Defining Terms: Rondo
At right about the stroke of noon on Monday, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja will suddenly break the serene mood of the slow movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, to play the brief, unaccompanied mini-cadenza that leads without break into the work's third movement. Since the third movement is the Concerto's last, it's also known as the "finale," a term that basically explains itself. But what could use a little 'splainin', Lucy, is the name of the musical form Beethoven employed for the Concerto's concluding, culminating, final finale. For it's about as satisfying an example as there is of a rondo .
"Wait a second," you might say, "isn't Rondo the point guard for the Celtics?" Yes he is, when not injured. But now that you've mentioned it, let's go there. So imagine our man Rajon Rondo leading a Globetrotters-style warm-up drill with his fellow Celtics. It begins with Rondo doing a tricky-dribble routine, then passing the ball off to Paul Pierce, who puts on his own show, before (this is fantasy, after all) passing the ball back from whence it came. Rondo then repeats his initial routine, dribble-for-dribble, before passing this time to Kevin Garnet. Same deal — KG does his thing, then passes back to Rondo. Who repeats his routine again, before passing once more to Pierce — who this time does a slight variation on his first display before returing to ball to Rondo. Ah, but rather than repeat his part exactly, Rondo expands it a little, even having his teammates lie down (the equivalent of the orchestra laying out) as he grabs the solo spotlight for a few seconds before putting the coda on the whole routine with a slam-dunk.
What music should accompany the show? No, not "Sweet Georgia Brown" with whistling and fingersnaps. This time, let's use a piece of music whose own form perfectly matches it — yes, the finale of Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Like the basketball routine, Beethoven's finale is near-symmetrical in design, and always keeps coming back to where it started. Except "where it started" is determined not visually, but in two musical ways: the key of D major, and the bouncy initial melody.
And that's what a rondo does. It presents an opening section of music, goes off to another section (invariably with a different melody, usually in a different key), returns to the first section, goes off to a third, then back to the first, so on and so forth, always coming back to where it started. In musical analysis, a basic rondo would be "spelled" abaca, with a representing the first section and b and c the contrasting sections. You will note that in the finale of his Violin Concerto, Beethoven expands the form to seven parts arrayed symetrically, which would be analysed abacaba. But that's Beethoven for you, always expanding forms and pushing boundaries.
You'll come across rondos mainly in one of two places. One is as the finale of a multi-movement work. In addition to the Beethoven, other well-known examples include Haydn's Trio in G major (concluding with the "Gypsy Rondo") and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, where it's given the French spelling rondeau . The other is as a stand-alone piece, with Mozart's two Rondos for solo piano (D major, K. 485 and A minor, K. 511) standing out. And you'll mostly hear them in works of the 18th and early-to-mid 19th centuries. So, you'll no doubt be on your (point) guard for the next rondo that comes your way. (By the way, one place in which you will not find a rondo is in Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" from the Time Out album. It's really a basic aba form, and not a true rondo.)
If there's another vexing musical term you'd like to have defined, please pass it to me. I'd recommend a bounce pass, lest it be swatted away and stolen.