« Back to Dictionary Index

A piece of music having one principal subject, to which a return is always made after the introduction of other matter, so as to give a symmetrical or rounds form to the whole.

From the simplicity and obviousness of this idea it will be readily understood that the Rondo-form was the earliest and most frequent definite mold for musical construction. In fact the First Movement and the Rondo are the two principal types of form, modifications of the Rondo serving as the skeleton for nearly every piece or song now written. Marx (Allgemeine Musiklehre) distinguishes five forms of Rondo, but his description is involved, and, in the absence of any acknowledged authority for the distinctions, scarcely justifiable.

Starting with a principal subject of definite form and length, the first idea naturally was to preserve this unchanged in key or form through the piece. Hence a decided melody of eight or sixteen bars was chosen, ending with a full close in the tonic. After a rambling excursion through several keys and with no particular object, the principal subject was regained and an agreeable sense of contrast attained.

Later on there grew out of the free section a second subject in the related key, and still later a third, which allowed the second to be repeated in the tonic. This variety closely resembles the first-movement form, the third subject taking the place of the development of subjects, which is rare in a Rondo.

The chief difference lies in the return to the first subject immediately after the second, which is the invariable characteristic of the Rondo. The first of these classes is the Rondo from Couperin to Haydn, the second and third that of Mozart and Beethoven.

In the case of a Rondo is a minor key, the second subject would natural be in the relative major instead of in the dominant.

Beethoven’s Rondos will all be found to present but slight modifications of the above form. Sometimes a ‘working-out’ or development of the second subject will take the place of the third subject, as in the Sonata in E minor (op. 90), but in every case the principal subject will be presented in its entirety at least three times. But as this was apt to lead to monotony – especially in the case of a long subject like that in the Sonata just quoted, Beethoven introduced the plan of varying the theme slightly on each repetition, or of breaking off in the middle.

It is in such delicate and artistic modifications and improvements as these that the true genius shows itself, and not in the complete abandonment of old rules.

Modern composers, like Chopin, with whom construction was not a strong point, often omit the central section, or third subject, together with the repetition of the first subject which accompanies it, and thus what they call a Rondo is merely a piece on the plan of a French overture; that is to say, having produced all his material in the first half of the piece, the composer repeats the whole unchanged, save that such portions as were in the Dominant are, in the repetition, given in the Tonic.

« Back to Dictionary Index