All About the Rondo
By Edwin Hall Pierce
Suppose you were listening to some good-natured musical friend who entertains you with a little music, and she began playing a pretty little tune, a rather short one, which greatly struck your fancy. She then plays another tune, which you also enjoy, but you have a desire to hear the first tune again, and say so, where upon she repeats it.
Then she plays something else – a piece about as long as the first two put together – and after that you ask her to play both of the first tunes again. She graciously consents, and not only does that, but at the end renders your first and favorite little tune, still again for good measure.
Suppose now, you have been so delighted with the whole performance that the next day you ask her to do the same thing again, but this time she plays continuously from one tune to another, connecting them in some places with a little improvisation, then what you have been listening to would actually be a Rondo. For that is practically what a Rondo is – a piece in which the first tune is heard again several times, with other things in between for the sake of variety and contrast.
Composers early found the advantage of this form, especially for music of a light and playful character, as were most of the earlier rondos. Like most artistic forms, it had a gradual growth from very simple and humble origins. Nearly all (though not quite all) tunes will, on being examined, be found to have a formula something like this:
- Do something
- Do something else
- Do the first thing again
Only the repetition is usually slightly altered, either to give a better close to the tune, or merely to give variety. Sometimes the first theme of a Rondo itself has this form, in which case the Rondo as a whole becomes a sort of “wheels within wheels.”
As an example of this principle applied to a very rudimentary form, examine the hymn-tune Jesus, Lover of My Soul.
The earliest Rondos, or perhaps we should say the earliest pieces which paved the way for the full-fledged Rondo, were merely a number of little tunes in related keys, put together in such a way as to show an agreeable variety, the first tune cropping up again and again in the course of the piece. This form was often used as the last movement of a sonata, by early writers. Many examples are found in the Sonatas of Haydn, although he himself improved on it in his best attempts.
No effort is made to hide the joints, and no special devices are used to introduce the recurrences of the principal theme with any special cleverness or originality. It makes one think of a formal little old-fashioned garden; here is a square bed of roses, there is a square bed of asters, and here is a square bed of pinks, perhaps, with a nice straight little gravel walk (represented by a “double bar”) between each bed and the next. About every eight measures is a double bar and repeat sign.
There is just one thing that helps hold it together, however, and that is the agreeable succession of keys. Students of musical theory have convenient names for these which apply equally well no matter what key they begin with; they speak of the Tonic, Dominant, Sub-dominant, Relative Minor, etc., but as this article is intended for the casual reader rather than for the learned in musical lore, we shall not use these terms, nor stop to explain them, but instead give an example of what the succession would be if we began, for instance, in the key of C. The form and succession of keys in a full-fledged Rondo would then be about as follows:
- First theme, in C, coming to a close in that key
- Second theme, in G, not coming to a complete close, but leading in a graceful or brilliant way to –
- First theme again, in C
- Third theme, in F, A flat, A minor or C minor; rather more lengthy, and not coming to a full close, but leading again to –
- First theme in C
- Second theme, transposed from G to C
- First theme in C
- “Coda” or extra measures put on to make a good finish.
Note: Besides the “theme” there is always more or less connecting material here and there, which is classed under the head of “Episode.”
It would occur to almost anyone, on examining this outline, that the numerous recurrences of the same theme in the same key have a dangerous tendency to become tedious, and this is actually the case, but composers of genius have contrived to manage the matter so cleverly as to sustain the interest and pleasure of the hearer from beginning to end, either singly or in combination, which modify the cut and dried character of the form in a pleasing way. One may enumerate them as follows:
- The first theme must be one of great beauty and charm, so that one would gladly hear it several times; it must not be too long, nor contain too much inner repetition
- One or more of the recurrences of the first theme may be in a shortened form
- The different themes must present a pronounced contrast in sentiment and rhythm
- One of the later occurrences of the theme may be in a distant and unexpected foreign key, instead of the principal key; for instance, in the above outline, No. 5 or No. 7 might be in the key of B or D flat, instead of C. This device was introduced by Beethoven, but has also been used by Chopin and others. Witness the Rondo of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
- The theme may be varied in an interesting manner whenever it recurs, as in the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 2, No. 2.
- The leading-up to the principal theme may be different each time, so as to approach it in a manner both novel and graceful. A simple yet effective example is found in the last movement of Beethoven’s little Sonata Op. 49, No. 2 (Tempo di Menuetto by name, yet really a Rondo in form.)
The conditions we have here indicated under “1”, “3” and “6” are found in all really good rondos. Those under “2”, “4” and “5” are met with only occasionally.
The Rondo in Minor
The major mode is probably much the more common for Rondos, nevertheless there are numerous fine examples in minor. In the latter case, the arrangement of keys is somewhat different, and we give it for comparison:
- First theme, C minor (for instance)
- Second theme, E flat major, (note that this has the same signature)
- First theme, C minor
- Third theme, A flat major
- First theme, C minor
- Second theme, transposed to C minor or sometime, C major
- First theme, C minor. Coda.
The same remarks made about the Rondo in major apply to that in minor, only it may be added that examples exist of the principal theme occurring transposed to the major mode – sometimes at its very last appearance, thus giving the Rondo a “happy ending,” like the popular summer novel.
A good example of the Rondo in minor is that which closes Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, and Saint-Saens’ Rondo Capriccioso. The last named being for violin are also excellent.
By the way, in reading what is here written in regard to form, succession of keys, etc., the lay reader must not jump to the mistaken conclusion that composers have been working under a set of arbitrary and burdensome rules laid down by pedantic theorists. The case is just the other way around; writers on musical theory merely record and classify the usage of the best composers, and this is something that is the outcome of hundreds of experiments and attempts by countless composers in the past.
The multiplied experience of generations of composers in writing Rondos has simply taught them what is in general the best way to write a Rondo. If a composer at the present day should boldly break all these rules, and still write a fine Rondo, he would not be blamed, but on the contrary, hailed as a possible genius. The same is true of other classical musical forms, which have become more or less conventionalized by custom. They are much more free than people imagine. Mozart in his Rondo No. 1 in D, has the main theme appear in several different keys as it recurs. His Turkish Rondo and Haydn’s Gipsy Rondo use mostly the mere changes back and forth between major and minor, minor and major, of the same key.
Rudimentary and Incomplete Rondos
Many Rondos, especially of the briefer sort, scarcely have what may be dignified by the name of “second theme,” its place being filled by scale passages, arpeggios and other matter of a merely ornamental or episodal sort. Such Rondos, however, do generally have a real “third theme,” though but a brief one. For examples, see the movement of Kuhlau’s Sonatina Op. 20 No. 1, marked Rondo, or Op. 55, No. 1, marked Vivace or the Rondo in Op 59, No. 1.
Some other Rondos, including several fine ones by Chopin, entirely lack the “third theme,” but otherwise present the usual form.
Still others have a section corresponding to the third theme, but it is made up as a sort of improvisation on the previous themes, or some motive from them. This verges on what theorists call the “Sonata-form,” thought still differing from it in important particulars.
Still others, again, lack the last repetition of the principal theme, or merely give a suggestion of it in the Coda.
These deviations from the complete Rondo-form are not to be deemed defects; in many cases they show the good taste of the composer, who realized that his material would make a better effect if presented in this way than if spread out at a greater length.
Besides those already named in the course of this article, there are many fine Rondos which are well worth playing; one that occurs to me at present is Weber’s Rondo Brilliant – a very brilliant and effective piano piece.
Very many pieces which do not bear the title “Rondo” are in genuine Rondo form; it is exceedingly common in Salon Music – for instance, Langes well-known Flower Song. Liszt’s La Campanella, one of the most showy and attractive concert numbers in the repertoire of virtuoso pianists, is also a Rondo, of rather free form.