The word “rondo” comes from the French word "rondeau," which means "round." In music, a rondo is a form that repeats the main theme over and over again. The rondo has developed into a musical form that is often used as the final movement in classical sonatas, symphonies and concertos. As the final movement, it can usually be described as the climatic point in the work, and the tempo is almost always very fast.
Musical forms are often described by using letters of the alphabet to indicate the structure of a piece. “A” is the opening or initial statement. “B” and subsequent themes are indicated by alphabetically sequential letters. A piece using sonata form would start with an “A” section, followed by a “B” section and would then return to “A” at its conclusion. Rondo form, however, would add a “C” after the second “A” section. Other sections could be added after each return of the “A” section. It doesn’t matter how many sections the piece has (e.g., if the piece is A-B-A-C-A), it is still a rondo.
Early rondo form appeared in French piano music of the 1600s. In the latter part of the 17th century, the rondo form began to occur regularly in orchestral music, and by the end of the 1800s was regularly used as the final movement for symphonies. The rondo form was a commonplace occurrence in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s symphonic music. Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn and Chopin continued to write in rondo form in the 19th century. The rondo continues to be a popular form in contemporary music.
Rondo form in music of the Classical era settled into the A-B-A-C-A-B-A form, making A-B-A as one theme followed by a C, which acts as a bridge to the returning A-B-A. The form might be represented by section A having rapid notes followed by a slower B that returns to A. The C section offers new material that contrasts with both A and B. Some rondos conclude with a coda, a short final section, which brings the piece to a close.
Early forms of the rondo can be seen in the 13th-century songs of the troubadours. There are some more advanced examples of Rondo form that go back to the 14th and 15th centuries. In some of the early Rondos, the length of each section was not always identical in each section. A short “A” section might be followed by a much longer “B” section and return to the original “A.” The “C” section might have an even different length than the “A” or “B” sections.
Composers of the middle- to late-20th century continued using the rondo in their music. Sometimes the form is made so complex, as heard in Richard Strauss’ "Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks," that it takes special analysis to figure out where the sections begin and end. In many contemporary examples of rondo, the return to the “A” section becomes an altered version each time it returns.
An example of 14th-century rondo can be found in Machaut’s "Ma Fin est Mon Commencement," as seen in Omnibus Music Scores (see Resources). Classical rondo can be heard in Haydn’s Piano Sonata, No. 9, and Fur Elise by Beethoven is an example of late classical rondo. Prokofiev’s Concerto for Violin demonstrates how rondo is used in contemporary classical music.