Posted in Research for Assignment 1

Assignment 1 Research, Part 1: The Rondo Form

Since I based my first assignment on the structure of rondo, I decided to do a research post about its history. Rondo is one of the basic musical forms in which a repeated section (refrain), usually in home key, alternates with several episodes (couplets). Regarding the origins of the form, there are some debates muddled by the historical terminologies.

One of the theories is that the term and the principle of rondo may have been derived from the medieval French poetry form rondeau. As Apel (1969: 739) explains, the music was only composed for the refrain which is formed of the line 1 and 2, recurring in part in the middle and completely at the end of the poem, with the scheme A B a A a b A B. (capital letters denote the refrains) However, Apel himself doubts that there is any connection of the medieval rondeau to the later 17th and 18th-century instrumental rondeau. Schoenberg (2010: 266) too argues that “if musical rondo form were really supposed to be modelled on the poetic form, it could only be so very superficially.” Cole (2001) also included some other problems:

“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 […] 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.”

Leaving these issues of the nomenclature, as a concept of the repeated sections with several episodes, the rondo-like forms appears throughout history, including the medieval carols, where burden represents the refrain (Tucker and Temperley: 2011), and the repetitive forms of the Gregorian chant – Kyrie, Agnus Dei and sequences. Furthermore, whether responsorial or antiphonal, many other forms of the Gregorian chant, such as the Introits, Alleluias, Graduals and responsories, are all the reductions of the rondo-like structure of the early psalmody. (Apel, 1969: 256) Outside of the West too, the rondo structures emerged, such as in the Arabic bashraf and in the Indian music. In Southern India, in the vocal genre kriti, pallavi serves as a refrain, anupallevi as a kind of answer to the refrain, and the charanam as couplets. (Day, 1891: 60) In the Hindustani music, in the fixed compositions such as dhrupad, bandish and gat, asthayi serves as pallevi, antira as anupallevi, and abhog as charnam. (87)

Back to the West, what is certain is that the classical rondo form was developed from the 17th and 18th century rondeau of the French composers. There were two types that were developed in the country. The first was the French rondeau of two couplets – A B A C A, favored by Lully in ballets and operas, and Chambonierre in keyboard music. Lully’s examples includes the pieces such as Rondeau pour les Basque and Rondeau pour la gloire with the form opera Alceste, while Chambonierre wrote several Chaconnes en rondeau. You can listen to Lully’s Rondeau pour la gloire here, with the scheme of the composition outlined.

The second type was the multi-couplet Italian rondo, which appeared in the early Italian operas such as Peri’s Euridice and Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Louis Couperin preferred this type in is keyboard music. Francois Couperin, on the other hand, composed both types, varying between one and eight couplets. While he elevated the genre, it was Rameau who standardized the rondeau, basing it on the two-couplet design. If the refrain is in the major key, first couplet would be in the dominant, the second in the submediant key; if the refrain is in minor, the first couplet would be in the relative major and second in the dominant minor. In his dramatic works, however, Rameau produced the single couplet rondeau, and by combining two such rondeaus he would produce an expanded ternary ABA CDC ABA form. Finally, it was Leclair and his Arias for violin in which he connected couplets to the refrain with the linking passage. (Cole, 2001)

From France, rondo spread to other countries, approaching finally the German composers from the classical era. By this time, rondo was a very popular genre, which can be partly contributed to the opera buffa. Absorbing the spirit and technique of opera buffa, German classical composers were “the prime agents in the transformation and diffusion of this new kind of rondo.” (Cole, 2001) Using the older structures of the two-couplet and multi-couplet types, the composers would either use the rapid tempo thematic style of the buffo overture or the slower and lyrical buffo air. Unique in the treatment of the rondo was C.P.E. Bach. As Cole (2001) writes:

“Structural freedom, refrain transposition, fantasia figurations, harmonic sophistication and dynamic contrasts combine to make Bach’s rondos personal and ingenious treatments of the form.”

Slowly, rondo became a part of the larger multi-movement compositions, such as sonatas, symphonies and concertos. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven focused on the multi-couplet rondos, using the middle couplet as the development section, resulting in the A B A C A B A scheme, often with the added coda at the end. There was also often a variation in the form, for example Mozart also composed codas with the A B A C B A pattern. Personally, what I find interesting is how the Viennese classicists used the folktunes in rondos, more specifically Hungarian, Gypsy and Turkish. The most obvious example being the ‘alla turca’ by Mozart, but there are other such rondos, like the ‘rondo l’ongarese’ by Haydn.

Composers from the Romantic era continued experimenting both with the structure and the musical content of the rondos, with Schumann for example extending the tonal plan of the episodes. Similarly, in the 20th and 21th century, modern and contemporary composers continued the ‘vitality of the rondo’. (Cole, 2001)

To conclude, I very much enjoyed reading about the history of the rondo and I hope to use all the variants of its forms in my future compositions. My next research will be about the ballet form, which I mixed with the rondo structure. Take read it here. Finally, you can take a look at my assignment piece here.


Apel, W. (ed.) (1969) Harvard Dictionary of Music (2nd ed.) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Cole, M. S. (2001) ‘Rondo’ In: Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on 13th October 2016)

Day, C. R. (1891) The Music and Musical Instruments of Southern India and The Deccan. New York: Novello, Ewer & Co.

Schoenberg, A. (2010) Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. (60th Anniversary ed.) Edited by Stein, L. and translated by Black L. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tucker, G. and Temperley, N. (2011) ‘Rondo form.’ In: Latham, A. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford University Press. At: (Accessed on 10th October 2016)

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