Sonata Rondo Music Definition Essay

Sonata-rondo form

Sonata-rondo form contains elements of both sonata form (contrasting subjects in related keys) and rondo form (return to the main subject after each episode).

Sonata-rondo is like RONDO in that it has clearly defined, dance-like sections, but it usually has transitions joining the sections. And the second theme, B, occurs twice, so it is called a second subject, instead of an episode. Sonata-rondo is A B A CAB A, whereas rondo is A B A C A.

Sonata-rondo form is like SONATA form in that it divides into three main sections, but the exposition and the recapitulation end with a return to the first subject, or at least a reference to it. The middle section is usually an episode, though it may consist partly, or even entirely, of development.

Here is the plan:








1st Subject (tonic)



(dominant or relative major)


1st Subject

Usually an episode in another related key – may contain some development

1st Subject

Transition (modified)

2nd Subject

Transition (modified)

1st Subject

May be shortened or merge into a Coda

Sometimes the first subject returns in the recapitulation between second subject and coda (as in the finale of the Sonata Pathetique which you are studying), but the coda itself normally serves as the return to the first subject, since its material is often from this.

Beethoven frequently used this form for his last movements – for example, the piano sonatas op.2, no. 2; op. 2, no 3; and op. 7.



Rondo and Ritornello Forms in Tonal Music


byWilliam Renwick


This essay provides a background discussion of issues relating to ritornello and rondo. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of the students of Music 701 (2001) which have been important in formulating the ideas presented here.  After outlining the concepts behind the separate forms of ritornello and rondo, I discuss their interrelations.  Subsequently I treat sonata-rondo and the problems that it poses for formal analysis.  A postscript discusses Baroque antecedents to be found in the "prelude-form".


Ritornello has its roots in the Baroque genres of opera and concerto. However, it is not clear whether the instrumental ritornello forms were adopted from the operatic aria or developed separately. Malcolm Cole notes the use of ritornello in both instrumental and vocal forms of the early baroque, specifically in the operatic works of Peri and Monteverdi.1

The vocal forms arise through Monteverdi and the Italian and Neapolitan masters, including Alessandro Scarlatti, and appear throughout the baroque opera, oratorio, and cantata repertoire. The ritornello aria forms were broken down by the end of the Baroque era, as less formal and more dramatic forms gained ascendancy. The instrumental forms seem to have developed through Torelli, (perhaps Corelli), Vivaldi, and Bach and Handel, and thence into the classical concerto movements.

A typical da-capo aria form with ritornelli would look like this:

Figure 1.

r (I) A (I-V) r (V) A' (V-I) r (I)

B (vi)

r (I) A (I-V) r (V) A' (V-I) r (I)

The ritornello itself usually comprises several contrasted phrases and concludes with a definitive PAC in I. Ritornelli are often designed so that they can be repeated later in abbreviated form, by omitting one or more of their component phrases.

As Figure 1 indicates, the A section of a ritornello aria is normally a binary form, consisting of A and A'. Charles Rosen suggests that the "normal" tonal structure of the A' is I-I, not V-I.2 This seems like a small point, but in fact it is a corner stone of his theory that sonata form grows out of da capo aria form. Ratner suggests that the "normal" tonal structure of the A' is x-I, where x is neither I nor V, but a noticeable tonal contrast instead.3

The B section is distinguished by being in a contrasting key, and without ritornelli.

It has been noted that a ritornello form need not necessarily end with a final statement of the ritornello, although this is certainly the norm. I have to ask what effect the omission of a final ritornello statement may have on the perception of musical form and closure. One may look to the larger context of an aria within an opera, cantata or oratorio, to find answers to these questions.

Rosen includes a brief description of the basic concerto form as follows:4

Figure 2.

r    Solo 1 (I-V)    r    Solo 2 (x-vi)    r    Solo 3 (I)    r

This provides an interesting platform for comparison between aria and rondo forms (see below).

It seems logical that the instrumental forms are more likely than vocal forms to make a distinction in thematic content between ritornello and solo.  In vocal forms, the ritornelli typically make use of principal thematic material from the vocal solos, especially the first melodic idea.


The rondo is a very basic and ancient musical form.  Its roots go back to refrain and dance forms of the oral tradition. The rondeau appears throughout the Baroque era as a component of dance suites--principally instrumental compositions. Cole suggests that the evolution of the rondo from the French Baroque to the Classical style has not been adequately investigated.5

In the Classical era, the rondo finds its place as a middle or final movement of sonatas, chamber music, symphonies, and concertos. The early classical rondos were simple in design and of "little true inner value" -- hence trivial in comparison with the evidently dialectical construction of the sonata form. Cole connects the instrumental rondo of the eighteenth century with the opera buffa use of the vocal rondo, in a light, simple, pleasing, charming style.6

The basic rondo form looks like:

Figure 3

A   B   A   C   A   D   A   etc.

where A is the main theme or refrain (or, confusingly, the ritornello), and B, C, D, etc. are the couplets or episodes.

Douglass Green stipulates that to count as a rondo the refrain must appear at least three times.7 Cole, among others, stipulates that the rondo will conclude with the main theme.8

In essence, therefore, the rondo is an open ended form. It presumes literal repetitions of A (the theme) in the tonic key, although the repetitions are often ornamented. The theme itself always ends in the tonic, for it is this ending that will at some point be the ending for the piece as a whole. William Caplin suggests that the theme can be ternary, rounded binary or binary, and will close with a 9 I would like to propose, however, that ternary, as defined in McMAC 1999, is less suited for a rondo theme, because ternary is inherently based on contrast. Any contrast set up within the A theme will de-emphasize the contrast that ought to be established at the onset of the B and later themes. (This issue comes out in Anne-Marie Camilleri's paper on Beethoven's Sonata in E-flat Major, Opus. 4, No. 7.)  Rather, the A section is more typically static, in order that the couplets can develop dramatic tension. In keeping with the static form, Rondo themes usually exhibit regular, symmetrical phrasing.

Louis Couperin was among the first to use abbreviated repetitions of the rondo theme.10 Such abbreviations would typically be understood in relation to the degree of repetition inherent in the composition.  Couperin also experimented with transposing the refrain to other keys. Caplin notes that in abridged repetitions of the refrain, it is most usual that the abridgement still ends with a PAC in I.11 (In comparison, abbreviated ritornello statements often conclude in an incomplete manner, or elide into succeeding sections.)

Heinrich Schenker views rondo as the conjoining of two ternary forms thus:

Figure 4.

A B A   +   A C A   =    A B A C A

In this way, Schenker likens the essential structure of rondo to that of ternary form.12

Theorists seem to differ as to whether variety and contrast amongst the couplets is necessary to establish the rondo form. That is, whether A-B-A-B'-A is truly a rondo, or in essence merely an extended ternary form.

The B,C, D, etc. sections--the episodes, couplets or digressions--are based on the idea of contrast to the A theme. Nevertheless, a continuing issue in rondo is the degree of similarity, complementarity, or difference associated with the sections. Cole notes that C.P.E. Bach developed couplets of an open design rather than a closed binary or ternary substructure.13Caplin takes this idea further, and suggests that in principle the first couplet will either function as a "subordinate-theme complex", like the transition, second theme and closing theme of a sonata form, or as an "interior theme", similar to the B section of a ternary form.14Caplin suggests that the former is more typical of a B section and the latter for a C section; thus, "C" is construed as having more developmental and contrasting quality, as compared to the "B" section. Caplin strongly suggests that in the case of a "subordinate-theme complex", the various parts are to be considered as all under the umbrella of "B".15 This is a distinction which is perhaps more important for theory than for practice. It comes into question when we begin to think of classical rondos as variants of sonata forms.

Among the important means of contrast in the rondo is that of key. Rameau established something of a standard by using the order V and vi for the two couplets (B and C) of a major key rondeau, and III and v for the two couplets of a minor key rondeau.  These key choices, of course, are also reflected in countless Baroque dances and imitative forms such as fugue.  Many later rondos bear important relations to these fundamental harmonic plans.

Classical rondos admit of introductions, codas, transitional and re-transitional passages, complementing their overtly rhetorical nature. It may be interesting to see how such passages are used in specific movements. (Nicholas Donlevy's and Rebekah Jordan's papers deal with these issues in some detail.) Cole suggests that Leclair, in the later 18th century, was one of the first to adopt the retransition as a linking passage.16 The retransition, in fact, often becomes one of the dramatic focal points of the rondo form in the Classical period..

As a result of our study in Music 701, we are finding in the Classical repertoire several interesting phenomena concerning the rondo. First, the ending of the rondo theme is often not as clear cut as the theory would suggest. Composers make use of several PACs in quick succession, any of which could be used as the "real" ending of the theme. (See Jay Hodgson's and Rebekah Jordan's papers in particular.) Further, we are finding that extensive use of transitions and retransitions in the Classical rondo provide more dramatic and developmental qualities to the couplets. These devices are essentially borrowed from the sonata-allegro form; indeed, in many later rondos, the B section follows the plan of a sonata-allegro transition, second theme and closing group. Finally, we find the intermixture of elements from the rondo theme and the couplet themes, particularly near the end of a rondo.

All of these "aberrations" may be understood primarily as means of investing the basically static form of the rondo with various degrees of dramatic and narrative elements. These trends are increasingly evident in sonata-rondo (see below). Ernst Levy and SiegmundLevarie make very clear the idea that it is the varied sections of a piece--the solos of a ritornello, the episodes of a rondo--that hold the narrative content of the music.17

Cole points to the fantasy as a concept that may be used to understand the great variety of treatments that C.P.E. Bach and later composers employed.18 In a similar way, we can see how Beethoven, in his rondo finales, often makes direct or hidden reference to earlier movements, adding another layer of fomal and dramatic complexity (see Jay Hodgson's essay.) According to Cole, both Haydn and Mozart "moved from a simple, sectional structure to a complex, integrated form into which he built surprise and variety, and within which he attempted to offset and even exploit the regularity inherent in the traditional layout."19

Rondo and Ritornello Compared

Occasionally one finds the term ritornello used to denote the theme of a Rondo. This terminiological confusion is indicative of the complex relationship between the two forms. The fact that the term ritornello means literally a "small return" helps us to understand that the ritornello by no means should be equated with the rondo return in terms of its structural primacy. Wallace Berry refers to "the rondo principle in the da capo forms", and points particularly to the use of multiple trio sections in instrumental forms such as Bach's orchestral suites.20 It is not clear at this point why these are considered da capo forms, however, except that the composer typically uses the designation "Menuet I da Capo" for example, instead of re-writing the movement. The typical form here would be A B A C A, where each section is fully closed. This is another important way in which the Rondo idea also connects with the ternary form, as Schenker suggests (vide supra).

Interestingly, Caplin notes the similarity of thematic structures between rondo and ritornello.21 Cole notes that "parallels between the later rondo and the ritornello principle and the rondo cantata need to be more thoroughly investigated.22 Both forms have in common the idea that something -- Green calls it a refrain--is repeated from time to time.23

The essential difference--at least in theory--is that in rondo it is the main idea that is repeated, whereas in ritornello, it is subordinate material (interludes) that is repeated. In either case, the material is normally a self-contained, harmonically "closed" passage.  The analyses in this volume may help to indicate how true this is in any particular case.24

Levy and Levarie make clear the distinction between whether the music in question--the rondo them or the ritornello--is "an appendix" or the "main section of the piece".25 Unfortunately their use of the terms ritornello and refrain (read rondo theme) are opposite to the standard definitions.  This only adds to the confusion.

According to Cole, the ritornello idea is to an extent transferred to C.P.E. Bach's rondos as he uses transposed repetitions of the main theme.26  This brings into question the validity of transposition of the rondo theme, a topic that is discussed in Jane Clifton's paper.

Joel Galand portrays the complexity of the issue with sensitivity:

"The late eighteenth-century rondo cannot be distinguished from expanded-binary or sonata form on the bases of harmonic plan or patterns of thematic recurrence, development, and contrast. If one points to the regular return of the refrain in the tonic, another might note the existence of the modulating rondo and its recognition by theorists like Turk. But the return of opening material in other keys articulates ritornello forms generally, and ritornello construction in turn characterizes not only concertos but also symphonies and chamber music, which often bear concertante traits. We might categorize rondos as song forms, but in the eighteenth century they are often ritornello forms; we hear a return as a new beginning, and impetus for further expansion, rather than as a discrete frame for a contrasting middle section. . . . The rondo, in short, was not so much a form as a loosely defined genre that could be adapted to any number of formal procedures. . . . Genre characteristics cut across formal boundaries, and formal procedures cut across generic categories."27

Despite this view, composers frequently labeled movements as rondos, implying a particular formal procedure. It may be that music theory needs to develop better definitions of form and genre before this argument can proceed. Galand goes further and suggests that

"Two principles need to be distinguished: that of variation or modification, and that of contrast and return. Both, of course, depend on the recurrence of a readily identifiable theme, and this appears to be the one necessary requirement for a rondo."28

Sonata Rondo.

It is interesting to note that a closer rapprochement of rondo and ritornello appears when we consider what Green calls the "classical rondo". Its form is A B A C A B A, where the first B is in V. This is more usually called the sonata-rondo; as its name suggests, it is a hybrid of ""rondo design" and "sonata-allegro tonal plan".29

Figure 5.

A B (V) A C (vi) A B' (I) A

This form bears close affinity to the da-capo ritornello form described above, and begins to look rather like ternary as well. Caplin calls sonata-rondo "perhaps the most complex of the classical forms.30 He considers the final A statement of the Sonata-rondo to be part of a coda: "the coda is a required element of sonata-rondo, because that section includes the final return of the main theme."31  I am puzzled by this, because, in the usual notion of coda, the music is inessential to the completeness of the work, as an appendix might be for a book. If a coda is necessary, how then is it a coda?  Caplin admits that this is problematic.32 He clarifies, however: "there is no consistent relationship between the beginning of the coda and the beginning of the final refrain. . . . -- The former embraces the latter. . . .the rondo refrain always appears somewhere in the coda."33  The interesting thing, then, is why this final statement should be so functionally different from the previous ones. Would such a piece still be a rondo if the final refrain were omitted?

The sonata-rondo form appears to resemble the da-capo form if A is considered the ritornello.34 However, the dynamic qualities tend to be much different. In particular, the da-capo form A-section would typically be a binary form in itself. Further, the first thematic statement in da capo would be I, not V, as the second section of a sonata rondo is. A question arises out of this arrangement:   What factors in the music demand a continuation beyond the A B A into C A and possibly beyond?  What prevents the music from sounding complete at the end of the first repeat of the refrain?  In the case of ABACABA, what factors that demand a return of B?

Caplin also likens later returns of A to a recapitulatory function.35   This is important when we view sonata-rondo as a type of sonata form.  The second A stands in for the repeat of the exposition; the third A marks the recapitulation; the fourth A is embedded in the coda.

Apparently, Mozart's K 157, string quartet, contains the earliest known example of a sonata-rondo. Mozart later tended to abbreviate the form by omitting the third statement of A.

Sonata-rondo form begs the question of whether the form is really sonata or really rondo: Rosen implies the former when he calls it "sonata-finale", and goes on to say that it is sonata form with extra thematic statements interposed; Ratner implies the latter when he calls it a "couplet-form".36

Postscript: Prelude Form

This postscript arises out of our study of Baroque antecedents to ritornello and rondo forms, and in particular in the instrumental music of Telemann.   In Bach's Precepts and Principles, we find several figured-bass exercises that are simply founded upon the transposed repetition of materials according to the following pattern:

Figure 6.

A (I) A' (V) A'' (vi) A (I).37

Interestingly the final A in not written out, but simply indicated as da capo. These exercises demonstrate a simple basis for creating musical form out of any material at hand.  They also exhibit features that we associate with rondo, and ritornello. Similar structures are also found, often with figurated link passages, in The Langloz Manuscript which stems from the Bach circle.38 Here, the episodes of passage-work demonstrate how the basic form grows into something more like a regular ritornello form:

Figure 7.

A (I)   bridge    A' (V)   bridge    A'' (vi)    bridge    A (I)

where the bridges may be developmental or episodic.

Galand suggests several formal plans that combine ritornello with simple binary and with exposition-recapitulation binary.39 His models point up the idea of an A following B as perhaps a new beginning rather than a repetition of old material. This connects well with the techniques often seen in sonata forms, where the music after the double bar commences with a repeated or varied form of A;  this connects also with the question of whether intermediate rondo or ritornello statements are seen as returns to home base or as bridges between developmental sections.

In summary, the interrelations to be found amongst the various forms of rondo and ritornello are evidently much more complex than originally expected, and much more complex than would be suggested by most of the literature on the subject.  As Cole has noted above, our detailed knowledge of these forms and their evolution remains limited at this point.

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1. Malcom Cole, "Rondo", The New Grove, (New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994) XVI, 172.(back)

2. Charles Rosen, Sonata Forms (New York:W. W. Norton, 1980).(back)

3. Leonard Ratner, Classic Music -- Expression, form, style. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1980).(back)

4. Ibid Rosen.(back)

5. Ibid Cole, XVI, 173.(back)

6. Forkel in Ibid Cole, XVI, 173.(back)

7. Douglass Green, Form in Tonal Music -- An Introduction to Analysis, (New York: Holt, Reinhardt and Winston, Inc., 1965). (back)

8. Ibid Cole, XVI, 172.(back)

9. William Caplin, Classical Form (New York, Oxford, 1998), 231.(back)

10. Ibid Cole, XVI, 172.(back)

11. Ibid Caplin, 233.(back)

12. Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition (DerFreieSatz), trans. Ernst Oster (New York: Longman, 1935),  141.(back)

13. Ibid Cole, XVI, 174.(back)

14. Ibid Caplin, 231.(back)

15. Ibid Caplin, 231.(back)

16. Ibid Cole, XVI, 174.(back)

17. Ernst Levy and SiegmundLevarie, Musical Morphology: A Discourse and a Dictionary, (California: Kent State, 1983), 248-249.(back)

18. Cole, "Rondo", The New Grove,XVI, 174.(back)

19. Ibid.(back)

20. Wallace Berry, Form in Music, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976).(back)

21. Caplin, Classical Form, 231.(back)

22. Ibid Cole, XVI, 172.(back)

23. Ibid Green, 153.(back)

24. Ibid.(back)

25. Ibid Levy and Levarie, 249.(back)

26. Ibid Cole, XVI, 174.(back)

27. Joel Galand, "From, Genre, and Style in the Eighteenth-Century Rondo", Music Theory Spectrum, XVII-5 (Spring, 1995), 30.(back)

28. Ibid. 37.(back)

29. Ibid Cole, XVI, 175.(back)

30. Ibid Caplin, 235.(back)

31. Ibid.(back)

32. Ibid, 239.(back)

33. Ibid, 235.(back)

34. Ibid, 233.(back)

35. Ibid, 235.(back)

36. Ibid Rosen; Ibid Ratner.(back)

37. J. S. Bach, Precepts and Principles ed. Pamela Poulin, (: Press), 46-55.  (back)

38. William Renwick, TheLangloz Manuscript, (: Press, 2001), 20-21.(back)

39. Joel Galand, "From, Genre, and Style in the Eighteenth-Century Rondo", Music Theory Spectrum - the Journal of the Society for Music Theory, Vol. 17, No. 1, (Spring 1995), 39.(back)

Other Sources:

Arthur Hutchings, "Ritornello", The New Grove, XVI, 57.

Jack Westrup, "Aria", The New Grove, I, 573-579.


© Copyright 2001 by William Renwick.

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