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Rondo Form

Music is usually cast by composers in some sort of form or structure, and one of the simplest and most commonly used structures is ternary form. Ternary form is where a piece has a three-section plan: a first bit, then a contrasting middle bit, then a return of the first bit, or A-B-A. In this post we’re going beyond ternary form by asking the question: what would happen if the composer kept on repeating the first bit with contrasting bits in between, making five, seven or even nine sections instead of three? That’s what this post will explore.

Imagine you’re a fashionable theatre-goer in London in 1692. Musical theatre was immensely popular in the period following the restrictions of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy, and one of London’s most sought-after theatre composers was Henry Purcell. (A recent post in this blog explored Purcell’s life and work.)

Closterman: Henry Purcell (1695)

In 1692 Purcell provided music for a spectacular theatrical entertainment based very loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was called The Fairy Queen, and as was common in those days, music was provided by the composer to be played before the overture, while the audience was getting settled. A lot of English music in the late 17th century was influenced by French music and in this introductory music, Purcell wrote a piece called rondeau which was cast in a very particular structure: ABACA. [listen]

This is an extremely clear example of a form of music used by composers from the seventeenth century right up to the present day. It’s called rondo form, and it’s characterised by the constant return of a melody after contrasting episodes in between. If tune A keeps coming back after contrasting tunes in between, that makes it rondo form. This rondeau by Purcell could be characterised by the structure ABACA, noting that the first time we hear tune A, it’s repeated. The other times we hear tune A, it’s heard only once.

Rondo form wasn’t only used in music. It was also used in literature, and a lot earlier than the 17th century, too. Here’s a translation of a poem by Prince Charles d’Orléans, who died in 1465. Note how the first two lines function like the A section of Purcell’s music:

The year has cast his garment old

Of wind and frost and soaking rain,

And clothed himself in tints again,

And shining sunbeams, clear and gold.

Now bird on tree and lamb in fold

Each of its joy sounds a refrain.

The year has cast his garment old

Of wind and frost and soaking rain.

The streamlet strays through verdant wold,

Its bosom decked with glist’ning chain

Of sunlight ripples - all the train

Of nature dressed in colours bold.

The year has cast his garment old

Of wind and frost and soaking rain.

That poem is in rondo form, and it was in fact called a rondel. It’s in exactly the same structure as Purcell’s music - ABACA - where the lines I’ve underlined constitute the A section.

A depiction of Charles d’Orléans' imprisonment in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt, from an illuminated manuscript of his poems

JS Bach took up this strict form of rondo in his E major violin concerto, where the last movement is a rondo in nine sections: ABACADAEA. The work is scored for solo violin and a string orchestra. The A section - the section which keeps coming back - is played by the soloist and orchestra together. You can’t hear the solo violin in this section because the soloist is playing the same music as the first violins in the orchestra.

In all, this tune is heard five times in this movement, played identically each time. Each of the four intervening episodes has a distinctive character which helps give the movement a sense of logical progression. I’m sure you could imagine that in the wrong hands, rondo form could become terribly boring. Not so with the great musical minds, like JS Bach.

The B section of this movement provides the first opportunity for the solo violinist to be heard, and the only accompaniment comes from the bassline; the violin and viola parts are silent in section B. After we hear A for the second time, the C section is the next episode for the soloist, only this time the violin and viola parts accompany while the bassline is silent. A then returns for the third time.

The D episode provides the soloist with the opportunity to play double stopping - that is, playing more than one note at a time - thus making the texture thicker. This is reinforced by the fact that the solo part is accompanied by the whole orchestra for the first time in this movement. The A section then returns for the fourth time.

The last solo episode, section E, has the soloist playing very fast passages and runs, utilising very short note values. The accompaniment uses the whole orchestra but breaks it up into bassline versus the others, thus perfectly balancing with the B and C sections. The movement finishes with the fifth and final statement of the A theme. One of the glories of Bach is that even when he uses forms or styles of writing that could be regarded as somewhat “academic”, he is still able to create music that is simply gorgeous. [listen]

Once your mind is in the “groove” of listening for rondo form it’s fun to try and spot how composers use it, and to work out whether it’s ABACA, or ABACADA, or some other pattern. There are some examples where composers repeat some of the intervening episodes, making, for example, a perfectly symmetrical ABACABA structure. It’s all rondo so long as A keeps coming back.

One of the most famous of all opera arias is in rondo form. It's Orpheus's beautiful lament on the loss of his Euridice from Gluck's 1762 opera on the Orpheus legend. Its structure is ABACA. [listen]

Next we’re going to jump ahead to hear two very different composers from the 20th century who used rondo form: Sergei Prokofiev and Duke Ellington.

Prokofiev seems to go through phases with the listening public. While there are some works of his that are easily digestible and always popular - like Peter and the Wolf, or the Classical Symphony - there’s a lot more to Prokofiev than these two lightweight works. Prokofiev, like his contemporary Shostakovich, had a dark side, and a lot of his quite large output is simply not played these days. Among the works which are rarely heard is his fourth piano sonata, which was written in 1917. The final movement is in rondo form - comprising ABACADA. Each time the A melody returns, it’s a little different, embellished with trills, or chopped around a bit, making this particular version of rondo form more organic, growing and logical. [listen]

Sergei Prokofiev (c. 1918)

Prokofiev was a great pianist as well as being one of the most important of 20th century composers. Another famous pianist of the 20th century was Duke Ellington. Maybe he would have called himself a “piano player” rather than a pianist, but regardless of the label, Duke Ellington was without doubt one of the great band leaders and composers of his time. Fortunately a lot of his music exists in recordings his band made from the mid-20s onwards, and in 1940 he recorded a piece which was written to feature his trumpeter Cootie Williams.

Duke Ellington (1940s)

Cootie Williams was the master of the “growl” trumpet, and he left Ellington’s band not long after this recording was made. The piece is called Concerto for Cootie and it’s in rondo form. Actually this shouldn’t be surprising. Traditional jazz is usually cast in rondo form - the riff, played by the whole band, is the A section. Then there’s a solo from one player (B) after which the riff returns. Then the other players have solos, with the riff returning between each solo. This is exactly the same plan that Bach used in his violin concerto...

Cootie Williams (c. 1947)

In Concerto for Cootie, there’s a brief introduction, after which Cootie has his first solo - the A theme. The B section provides him with an opportunity to show off his growling trumpet style, and as you’d expect, this is followed by the A melody. The solo in the C section is set quite high for the trumpet, so this makes it stand out from the more laid back feel of the A section. After the last A section there’s a very brief rounding off, called a coda.

This is the recording of Concerto for Cootie featuring Cootie Williams, made in 1940. [listen]

Rondo form was most often used by composers as a final movement structure. It’s virtually unheard of to have rondo form as a first movement in a symphony, concerto or sonata, whereas it’s quite common to find it as a last movement structure. The Bach and Prokofiev works already mentioned here were final movements, and in the Classical period - the era of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - it was very common to use rondo form for finales. In the last year of his life Mozart wrote one of his most beautiful and best-loved works - his clarinet concerto - and like most of Mozart and Beethoven’s concerto finales, the last movement of this sublime piece is cast in rondo form. The initial A section itself is quite long and when it returns it isn’t always presented complete. There’s also a coda, a winding up section, which is quite long, and which itself includes the last restatement of the A melody. Mozart manipulates rondo form quite a bit in this movement in order to take us on a clear, logical and yet utterly intriguing journey. And such is the clarity of Mozart’s logic that when the A melody returns each time, it feels utterly and incontrovertibly right. [listen]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I’m going to continue with Mozart and staying with music written in the last year of his life, but oddly enough, I’m leaving aside rondo form as such. I wanted to address another use of the term rondo which might cause confusion if you’re looking for an ABACA sort of structure. “Rondo” is also used to describe a particular sort of opera aria, and it has nothing to do with the sort of structure we’ve been discussing so far. In fact it has a little accent on the last letter so strictly-speaking it should be pronounced rondò, with the stress on the second syllable. A rondò is an aria which has a slow introduction and a fast main section, and sometimes there were thematic connections between the two sections. Many of the big show stopper arias in Mozart’s mature operas are cast in this form and it came to be applied to the big aria for a main character at a pivotal point in the plot. You'll see then that rondò in this context a completely different animal to the ABACA structures we were talking about before.

Here’s an aria - and operatic rondò - from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. There’s a slow introduction, then a fast main section. At the end the tempo gets faster again, to provide a big finish. [listen]

We'll finish with music by Beethoven, written not too long after that Mozart opera, which uses rondo form in its more usual sense, with a recurring A section. This is the last movement of Beethoven's second piano concerto, the concerto in B flat Op 19. Take careful note of the first theme, played by the solo piano. That's the A theme which keeps coming back. [listen]

Rondo form is used throughout the classical mainstream - especially in the 18th century and early 19th century. Its use extends beyond those dates, though, especially into more recent times. Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel makes use of an extended rondo form, and movements in Mahler's fifth and ninth symphonies do as well. And then there's the combination of rondo form with sonata form to make "sonata-rondo" form... But that's another story.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2011.

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