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The term rondo usually refers to the Classical rondo, which is a form for a movement within a larger musical work. It is characterized by a main section that is used both to begin and end the movement and is repeated alternately with one or more other contrasting sections. It is often ABABA, ABACA, or ABACABA.
The rondo had its roots in the 17th century French rondeau as practiced by Jean Baptiste Lully, François Couperin, and Jean Philippe Rameau. Lully developed the rondeau in the genres of opera and ballet, while Couperin focused on it for harpsichord. Rameau — also focusing on harpsichord works — both standardized the form, as well as developing a ternary version that is represented ABA CDC ABA.
In the Classical period, the rondo came to be used in the second movement or finale of a larger composition, such as a sonata or serenade. In concertos, it was the standard choice of form for the finale. A variation that combined it with aspects of the sonata form and came to be called the sonata-rondo also made its appearance during this time.
After beginning to use the form in the 1770s, Franz Josef Haydn used rondos in his piano trios, string quartets, and symphonies. An example is the “Gypsy Rondo” from Haydn’s Piano Trio in G. Mozart used one as the final movement in his serenade “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” as well as in a number of concertos. His “Rondo Alla Turca” caps off his Piano Sonata 11, and Figaro’s rondo “Non più andrai” ends Act I of the opera Le Nozze di Figaro, The Marriage of Figaro in English. Beethoven uses the sonata-rondo in such wide-ranging works as his First Symphony, the Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathetique,” and “Rondo à Capriccio” Op. 129 in G Major, “Rage Over a Lost Penny.”
The rondo also came to be used as a separate form. Examples include Frederic Chopin’s first published work, his Op. 1, Franz Liszt’s Rondeau fantastique, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso for piano, op. 14.
As time passed, the use of the rondo lessened. Nevertheless, one can still find examples in the late 19th as well as the 20th century, for example, Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Bela Bartók’s “Three Rondos on Folktunes,” Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for Strings, and Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche nach alter Schelmenweise, in Rondeau form — called Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, after the Old Rogue’s Tale, Set in Rondo Form, in English.