Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Music Online. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Music Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Rondo (It., also Eng. and Ger. by usage; Fr. rondeau)locked

  • Malcolm S. Cole

One of the most fundamental designs in music, the rondo is a structure consisting of a series of sections, the first of which (the main section or refrain) recurs, normally in the home key, between subsidiary sections (couplets, episodes) before returning finally to conclude, or round off, the composition (ABAC … A).

1. Origins and development of the formal concept.

The very simplicity of the rondo concept, and its consequent wide usage, makes it difficult to give a precise account of its origins. Any connection between the medieval or Renaissance rondeau and that of the 17th and 18th centuries is at best tenuous; and parallels between the later rondo and (for example) the ritornello principle and the rondo cantata need to be more thoroughly investigated. Those few 18th-century theorists who mentioned influences on the rondo confined themselves to such popular examples as the Frantzösischer Ringel-Tantz (Walther), the Kreiz or Circul-Tantz (Niedt), the Zirckelstück (Marpurg, Türk), and the Rundgesang (Türk). Mattheson, however, indignantly noted that although ‘rondeau’ does indeed derive from ‘rond’ or ‘rund’ (circle), the music to which this term is properly applied originates neither in the circle-dance nor in the Runda (a relative of the French ronde de table), a type of drinking-song in which a rousing refrain sung by all the merrymakers followed each participant’s verse.

Later writers have suggested two principal influences from art music. Lully is alleged to have devised the rondeau of two couplets, sometimes called ‘French rondeau’. The multi-couplet rondo (or chain rondo, ABACAD … A), sometimes called ‘Italian rondo’, presumably developed from early Italian opera. Peri’s Euridice (1600), for example, contains two choral refrain–recitative complexes arranged in rondo fashion (‘Al canto al ballo’ and ‘Sospirate aure celesti’). In the former, the sequence is: choral refrain–solo for nymph–refrain–solo for shepherd–refrain–solo for another nymph–refrain (ABACADA). The prologue of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) is a parallel example, with instrumental ritornellos instead of choral refrains. Similar structures were used throughout the century.

2. The rondeau in France in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

The rondeau in France enjoyed considerable popularity throughout the later 17th and early 18th centuries. It appeared in a wide range of media: ballet, opera and related genres (as instrumental piece, chorus and ultimately air or duo en rondeau), orchestral music, pieces for harpsichord and sonatas for violin. Composers appended the qualification ‘en rondeau’ to any dance title: gigue, minuet, gavotte, loure.

Of the early generation of rondeau composers, Lully was most important in the fields of opera and ballet, Chambonnières and Louis Couperin in keyboard music. The ‘Rondeau pour les basques’ from the Intermède de Xerxes furnishes an elementary example of the two-couplet design favoured by Lully. Each section, refrain and couplets alike, is in the tonic key and is eight bars long; in the first couplet the refrain idea is transposed, in the second it is inverted. A more complicated example is the ‘Rondeau pour la gloire’ from the prologue to Alceste. Refrain and couplets are of different lengths, couplets being further distinguished by contrasts in scoring and changes of key. A portion of Act 1 scene vii of Alceste may be viewed as a large rondo, the introductory rondeau itself serving as refrain for couplets allotted to various characters and the chorus. ‘Suivons Armide’ from Armide exemplifies the choral rondeau (Act 1 scene iii). Chambonnières, who favoured the two-couplet design, composed one work specifically entitled ‘Rondeau’ and several chaconnes-rondeaux, one of which has five couplets. Louis Couperin preferred the multi-couplet disposition, his chaconnes-rondeaux containing three and four couplets, his Passacaille nine.

In the following generation, François Couperin was the unrivalled master of the harpsichord rondeau, of which there are many examples in his ordres; like most of his movements, they often bear fanciful titles (such as Les baricades mistérieuses, ordre no.6). He offered the richest structural variety of his day, the rondeaux containing one (Les abeilles, ordre no.1) to eight couplets (Passacaille, 8), but more often two (Les silvains, 1), three (Soeur Monique, 18) or four (L’enchanteresse, 1). Couperin’s refrain is a discrete cell, often of eight or 16 bars and frequently framed with repeat signs (La badine, 5). In Les bergeries (6), an internal repeat is specified as well. Subsequent returns of the refrain are usually complete and literal, but in Les bergeries Couperin abbreviated the first return – his first use of this effective device for alleviating the monotony that can result from too many complete restatements of a refrain. In his earlier music Couperin’s couplets are usually about the same length as the refrain; in later works they are often expanded (for example the final couplets of La triomphante, 10, and L’ingénuë, 19). Although it is not unknown for all couplets to remain in the main key (La badine), Couperin usually set them in related keys. To heighten the contrast between refrain and couplet, he sometimes changed the register of the couplet or altered its texture; more animated figuration is common in a final couplet (Soeur Monique). While couplet material may contrast sharply with the refrain (Les gondoles de Délos, 23, third part), it is often derived in some way: common techniques include such unifying devices as transposition of the refrain (Le gazoüillement, 6, second couplet), free continuation and expansion of a refrain motif (Soeur Monique, second couplet) and inversion (L’ingénuë, third couplet) or tonal answer of refrain motifs (Le petit-rien, 14, first couplet). Couperin’s output also shows the evolution of the ‘second rondeau’ from an entity bound to the preceding rondeau only by a common tonic (L’Angélique, 5) to one that functions as an organic component of the primary work (Les gondoles de Délos, third part in separate rondeau; L’epineuse, 26, fourth couplet in separate rondeau).

Following Couperin, Rameau further refined some of his predecessor’s techniques but on the whole he standardized the rondeau, settling almost exclusively upon the two-couplet design in his harpsichord works. Jean Dubreuil, a theorist of the time, codified Rameau’s practice. The refrain is always in the main key. With a rondeau in the major, the first couplet is in the dominant, the second in the submediant minor; with a rondeau in the minor, the first couplet is in the relative major, the second in the dominant minor. The singular and extensive Les cyclopes provides a striking exception to this remarkably consistent approach. In his dramatic works, Rameau not only produced several rondeaux with a single couplet; he also combined two such designs, with a modal shift of the second and a da capo of the first, to produce an expanded ternary configuration (ABA CDC ABA), as in the first and second ‘Gavottes en rondeau’ (C major, C minor) from Les fêtes d’Hébé (third entrée).

Leclair contributed to later 18th-century rondeau techniques, especially in his Aria movements for violin. His designs were fairly consistent, but he was among the first to compose a linking passage to connect a couplet with an ensuing return of the refrain (op.2 no.4, Aria), to change metre and tempo within a couplet (op.1 no.9, Allegro ma non presto), and to incorporate a rondeau within a rondeau in the final couplet (op.1 no.1, Aria).

3. The spread of the rondo.

The rondeau cultivated by French composers quickly spread to other countries. Composers such as Purcell in England and Georg Muffat and J.C.F. Fischer in Germany adopted French forms and techniques. J.S. Bach demonstrated his mastery in such compositions as the Passepied I from English Suite no.5 (bwv810) and the Rondeaux of the Partita no.2 for keyboard (bwv826), Partita no.3 for solo violin (bwv1006) and the B minor Ouverture (bwv1067). In Italy, E.F. Dall’Abaco and others used the form.

By the middle of the 18th century, the rondeau of French stamp was solidly established throughout Europe. Its assimilation into the music of other nations and its transformation into the rondo of the Classical period have not been adequately investigated. Theorists active in the middle of the 18th century described only the French rondeau, and it seems that German composers used the rondo rarely. However, from essays by music critics of the following generation, from correspondence by C.P.E. Bach and Mozart, and from the marked increase in the number of rondos composed, it appears that in the early 1770s there began a vogue for simple, tuneful rondos of a quite different stamp from the French products. German critics scolded Eichner and Dittersdorf for writing too many rondos. One theorist suggested that most fashionable pieces of this type have little true inner value (Forkel), another that the species was appearing ad nauseam in keyboard music (Cramer); one critic pointed to a flood of Italian imports, another to a popular rondo from an oboe concerto by J.C. Fischer. C.P.E. Bach admitted frankly that he included rondos to further the sale of his collections. In several letters, Mozart reported that audiences forced him to repeat the very rondos that he had composed specifically to replace movements in other forms (for example, the substitute finale k382 for the Piano Concerto k175, which however is not a true rondo by any accepted criteria for the form; as we shall see, the term was sometimes applied to movements of a popular character in which the main features of rondo structure are absent). In England a type of finale, characterized by simple tunefulness and light texture, became known as the ‘Vauxhall rondo’ by association with the pleasure gardens of that name; its exponents included Samuel Arnold and James Hook.

It is difficult to formulate a historical explanation of the vogue, because no single nation, musical type, composer or work appears to have been solely or primarily responsible. Opera buffa, however, provided much of the impetus. Buffo composers like Sarti, Paisiello and Piccinni sometimes ended their overtures with rondos, and interspersed vocal rondos throughout their scores. Imbued with lightness and grace, these unpretentious compositions established the stereotype of a ‘pleasing’, ‘charming’, ‘cheerful’, ‘clear’, ‘comprehensible’ rondo theme, an idea that must be new and worth hearing six to eight times. German theorists, some of whom recognized the interaction of the vocal and instrumental spheres, frequently cited and even printed examples either from opera buffa or from German Singspiele in their essays on rondo (Reichardt, Koch). A particular favourite was the first example of the rondo in north German opera, Sophie’s multi-couplet ‘Selbst die glücklichste der Ehen’ from Benda’s Walder (1776). In the hands of a composer such as Naumann, whose ‘Darf ich nicht zu klagen wagen?’ from Cora och Alonzo (1782) achieved considerable popularity, the vocal rondo soon spread throughout Europe. The content and form of texts appropriate for rondo setting particularly occupied French theorists, the consensus being that although texts should as a rule be light, Gluck’s famous ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ (originally ‘Che farò senza Euridice’; Orfeo, 1762) proves that a serious text may be effectively set in rondo form.

German composers, notably J.C. Bach, who absorbed the spirit and technique of the opera buffa, appear to have been the prime agents in the transformation and diffusion of this newer kind of rondo. J.C. Bach was also fond of the menuet en rondeau finale (for example, in his Symphony op.9 no.2), and Mozart’s frequent use of it, as in his Bassoon Concerto k191/186e, is clearly indebted to him. Within the older structural designs, primarily the two-couplet and the multi-couplet arrangements, such composers favoured in rapid tempos the gesture-like thematic style of the buffo overture, in slower tempos the lyrical manner of the buffo air. Rondos in all tempos show a more marked periodic arrangement, sharper contrast between refrain and episodes, and they often have a coda.

4. The rondos of C.P.E. Bach.

One by-product of the rondo vogue was a series of critical essays whose authors, reluctantly acknowledging popular taste, advocated as models the singular examples by C.P.E. Bach. From the finale of the G major Trio (h523, 1776), which includes varied and transposed statements of the refrain, Forkel derived rules for the construction of a good rondo. Cramer, inventing fanciful characters and programmes, chose the fourth collection ‘for Connoisseurs and Amateurs’ (wq58). That Bach himself was aware of the general trend in favour of light, cheerful rondos is shown in the dedication of his Abschied von meinem Silbermannischen Claviere (h272), in which he notes that one can – as this example proves – compose lamenting rondos.

C.P.E. Bach’s rondos stand outside the mainstream of the genre’s evolution. Indeed, a gulf separates Bach’s own early, French-inspired rondos (La complaisante, h109, Les langueurs tendres, h110, La Xénophon, h123, 1761) from the 13 refined, independent rondos of the series for ‘Connoisseurs and Amateurs’ (wq56–9, 61, 1778–86). These are extended, leisurely compositions built sometimes on a lyrical theme, sometimes on a characteristic motif. On occasion Bach explored an idea rather than a theme, for example the harmonic progression from the tonic to the diminished 7th in the A minor Rondo of the second collection (h262). Avoiding extremes of tension, he elaborated, embroidered and spun out his themes in conjunction with imaginative harmonic shifts and modulations. Episode material is often non-thematic, consisting of arpeggiated figuration, sequential passages and chains of chords that serve to prepare refrain statements in related keys. Bach often developed aspects of a refrain theme. Episodes tend to be lengthy and of open design rather than in the closed binary and ternary substructures used by his contemporaries (such as J.C. Bach). Fused with the rondo principle of return are the technique of variation, the ritornello practice of transposition and improvisatory elements of the fantasy, such as virtuoso figuration, dynamic juxtapositions, abrupt alternation of the lyric and the rhapsodic, and changes of metre and tempo within a composition (E major Rondo, third collection, h265). At times, in fact, Bach dispensed with bar-lines altogether, as in the cadenza concluding the B♭ Rondo of the fourth collection (h267), which Cramer likened to a flight of the gods. Structural freedom, refrain transposition, fantasia figurations, harmonic sophistication and dynamic contrasts combine to make Bach’s rondos personal and ingenious treatments of the form.

5. The rondo as a movement in a larger work.

In the mainstream of music in the Classical period, the rondo functioned most commonly as one movement within a large composition, appearing rarely as the first movement (Haydn, Piano Sonata hXVI:48), more frequently as the second (Beethoven, Piano Sonata op.13) or other interior movement (Mozart, Serenade k250/248b) and relatively often as the finale. It had limited use in chamber music and the symphony; it was more freely employed in sonatas and serenades, but only in the concerto was it the almost invariable choice for finales.

The substantial outputs of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven elegantly summarize the rondo techniques of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Haydn began composing rondos in the early 1770s; his best examples are found in his symphonies, string quartets and piano trios. Mozart wrote rondos throughout his career, incorporting them in a variety of genres. Beethoven, who included rondos in his early chamber works, sonatas and concertos, abandoned the form, but not the broader principle, almost completely in his last years. Of particular interest is the apparent interaction between Haydn and Mozart, the former responding to Mozart’s thematic complexes and preference for sonata-rondo design, the latter incorporating Haydn’s thematic economy, thematic motivation and contrapuntal textures in all sections of a rondo. Each composer moved from a simple, sectional structure to a complex, integrated form into which he built surprise and variety, and within which he attempted to offset and even exploit the regularity inherent in the traditional layout.

Mozart wrote only four rondos that are completely in the minor mode; Beethoven wrote five (including the finale of op.13, which is commonly cited as a model sonata-rondo). Because the typical rondo was supposed to be bright and cheerful, composers customarily chose other forms for finales in minor-key works (sonata-allegro, variation, fugue), but when they did conclude with a rondo, they sometimes placed the entire movement (Mozart, String Quintet k516) or at least the coda (Mozart, Piano Concerto k466) in the major. Duple (2/4, C, 6/8, rarely 〮) replaced the buffo and minuet-based variants of triple as the normal metre in rondo movements. Although each composer approached the problem of design differently, the formal arrangements of the earlier 18th century remained in force. The two-episode structure (on occasion ABABA; more commonly ABACA, as in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op.53) was often used, Mozart and Beethoven employing it more than any other option except the sonata-rondo and Haydn particularly favouring it. In his hands the design evolved from a sectional, variation type, in which the dominant is rarely the goal of the first episode (for example Symphony no.42), to one that in tonal scheme, disposition of the first episode and developmental second episode rivalled the opening movement and the mature sonata-rondo in integration and complexity (as in Symphony no.96). All three composers cultivated the multi-couplet rondo, Haydn and Beethoven at times incorporating fantasy or improvisatory elements (Haydn, Piano Concerto hXVIII:11; Beethoven, Piano Concerto woo4). Haydn, notably in his piano trios, included rondos of ternary design (ABACABA).

The Classical composers often infused their rondo refrains with the rhythms, thematic character and phrase regularity of the dance (for example the minuet and especially the contredanse). Folk- and popular song provided another stimulus, composers borrowing authentic folktunes on occasion (Haydn, Symphony no.103) and, more important, distilling their essence to produce a folklore imaginé that finds its most obvious expression in certain Hungarian, Gypsy, Turkish or otherwise exotic works (Mozart, Piano Sonata k331/300i, ‘alla turca’; Haydn, Piano Trio hXV:25, ‘Rondo all’ongarese’). Often other formal principles (fantasy, variation, sonata) interacted, with results defying categorization.

The refrain, because of its fundamental importance, invites particular scrutiny. Composers occasionally connected the rondo with a preceding slow movement; Beethoven used this link in the Piano Concerto no.5 to anticipate the refrain theme. Mozart and Beethoven prefaced some refrains with a slow introduction (Mozart, String Quintet k516), while Haydn and Beethoven sometimes preceded the main theme with an introduction in tempo (Beethoven, Sixth Symphony). In the early 1770s Haydn and Mozart abandoned the rushing, buffo-inspired tutti refrain, preferring a moderate dance-like theme scored for reduced orchestra. Phrase structure is usually regular, harmonic rhythm slow. Beethoven, who extended the limits of admissible refrain material (for example in his Second Symphony), sometimes used non-tonic beginnings and allowed tonal ambivalence within the refrain (Piano Concerto no.4). While Haydn consistently favoured ternary design, Mozart cultivated a wide range of structures (often, mainly in the concertos, appending long closing groups); Beethoven added the threefold announcement of a single idea (Violin Concerto) and the open refrain (Second Symphony). A refrain is commonly a discrete cell, articulated from the following episode by changes of scoring, dynamics, register and texture. By specifying first and second endings, Haydn showed some concern for connecting the refrain functionally to the remainder of the work, and Beethoven sometimes blurred the structural joint between refrain and episode (Quartet op.132).

With the growing sense of tonic-dominant polarity in the Classical period, it is natural that we find most first episodes (except in Haydn’s earlier works) in the dominant. As in sonata-allegros, the transitions developed from perfunctory bridges to passages of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and textural interest; sometimes transition material (which is often merely figural) is derived from the main theme, or it may even anticipate the episode theme. The episode itself may contain a thematic complex, a single new theme, no distinct theme at all, a transposed statement of a refrain idea or one derived from it (again parallel to the contemporary development of the sonata-allegro). There may be a separate closing unit confirming the new tonality.

In rondos of the early Classical period, returns of the refrain were usually literal. Later, altered versions prevail, characterized by variation, rescoring, extension and even transposition (partial or complete). Mozart, whose initial refrains are often cast in an extended ABA pattern, sometimes restricted intermediate statements to the A section only. Beethoven, for example in his Violin Concerto, sometimes placed final statements of the refrain in remote keys.

Second and later episodes usually enter without preparation (like the trios of minuets) in the earlier rondos of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Later, the refrain statement is often reshaped to connect with the ensuing episode. All three composers began by placing the episode in the closest related keys (apart from the dominant) – the submediant, tonic minor and subdominant; later they expanded the range of options, and the number of keys touched upon increased parallel with the growth of thematic development. Changes of metre and tempo, rare in the rondos of Haydn or Beethoven, appear in several Mozart works (Violin Concertos k216, 218, 219; Serenata notturna k239; Piano Concertos k271, 415/387b, 482), emphasizing the form’s essentially sectional nature. Central episodes of closed design (binary or ternary) are common, and within them there may appear contrasting material, a derived theme, or virtuoso passage-work. Particularly important is the tendency to incorporate developmental techniques, including eventually fugato, canon, inversion and double counterpoint (sometimes alongside new material); Haydn preceded Mozart in the use of such techniques.

The coda, at first merely a cadential tag, later became an additional development section of considerable length and intricacy. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all on occasion digressed to the minor mode and to other keys (the subdominant being particularly favoured), and they often injected development of a humorous character, marked by unexpected rests, tempo fluctuations, scoring and dynamic contrasts, tremolos and similar devices (for example Haydn, Symphony no.102). Recalling the stretta sections of Viennese opera buffa finales, Beethoven in particular sometimes changed the metre and accelerated the tempo at this point and, primarily in codas of concerto rondos, even introduced new themes.

Analogous to its inclusion as a component in a multi-movement instrumental composition, the rondo appears on occasion as a number in an opera. Act 2 of Haydn’s Lo speziale (1768), for example, concludes with ‘Colla presente scrittura privata’, a quartet cast as a dramatically conceived variation rondo (beginning un poco Adagio) with appended Presto. Concluding Act 1 of Mozart’s Idomeneo (1781) is the magnificent, French-inspired choral ciaccona ‘Nettuno s’onori!’. In alla turca style, Osmin’s gloating solo rondo ‘O, wie will ich triumphieren’ adds spice to Act 2 of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), and Figaro’s brilliant ‘Non più andrai’ crowns Act 1 of Le nozze di Figaro (1786).

6. The sonata-rondo.

One of the most significant structural innovations of the Classical period is the sonata-rondo, a design confined almost exclusively to finales. The specific components of a sonata-rondo have been, and remain, the subject of disagreement. In this fusion of rondo design with a sonata-allegro tonal plan – which entails the recapitulation in the tonic of the first episode and, possibly, the replacement of the contrasting central episode with a development of earlier material – Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven created some of the most complex finales of the period. Mozart, in the String Quartet k157 (1772–3), composed the first known sonata-rondo; during the remainder of his career he refined the form, experimenting with a wide range of structural possibilities. Haydn adopted it somewhat later (Symphonies nos.64, 66 and 69 of the 1770s in one view; Symphony no.77, 1782, in another) and used it relatively sparingly. For some authorities, however, the number increases significantly when one entertains a broader, more flexible notion of sonata-rondo based on 18th-century compositional practice rather than 19th-century Formenlehre writings. Fisher (1992), for example, argues compellingly that Haydn ‘is exploring a spectrum of possibilities that does not take into account the conventional distinction between the rondo and the sonata-rondo’. In a compositional tour de force, for ten of the 12 London symphonies Haydn crafted some of the most unusual, complex, yet immediately appealing rondos and sonata-rondos of the period. Like Mozart, Beethoven wrote many sonata-rondos, using techniques of surprise to enliven a relatively standardized design. The general plan of a sonata-rondo is as follows:

In early sonata-rondos, Mozart often included a fourth episode, so that the structure stretched to a nine-section ABACADAB¹A. A fascinating aspect of his personal evolution is his move from these multi-couplet, sectional sonata-rondos to a concise, complex and integrated form of the pattern ABACB¹A.

The sonata-rondo in the concerto created further complications and offered the composer special challenges and opportunities. Mozart’s piano concertos provide a particularly fertile field for study, their composer facing such problems as the feasibility of a double exposition, the presentation and subsequent role of a solo entry theme, the rearrangement and consolidation of the recapitulation, the placing of one or more cadenzas, and the transformation of the coda from a closing ritornello to an additional development.

In addition to their rondos and sonata-rondos, each composer produced several examples of finales that cannot firmly be assigned to any one formal category. Some are clearly experimental (Beethoven, First Symphony); others are consummate fusions of the composer’s most mature techniques (Beethoven, String Quartets opp.130, 135). Some fall in the rondo sphere, but whether or not they are strictly sonata-rondos is open to debate (Haydn, Symphonies nos.88, 101); Haydn in particular often incorporated sonata procedures in rondos that lack the sonata-rondo recapitulation. Of special interest are Mozart’s Rondo k485 and the finales of Haydn’s Piano Trio hXV:14 and Mozart’s Serenade k525, which by generally accepted criteria are in sonata form. The composers themselves, however, specifically marked the movements ‘Rondo’. In conjunction with essays by Kollmann and Momigny, the impression emerges that to the later 18th century the term ‘rondo’, for more recent theorists purely a formal pattern, implied something less definite – a theme type, a character designation specially appropriate for the finale of a work in several movements.

7. The independent rondo.

C.P.E. Bach was not the only composer of the Classical period to write independent rondos. Mozart, in addition to his substitute works (k382, Rondo k269/261a), created memorable examples in the F major Rondo k494 and the great A minor Rondo k511, a rich, chromatic outpouring that foreshadows the piano genre pieces of the 19th century. The Adagio and Rondeau for glass harmonica and four other instruments (k617), Mozart’s only independent instrumental rondo with slow introduction, seems to be related in form to his vocal scenas, which consist of a recitative and aria en rondeau (such as k255, 374, 416). His arias marked ‘Rondò’, however, belong to a different category (see Rondò). In his early years, Beethoven composed several independent rondos for piano including the lyrical op.51 no.1 and the wild, brilliant, Hungarian Rondo a capriccio (op.129), a rondo in the improvisatory style of the fantasia.

Noted by Czerny as one of the few forms that can stand independently, the rondo flourished as a separate composition in the 19th century, particularly as a virtuoso, bravura piece. Dussek, Hummel, Weber, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, Herz, Thalberg and others left many examples, of which the titles alone indicate their primary purpose: ‘Rondeau brillant’ is typical. Further qualifying terms alert the listener to the composers’ intentions to simulate national flavour (Spanish, Polish, Russian), exploit a popular tune, or capture a mood (pastoral, sentimental, military). Primarily but by no means exclusively for piano, these freely, often loosely constructed display vehicles were commonly framed by an arresting introduction and a breathlessly rushing coda.

The great composers too were receptive to this aspect of the continuing vogue for rondos. Schubert wrote an Adagio and Rondo concertante for piano, violin, viola and cello (d487), as well as examples for solo piano (d506), piano duet (d608) and piano and violin (d895). Chopin’s first published composition was a rondo (op.1) which he followed with a Rondo à la Mazur (op.5) and two other rondos (opp.16, 73). Liszt based a virtuoso Rondeau fantastique on an allegedly Spanish tune, ‘El contrabandista’, and Mendelssohn wrote the famous Rondo capriccioso for piano (op.14, with introduction) and the Rondo brillant for piano and orchestra (op.29).

8. The rondo in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Although rondos were composed in smaller numbers in the 19th century than at the end of the 18th, the form remained current throughout the 19th century, especially in the concerto. Most composers retained the scheme perfected by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Schubert was a notable exception. In his early years he favoured an ABABA design, rarely using the more common ABACA pattern or the sonata-rondo. Like his Viennese predecessors, he occasionally placed returns of the refrain in keys other than the tonic: in the second movement of the Piano Sonata d537, for example, the first return is in the flat supertonic. He also favoured lengthy, tonally complex episodes. In his later sonatas he perpetuated the ABABA form for slow movements, but for finales he preferred the ABACA design (d850, 894) and the sonata-rondo (d845, 958, 959, 960). Some of these are extremely long: the sonata-rondo of d958 takes 717 bars. Initial refrain statements became extended complexes, which Schubert altered on their return. Unlike Haydn and Beethoven, who usually wrote lengthy second (central) episodes, Schubert laid more weight on the first episode. In the finale of the celebrated Sonata in B♭ (d960), the central episode fills 58 bars, the refrain 73 and the first episode 152; the episode material is organized into two distinct and harmonically dazzling groups, the first basically in the major mode, the second in the minor. Having devised such magical relationships, Schubert was content to restate them almost literally in the recapitulation.

Of composers closer to Beethoven’s legacy, Schumann extended the range of tonal possibilities for episodes; the sonata-rondo of ‘Aufschwung’ from the Fantasiestücke (op.12), for example, has a singular tonal plan. The moto perpetuo finale of the G minor Sonata (op.22) contains notable instances of the false reprise, while the first episode, in B♭, is recapitulated in E♭. Brahms made much use of the rondo and the sonata-rondo, especially in finales. Elegantly proportioned examples grace several of his works from the Piano Sonatas opp.1 and 5 to the Sonata for piano and clarinet (viola) op.120 no.1. Not surprisingly, Brahms’s compositional practices recall those of Mozart and Beethoven in many ways. Most of his rondo finales are in duple metre; most are in major keys. Of those in minor keys, the ‘Rondo alla zingarese’ from the Piano Quartet op.25 remains in the minor throughout. More often, as in the Piano Concerto no.1, they conclude triumphantly with a substantial portion in the major. For the perpetuation of other familiar practices, see the non-tonic beginning in the Piano Concerto no.2, and the change of metre in the central episode of the Violin Concerto, as well as its accelerated coda. At the same time, as in the Piano Quintet op.34 and the String Quartet op.51 no.2, Brahms’s own singular approach to form-building yields structural results that elicit almost universal praise from a host of present-day analysts who, however, appear unable to reach consensus upon the formal category of the movements in question. Mendelssohn employed the sonata-rondo as finale in his two piano concertos (opp.25, 40) and the Violin Concerto, all of which open with movements in the minor mode. Each finale, however, is in the major. Introductions precede the refrains in the Piano Concerto no.1 and the Violin Concerto, while the abbreviated first return of the latter is in the mediant. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor are other celebrated concertos with rondo finales, the latter a sonata-rondo with a contrasting central episode and an accelerated, strikingly transformed coda in A major.

Standing somewhat apart are those late 19th- and early 20th-century compositions in which the rondo principle is operative in a broad sense. Perhaps the most famous example is Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche nach alter Schelmenweise, in Rondeau form. In fact rondo, symphonic development and variation unite in as free an adaptation of the Classical rondo as Strauss’s adaptation of sonata-allegro had been in earlier tone poems. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony concludes with a Rondo-Finale, a gigantic structure with an introduction in tempo and accelerated close. The third movement of the Ninth Symphony, Rondo-Burleske, is another free and expansive treatment of the Classical rondo.

The rondo and sonata-rondo have survived in the 20th century in the works of composers influenced by the traditions of the Classical period. Prokofiev provides some excellent examples. In the sonata-rondo finale of his Piano Sonata no.4 (C minor, finale in C major), the refrain is a discrete cell with an anacrusis recalling Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op.2 no.2; the rushing tempo slackens in the central episode, and there is a brief codetta. The sonata-rondo finale of his Piano Sonata no.6 (A major, finale largely in A minor) unfolds as a wonderfully asymmetrical arch. In his Piano Sonata no.9, the refrain is open, tempo fluctuations reinforce the articulation of each episode, and the coda is a further development. Bartók superbly realized the independent rondo in 20th-century terms in his Three Rondos on Folktunes (1916–27). In the Piano Sonata (1926), he achieved an effective fusion of monothematic sonata-rondo and variation in a folklike finale that recalls Haydn, while in the Piano Concerto no.3 he created a rondo with brilliant fugal episodes. Perpetuating the Viennese fondness for the design, Berg included splendid rondos in Wozzeck (Act 1 scene v and Act 2 scene v), the Lyric Suite (2nd movement) and the Lulu suite (1st movement). Although entitled Rondo ritmico, the Chamber Concerto finale does not conform structurally to normally accepted criteria for rondo form. Further examples of the wide range of techniques employed in 20th-century rondos are furnished by Stravinsky in the Concerto in D for strings (1946), Piston in the String Quartet no.3 (1947), a model sonata-rondo, and Hindemith in the Sinfonietta in E (1949). Moving further afield from the western European art music traditions, several compositions – among them Alberto Ginastera’s Rondo sobre temas infantiles argentinos op.19 (1947) and Duke Ellington’s Concerto for Cootie (recorded in 1940) – confirm the widespread distribution and continuing vitality of the rondo.


  • MGG1 (‘Rondeau-Rondo’, §C; H. Engel)
  • J.G. Walther: Praecepta der musicalischen Composition (Weimar, 1708/R), 148
  • J. Mattheson: Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (Hamburg, 1713), 190
  • F.E. Niedt: Musicalische Handleitung … von der Variation des General-Basses(Hamburg, rev. 2/1721/R by J. Mattheson; Eng. trans., 1989), 104–5
  • J. Mattheson: Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739/R), 230
  • J. Grassineau: A Musical Dictionary (London, 1740/R, rev., enlarged 2/1769 by J. Robson, 3/1784)
  • F.W. Marpurg: Der critische Musicus an der Spree (Berlin, 1749–50/R), no.6, 46–7
  • J. Dubreuil: Manuel harmonique, ou Tableau des accords pratiques … & deux nouveaux menuets en rondeau (Paris, 1767), 54
  • J.J. Rousseau: Dictionnaire de musique (Paris, 1768/R; Eng. trans., 1771, 2/1779/R), 421
  • J.N. Forkel: Musikalisch-kritische Bibliothek (Gotha, 1778–9/R), 2, 281–94
  • J.F. Reichardt, ed.: Musikalisches Kunstmagazin, 1 (Berlin, 1782/R), 168–71
  • C.F. Cramer, ed.: Magazin der Musik, 1 (Hamburg, 1783/R), 1238–55
  • D.G. Türk: Klavierschule, oder Anweisung zum Klavierspielen für Lehrer und Lernende (Leipzig and Halle, 1789/R; Eng. trans., 1982), 398
  • H.C. Koch: Versuch einer Anleitung zur Composition, 3 (Leipzig, 1793/R; Eng. trans., 1983), 248–62
  • A.F.C. Kollmann: An Essay on Practical Musical Composition (London, 1799/R), 4, 6
  • H.C. Koch: Musikalisches Lexikon (Frankfurt, 1802/R, rev. 3/1865 by A. von Dommer)
  • J.J. de Momigny: ‘Rondeau/rondo’, Encyclopédie méthodique: musique, 2 (Paris, 1818/R), 346–50
  • A. Reicha: Traité de haute composition musicale, 2 (Paris, 1826), 301–3
  • A.B. Marx: Die Lehre von der musikalischen Komposition, praktisch-theoretisch, 3 (Leipzig, 1845, 5/1879), 94–200, 307–13
  • C. Czerny: School of Practical Composition, 1 (London, c1849/R), 67–81
  • B. Widmann: Formenlehre der Instrumentalmusik (Leipzig, 1862), 87–118
  • A. Reissmann, ed.: Musikalisches Conversations-Lexikon, 8 (Berlin, 1877, 3/1890–91/R), 408–16
  • E. Prout: Applied Forms (London, 1895/R), 107–26, 212–26
  • W.H. Hadow: ‘Rondo Form’, Sonata Form (London, 1896/R), 96–107
  • H. Riemann: Grosse Kompositionslehre, 1 (Berlin and Stuttgart, 1902, 2/1912), 498–509
  • S. Macpherson: Form in Music (London, 1908, 3/1915), 170–77
  • V. d’Indy: Cours de composition musicale, 2 (Paris, 1909), 312–19
  • W. Chrzanowski: Das instrumentale Rondeau und die Rondoformen im XVIII Jahrhundert (Leipzig, 1911)
  • H. Leichtentritt: Musikalische Formenlehre (Leipzig, 1911, 3/1927/R; Eng. trans. Cambridge, MA, 1951), 110–20
  • R. Stöhr: Formenlehre der Musik (Leipzig, 1911, 4/1933 with H. Gál and A. Orel), 170–78, 182–209
  • F. Piersig: Das Rondo (Berlin, 1930, 2/1961)
  • H. Schenker: Neue musikalische Theorien und Phantasien, iii: Der freie Satz (Vienna, 1935, rev. 2/1956 by O. Jonas; Eng. trans., 1979), 225–8
  • R. von Tobel: Die Formenwelt der klassischen Instrumentalmusik (Berne and Leipzig, 1935), 180–206
  • L.J. Beer, ed.: Das Rondo, neun Klavierstücke aus dem 17. und 18. Jahrhundert (Leipzig, 1941)
  • D.F. Tovey: The Forms of Music: Musical Articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (London, 1944)
  • M.S. Cole: The Development of the Instrumental Rondo Finale from 1750 to 1800 (diss., Princeton U., 1964)
  • D.M. Green: Form in Tonal Music (New York, 1965, 2/1979), 153–66, 232
  • W. Berry: Form in Music (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1966, 2/1986), 122–67, 239–69
  • M.S. Cole: ‘Sonata-Rondo, the Formulation of a Theoretical Concept in the 18th and 19th Centuries’, MQ, 55 (1969), 180–92
  • M.S. Cole: ‘The Vogue of the Instrumental Rondo in the Late Eighteenth Century’, JAMS, 22 (1969), 425–55
  • M.S. Cole: ‘Rondos, Proper and Improper’, ML, 51 (1970), 388–99
  • J. LaRue: Guidelines for Style Analysis (New York, 1970, 2/1992)
  • C. Rosen: The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (London and New York, 1971, 2/1972)
  • L. Ratner: Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style (New York, 1980), 249–55
  • T. Bauman: North German Opera in the Age of Goethe (Cambridge, 1985), 121
  • C. White: ‘Form in the Second and Third Movements of the Classical Violin Concerto’, JMR, 6 (1986), 269–89
  • H.H. Rabe: Studien zur Rondoform in der französischen Clavecinmusik zwischen Spätbarock und Frühklassik (diss., U. of Göttingen, 1989)
  • J. Galand: Rondo-Form Problems in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Instrumental Music, with Reference to the Application of Schenker’s Form Theory to Historical Criticism (diss., Yale U., 1990)
Individual composers
  • C.F. Abdy Williams: ‘The Rondo Form, as it is Found in the Works of Mozart and Beethoven’, PMA, 17 (1890–91), 95–112
  • E. Mandyczewski: ‘Beethoven’s Rondo in B für Pianoforte und Orchester’, SIMG, 1 (1899–1900), 295–306
  • S. Clercx: ‘La forme du rondo chez Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’, RdM, 16 (1935), 148–67
  • H.J. Therstappen: Joseph Haydns sinfonisches Vermächtnis (Wolfenbüttel, 1941)
  • E. Hertzmann: ‘The Newly Discovered Autograph of Beethoven’s Rondo à Capriccio, Op.129’, MQ, 32 (1946), 171–95
  • M. Bedbur: Die Entwicklung des Finale in den Symphonien von Haydn, Mozart und Beethoven (diss., U. of Cologne, 1953)
  • M. Chusid: The Sonata-Rondo in Mozart’s Instrumental Works (MA thesis, U. of California, Berkeley, 1955)
  • P. Barford: The Keyboard Music of C.P.E. Bach (London, 1965), 122–32
  • H. Neumann and C. Schachter: ‘The Two Versions of Mozart’s Rondo k494’, Music Forum, 1 (1967), 1–34
  • W. Czesla: Studien zum Finale in der Kammermusik von Johannes Brahms (diss., U. of Bonn, 1968)
  • M.S. Cole: ‘The Rondo Finale: Evidence for the Mozart-Haydn Exchange?’, MJb 1968–70, 242–56
  • M.S. Cole: ‘Techniques of Surprise in the Sonata-Rondos of Beethoven’, SMH, 12 (1970), 233–62
  • R. Pascall: Formal Principles in the Music of Brahms (diss., U. of Oxford, 1972), 192–210
  • W.J. Mitchell: ‘Beethoven’s La Malinconia from the String Quartet, opus 18, no.6: Techniques and Structure’, Music Forum, 3 (1973), 269–80
  • M.S. Cole: ‘Mozart Rondo Finales with Changes of Meter and Tempo’, SMH, 16 (1974), 25–53
  • M.S. Cole: ‘Czerny’s Illustrated Description of the Rondo or Finale’, MR, 36 (1975), 5–16
  • S.C. Fisher: ‘Sonata Procedures in Haydn’s Symphonic Rondo Finales of the 1770s’, Haydn Studies: Washington DC 1975, 481–7
  • E.W. Murphy: ‘Sonata-Rondo Form in the Symphonies of Gustav Mahler’, MR, 36 (1975), 54–62
  • B. Sponheuer: ‘Haydns Arbeit am Finalproblem’, AMw, 34 (1977), 199–224
  • M. Collier: ‘The Rondo Movements of Beethoven’s Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37, and Brahms’s Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15: a Comparative Analysis’, Theory and Practice, 3 (1978), 5–15
  • A. Forte: ‘Generative Chromaticism in Mozart’s Music: the Rondo in A Minor, k.511’, MQ, 66 (1980), 459–83
  • M.S. Cole: ‘Haydn’s Symphonic Rondo Finales: their Structural and Stylistic Evolution’, Haydn Yearbook 1982, 113–42
  • U. Götze: ‘Zur Konzeption des Finalsatzes der Londoner Sinfonie in C-Dur, Hob.I:97 von J. Haydn’, Sequenzen: Maria Elisabeth Brockhoff, ed. G. Berkemeier and I.M. Weineck (Hagen, 1982), 116–36
  • D. Schulenberg: The Instrumental Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Ann Arbor, 1984), 147–53
  • A.P. Brown: Joseph Haydn’s Keyboard Music: Sources and Style (Bloomington, IN, 1986)
  • W.A. Koehler: The Late Independent Keyboard Rondos of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (DMA treatise, U. of Texas, 1986)
  • C. Baxendale: ‘The Finale of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: Long-Range Musical Thought’, JRMA, 112 (1987), 257–79
  • R. Häusler: ‘Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Rondos für “Kenner und Liebhaber”’, Musikreflektionen, 1 (1987), 9–35
  • A. Mead: ‘“Tonal” Forms in Arnold Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Music’, Music Theory Spectrum, 9 (1987), 67–92
  • C. Schachter: ‘The Gavotte en Rondeaux from J.S. Bach’s Partita in E Major for Unaccompanied Violin’, Israel Studies in Musicology, 4 (1987), 7–26
  • D.M. Berg: ‘C.P.E. Bach’s Character Pieces and his Friendship Circle’, C.P.E. Bach Studies, ed. S.L. Clark (Oxford, 1988), 1–32
  • C. Wolff: ‘Musikalische “Gedankenfolge” und “Einheit des Stoffes”: zu Mozarts Klaviersonate in F-Dur (kv533 + 494)’, Das musikalische Kunstwerk: Festschrift Carl Dahlhaus, ed. H. Danuser and others (Laaber, 1988), 441–53
  • H.W. Schwab: ‘Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach og hans komponering “for Publikum”’, SMN, 15 (1989), 51–72
  • S. Pinkas: A Rhythmic and Metric Analysis of the Rondo Ritmico, the Third Movement of the Chamber Concerto by Alban Berg (diss., Brandeis U., 1991)
  • S.C. Fisher: ‘Further Thoughts on Haydn’s Symphonic Rondo Finales’, Haydn Yearbook 1992, 85–107
  • E.R. Sisman: Haydn and the Classical Variation (Cambridge, 1993)
  • W.E. Caplin: ‘Rondo Forms’, Classical Form: a Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (New York, 1998)
G. Schilling: Encyclopädie der gesammten musikalischen Wissenschaften, oder Universal-Lexicon der Tonkunst
Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart
Sammelbände der Internationalen Musik-Gesellschaft
Studia musicologica Academiae scientiarum hungaricae
Musical Quarterly
Revue de musicologie
Archiv für Musikwissenschaft
Mozart-Jahrbuch [Salzburg, 1950-]
Music & Letters
Proceedings of the Musical Association
Music Review
Journal of the American Musicological Society
J.G. Walther: Musicalisches Lexicon, oder Musicalische Bibliothec
Journal of the Royal Musical Association
Journal of Musicological Research