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Music In The Classical Era

Rondo Form and Chamber Music

Peter Kun Frary


A rondo (rondeau, French) may be a standalone piece or a movement within a larger work. It was an important form during the Classical and Romantic eras and was used in symphonies, chamber music and solo instrumental pieces.

The Stolen Kiss, Paris 1760 | Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rondo Form

What defines a rondo is its unique form and use of a recurring melody, the rondo theme. The rondo theme is similar in function to a refrain, reappearing after contrasting sections known as episodes. Depending on the number of episodes, the rondo theme may be heard three or four times. Using "A" to symbolize the rondo theme section and other letters for episodes, typical rondos are organized thus:

| A | B | A | C | A | coda |

| A | B | A | C | A | B | A | coda |

Most rondos have a coda—ending section—to allow a more dramatic ending. The rondo theme (A) is in the tonic key and modulates to nearby keys during episodes. The original tonic key may return each time with the rondo theme.

The rondo theme tends to be straightforward and memorable, often with a popular or folk character cast in a fast tempo. The composer wants the theme to stick in the listener's ear so the form makes sense. Like the ritornello of the Baroque concerto, composers sometimes embellish and/or shorten the recurring rondo theme to keep things interesting.

The rondo form is sometimes combined with the sonata-form, resulting in a development section in the middle. This hybrid form is called sonata-rondo form and is common as the final movement of Classical symphonies.

Chamber Music and Rondo

Music composed for a small group of instruments—a group that could fit in a palace chamber or large living room—is called chamber music. Chamber music uses one performer to a part with no part doubling as is common in orchestras. The title—trio, quartet, etc.—refers to the number of players.

By nature chamber music is personable and intimate as it was originally conceived for performance at home rather than on concert stages. Chamber music tends to be lighter in character than orchestral music, with an emphasis on enjoyment of the performers.

The Gore Family 1775 | Johan Joseph Zoffany (1733–1810) | Yale Center for British Art | Music making was an important part of 18th century home life.

By the late eighteenth century the string quartet—two violins, viola and cello—had become a standardized ensemble and, thus, developed an extensive repertoire for both home and stage use. Beethoven was fond of the string quartet and wrote extensively for for it, transforming it from home entertainment to concert music. Most string quartets had four movements in a fast-slow-dance-fast tempo scheme. The final movement was often a rondo. The fourth movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4, is cast in typical rondo form:

| A | B | A | C | A | B | A | coda |

The rondo theme (A) is lively, in the minor mode and stylized after the sound of a Gypsy violin:

After the brilliant and vivacious Gypsy rondo theme, the B episode shifts into a major key but with a sweeter and more lyrical character:

Each rondo theme (A) recurrence is more agitated. The C episode, like B, is in a major key to enhance contrast with A. The coda ends the movement with a prestissimo blaze of glory.

String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4: Rondo (4:36) | Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)


rondo, rondo form, sonata-rondo form, chamber music, string quartet

©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved