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Rondo is an instrumental musical form [1] introduced in the Classical period.



The English word rondo comes from the Italian form of the French rondeau, which means "a little round". [2]

Despite the common etymological root, rondo and rondeau as musical forms are essentially different. Rondeau is a vocal musical form that was originally developed as monophonic music (in the 13th century) and then as polyphonic music (in the 14th century). Notably, both vocal forms of rondeau nearly disappeared from the repertoire by the beginning of the 16th century. [3] [4] [5] In French, rondeau is used for both forms, while in English rondeau is generally used for the vocal musical form, while rondo is used for the instrumental musical form. [6] [7]


Typical tonal structure of classical seven-part rondo, late 18th and early 19th centuries [8]
Major keyIVIVI, IV or
parallel minor
Minor keyIIII
or V

In rondo form, a principal theme (sometimes called the "refrain") alternates with one or more contrasting themes, generally called "episodes", but also occasionally referred to as "digressions" or "couplets". Possible patterns in the Classical period include: ABA, ABACA, or ABACABA. [9] These are sometimes designated "first rondo", "second rondo", and "third rondo", respectively. The first rondo is distinguished from the three-part song form principally by the fact that at least one of the themes is a song form in itself, but the difference in melodic and rhythmic content of the themes in rondo form is typically greater than in song form, and the accompanimental figuration in the parts of the rondo (unlike the song form) is usually contrasted. [10] The number of themes can vary from piece to piece, and the recurring element is sometimes embellished and/or shortened in order to provide for variation. Perhaps the best-known example of rondo form is Beethoven's "Für Elise", an ABACA rondo.

The pattern of repeats, however, in 18th-century ballet music, that is, in music intended specifically for dancing rather than listening, is often not predictable. An instructive example comes from the pasticcio pantomime ballet Le peintre amoureux de son modèle (around 1760s), extant in the Ferrère manuscript (F-Po Rés. 68)[ incomplete short citation ]. The final contredanse générale, for example, which was taken from J.-P. Rameau's Les fêtes d'Hébé and which was to be played en rondeau, has a repeat structure of AA [BBACCA] × 4 (that is, after the initial AA, the sequence BBACCA is repeated four times).[ citation needed ]

A Baroque predecessor to the rondo was the ritornello. Ritornello form was used in the fast movements of baroque concertos and in many baroque vocal and choral works. The ripieno ( tutti ) plays the main ritornello theme, while soloists play the intervening episodes. As typical of Baroque continuo playing, in the tutti sections the soloists also play as part of the ensemble; while in the solo sections most of the remaining instruments in the ensemble may stop, in order to provide some transparency to the soloist(s), or may be used sparsely (in either case, the solos are accompanied thoroughly or punctuated by a harpsichord or the like, together with a violoncello da gamba or the like). [11] While Rondo form is similar to ritornello form, it is different in that ritornello brings back the subject or main theme in fragments and in different keys, but the rondo brings back its theme complete and in the same key. Cedric Thorpe Davie is one author, however, who considers the ritornello form the ancestor, not of the rondo form, but of the classical concerto form (which also occurs, as a form, in many a classical-era aria). [12]

A common expansion of rondo form is to combine it with sonata form, to create the sonata rondo form. Here, the second theme acts in a similar way to the second theme group in sonata form by appearing first in a key other than the tonic and later being repeated in the tonic key. Unlike sonata form, thematic development does not need to occur except possibly in the coda. The last movement of Beethoven's Sonata Pathétique is an example of a sonata rondo. [8]

Main theme of a sonata rondo, the final movement of Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique Pathetique-3 Incipit.svg
Main theme of a sonata rondo, the final movement of Beethoven's Sonata Pathétique

Examples of rondo form

Character type

Rondo as a character-type (as distinct from the form) refers to music that is fast and vivacious – normally Allegro . Many classical rondos feature music of a popular or folk character. Music that has been designated as "rondo" normally subscribes to both the form and character. On the other hand, there are many examples of slower, reflective works that are rondo in form but not in character; they include Mozart's Rondo in A minor, K. 511 (marked Andante).

Other usages

A well-known operatic vocal genre of the late 18th century, referred to at that time by the same name but distinguished today in English and German writing by the differently accented term "rondò" is cast in two parts, slow-fast. [7]


  1. Cole, Malcolm S. (January 20, 2001). "Rondo". Grove Music Online . Oxford University Press: 1, 3. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.23787.
  2. "rondo (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
  3. Hoppin, Richard H. (1978). "The Rondeau". Medieval Music . New York: W.W. Norton. pp.  296–297. ISBN   0-393-09090-6.
  4. Hoppin, Richard H. (1978). "The Rondeaux". Medieval Music . New York: W. W. Norton. pp.  426–429. ISBN   0-393-09090-6.
  5. Wilkins, Nigel (2001). "Rondeau (i)". Grove Music Online . Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.23782.
  6. Malcolm S. Cole, "Rondo", §3, in: Grove Music Online , 2001
  7. 1 2 Don Neville, "Rondò", The New Grove Dictionary of Opera , 4 vols., edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Press, 1992).
  8. 1 2 White, John D. (1976). The Analysis of Music, pp. 54–56. ISBN   0-13-033233-X.
  9. Eugene K. Wolf, "Rondo", Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition, edited by Don Michael Randel. Harvard University Press Reference Library (Cambridge: Belknap Press for Harvard University Press, 2003). ISBN   978-0-674-01163-2.
  10. Percy Goetschius, Lessons in Musical Form: A Manual of Analysis of All the Structural Factors (Boston: Oliver Ditson Company, 1904): 117; Leon Stein, Anthology of Musical Forms: Structure and Style, expanded edition (New York: Summy-Birchard, Inc.. 1979): 87. ISBN   0-87487-164-6.
  11. David Fallows, "Tutti", in: Grove Music Online, Jan. 20, 2001 (Date of access: 12 Oct. 2018); Peter Williams and David Ledbetter, "Continuo", in: Grove Music Online, Jan. 20, 2001 (Date of access: 12 Oct. 2018).
  12. Thorpe Davie, Musical Structure and Design.[ full citation needed ]

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