What is a... Rondo?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Rondo?
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No list of bizarre musical titles would be complete without Erik Satie’s Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (‘Three pear-shaped pieces’). But as a concept is it much stranger than that old stalwart ‘Rondo’? The Italian word means, simply, ‘round’. The notion of dimension or shape in music is problematic enough to start with: high notes, low notes, arch-forms, bow-forms, inversions, retrogrades. And Rondo: how can something created on a canvas of time be circular?

But the Rondo is one of the oldest and most enduring forms in Western Classical Music. There’s something about the notion of having a basic idea that keeps returning – wherever you may happen to travel in the intervening stretches – that’s proved fascinating for composers for over 400 years. The Prologue to Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo (1608) is one of the clearest examples. If you want to know what a Rondo is in essence, there’s your locus classicus.

How striking then that it should present itself in what is supposedly a dramatic work. For Rondo is one of those forms that remind us that, however close music may come to ‘real’ narrative or drama, it isn’t the same thing as a novel or a play. A few tricksy 20th-century examples apart, plays and novels don’t repeat big chunks of dialogue or action wholesale. The attention would wain pretty quickly. Yet when Mozart brings back his delightful Rondo theme twice, essentially unchanged, in the finale of his Clarinet Concerto the effect is like greeting an old friend. The fact that this seems to happen at nicely regular intervals only adds to the pleasure. There are children’s games that do the same sort of thing – is that part of the appeal?

Of course, when you have a well-established, easily recognisable form like this, you can start playing subversive games with it. The finale of Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 is a superb example. The opening theme keeps returning, similarly scored, but the digressions in between get increasingly wayward, as if trying to knock the rotating wheel off centre. And the theme itself keeps losing its thread, breaking up, straying off in the wrong direction, until the whole thing goes magnificently pear-shaped. From this to the complex half-hour-long rondo first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony isn’t that big a step intellectually. Behind all the agonies, a children’s game? Mahler would have loved that.

This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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