Cyclic form

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Cyclic form is a technique of musical construction, involving multiple sections or movements, in which a theme, melody, or thematic material occurs in more than one movement as a unifying device. Sometimes a theme may occur at the beginning and end (for example, in Mendelssohn's A minor String Quartet or Brahms's Symphony No. 3); other times a theme occurs in a different guise in every part (e.g. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique , and Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony).


The technique has a complex history, having fallen into disuse in the Baroque and Classical eras, but steadily increasing in use during the nineteenth century. [1]

The Renaissance cyclic mass, which incorporates a usually well-known portion of plainsong as a cantus firmus in each of its sections, is an early use of this principle of unity in a multiple-section form. [2] Examples can also be found in late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century instrumental music, for instance in the canzonas, sonatas, and suites by composers such as Samuel Scheidt, in which a ground bass may recur in each movement [3] [1] When the movements are short enough and begin to be heard as a single entity rather than many, the boundaries begin to blur between cyclic form and variation form.[ clarification needed ]

Cyclic technique is not typically found in the instrumental music of the most famous composers from the Baroque and "high classical" eras, though it may still be found in the music of such figures as Luigi Boccherini and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. [3] [4]

Nevertheless, in the Classical period, cyclic technique is found in several works of Mozart: In String Quartet in D minor K. 421, all the four movements are unified by the motif, "F-A-C-C-C-C".[ citation needed ] In String Quartet No.18 in A major K. 464, different rhythmic motifs of the concept "long-short-short-short" of the first movement and second movement combine in the finale.[ clarification needed ][ citation needed ] Mladjenović, Bogunović, Masnikosa, and Radak state that Mozart's Fantasia, K. 475, with its multi-movement structure inscribed in a one-movement sonata form, started something later finished by Liszt in his B minor Piano Sonata. [5] [ clarification needed ] Joseph Haydn uses cyclic technique at the end of the Symphony No. 31, where the music recalls the horn call heard at the very opening of the work. [6]

In sacred vocal music of Baroque and Classical periods, there are several examples of cyclic technique, such as Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor and Mozart's Mass in C major, K. 317, Spatzenmesse in C major K. 220, Litaniae de venerabili altaris sacramento K. 243,[ citation needed ] and especially Requiem in D minor K. 626, where the "DNA"[ clarification needed ] of the Lutheran hymn motif, "D-C#-D-E-F", permeates the entire work. [7] [ failed verification ]

Although other composers were already using this technique, it is Beethoven's example that really popularised cyclic form for subsequent Romantic composers. [4] In Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a large part of the scherzo movement is recalled to end the finale's development section and lead into the recapitulation; the Ninth Symphony's finale rapidly presents explicit reminiscences of the three preceding movements before discovering the idea that is to be its own principal theme; while both the Piano Sonata Op. 101 and Cello Sonata Op. 102 No. 2 similarly recall earlier movements before their finales.

In the 1820s, both Franz Schubert and the young Felix Mendelssohn wrote numerous important cyclic works: Schubert, in the Wanderer Fantasy (1822) created a "4-in-1" double-function design that would leave its mark decades later on Liszt, while Mendelssohn, in such works as the Octet (1825) and String Quartet No. 2 (1827) created highly integrated musical forms that proved influential for later Romantic composers. [4] Another significant model was given by Hector Berlioz in his programmatic Symphonie fantastique of 1830, whose "idée fixe" serves as a cyclic theme throughout the five movements. By the 1840s, the technique is already quite established, being found in several works by Robert Schumann, Fanny Hensel, Niels Gade, Franz Berwald, and the earliest compositions of César Franck. [8]

Mid-century, Franz Liszt in works such as the B minor Piano Sonata (1853) did a lot to popularize the cyclic techniques of thematic transformation and double-function form established by Schubert and Berlioz. Liszt's sonata begins with a clear statement of several thematic units and each unit is extensively used and developed throughout the piece. By late in the century, cyclic form had become an extremely common principle of construction, most likely because the increasing length and complexity of multiple-movement works demanded a unifying method stronger than mere key relation.[ citation needed ] At the beginning of the twentieth century, Vincent d'Indy, a pupil of Franck, promoted the use of the term "cyclic" to describe the technique. [8]

The term is more debatable in cases where the resemblance is less clear, such as in the works of Beethoven, who used very basic fragments. Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is an example of cyclic form in which a theme is used throughout the symphony, but with different orchestration. The "short-short-short-long" four-note motive is embedded in each movement.[ citation needed ]


Examples of cyclic works from the classical era and afterwards are:



  1. 1 2 Randel, Don Michael. 2003. "Cyclic Form". The Harvard Dictionary of Music , fourth edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. ISBN   978-0674011632.
  2. New Grove Dict. M&M 2001, "Borrowing" (§5: Renaissance Mass Cycles) by J. Peter Burkholder.
  3. 1 2 New Grove Dict. M&M 2001, "Cyclic Form" by Hugh Macdonald.
  4. 1 2 3 Taylor, Benedict (2011). "The Idea of Cyclic Form". Mendelssohn, Time and Memory: The Romantic Conception of Cyclic Form. Cambridge University Press. pp. 6–51. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511794384.002.
  5. Mladjenović, Bogunović, Masnikosa, and Radak 2009, pp. 103–4.
  6. Webster, James. 1991. Haydn's 'Farewell' Symphony and the Idea of Classical Style: Through-Composition and Cyclic Integration in his Instrumental Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Sapsuev, Andrey Yu. 2014. "Once Again on Mozart’s Requiem (Issues of Intonation-and-Style Analysis)". Journal of Siberian Federal University: Humanities & Social Sciences 3, no. 7:498–509. (pp. 501-2). (retrieved 5 March 2020).
  8. 1 2 Strucken-Paland, Christiane. 2009. Zyklische Prinzipien in den Instrumentalwerken César Francks. Kassel: Bosse.

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