VI. The Rondo Principle

A large number of musical forms rely on the concept of statement, contrast, and restatement. We may call this three-part process the Rondo Principle. It has harmonic as well as design implications.

Three-Part Forms

The simplest examples of this principle as it applies to the Classical repertoire is ternary, or three-part form.

A

B

A

statement (tonic)

contrast (non-tonic)

restatement (tonic)

A linking passage, or transition, sometimes leads from a tonic passage A, called a refrain, to the start of a non-tonic contrasting passage B, called an episode. A linking passage that leads from an episode back to a refrain (and thus from a non-tonic back to a tonic tonal center) is called a retransition. A brief coda may be added at the end of the third section.

Transitions lead from tonic refrains to non-tonic episodes

Retransitions lead from non-tonic episodes to tonic refrains.

The British refer to ternary form as first rondo form.

Compound ternary form

Compound ternary form results from the juxtaposition of a binary form (statement) with another binary form (contrast), followed by a reprise of the first binary form (restatement). This is the pattern for most Baroque dance pair movements (e.g. the Menuetti from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G found in Burkhart) and for the minuet and trio or scherzo movements in the Classical and early Romantic periods. A typical compound ternary format:

A ’ ” B A
C ’ ” D C
A B A ÷

A

(statement)

B

(contrast)

A

(restatement)

The binary structures that make up the sections of a compound ternary may be either simple or rounded, and either sectional or continuous.

Simple ternary form

In simple ternary form, each section is either a single period or a group of phrases, without the internal binary organization of the compound ternary. Arias and other vocal compositions of the 18th and 19th centuries often are set in simple ternary form, as well as brief instrumental works (usually in slow tempi).

Five-Part Forms

(Sometimes called second Rondo, or simply Rondo)

Five-part form extends the alternation of tonic refrains and non-tonic episodes.

A

B

A

C

A

statement

(tonic)

contrast

(non-tonic key #1)

restatement

(tonic)

contrast

(non-tonic key #2)

restatement

(tonic)

More so than with three-part forms, retransitions are a common feature of five-part forms, especially in through-composed five-part movements, providing a smooth and plausible link between the non-tonic episodes and the tonic refrains. Sometimes transitions help prepare episodes. A coda may be added after the final refrain.

Depending on a number of factors such as style, tempo, position within a multi-movement work, etc., each refrain and episode may be either a through-composed whole or a binary form of some sort, with repeats. The second refrain may appear in abbreviated form, moreover. Five-part form is often used for slow movements within a multi-movement instrumental work, and even more commonly for fast finales, in which case composers will often explicitly label them as rondos.

Seven-Part Forms

(Sometimes called third Rondo, or Sonata Rondo)

Often called third rondo, this is a favorite form of high Classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Typically the ground plan for a seven-part rondo is

A

B

A

C

A

B'

A

refrain #1
episode #1
refrain #2
episode #2
refrain #3
restatement of episode #1
refrain #4

tonic

non-tonic key #1

tonic

non-tonic key #2

tonic

tonic!

tonic

Consider the third episode, labeled B' above. Returning to the "B" material of the first episode, but transposing it into the tonic key, accomplishes a large-scale resolution of tensions analogous to that found in the recapitulatory section of sonata form movements; for this reason, seven-part rondos of this type are sometimes called sonata rondo forms, especially when the middle episode assumes a developmental character.

As with three- and five-part forms, transitions, retransitions, and a coda are all possible additions to the seven-part schema; in fact, they become more urgently necessary as the structure of the movement becomes more complex.

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