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Press, 1992).

External links