Rondo and Ritornello (second draft, Oct. 15, 2001)

by William Renwick

I would like to acknowledge the contributions of the students of Music 701 (2001) which have been important in formulating the ideas presented here.


Ritornello has its roots in Baroque opera and in Baroque concerto. It is not clear at this point whether the instrumental ritornello forms were adopted from the operatic aria, or whether the instrumental ritornello forms developed separately. Tentatively, it seems to me that the instrumental forms are more likely to make a distinction in thematic content between ritornello and solo, whereas the vocal forms are more likely to use similar material in the ritornello and solo sections. The vocal forms arise through Monteverdi and the Italian and Neapolitan masters, including Allessandro 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:

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)

As the diagram indicates, the A section is normally a binary form.

The B section is set off as being in a contrasting key, and without ritornelli.

It has been noted that a ritornello form need not necessarily end with a final statment of the ritornello, although this is certainly the norm. [who said this, anyway?] I have to ask what effect the omission of a final ritornello statement may have on the perception of musical form and closure.


The rondo is a very basic and ancient musical form, with roots going back to primitive refrain forms and dance forms. In the common practice period, the rondeau appears throughout the Baroque era as a component of dance suites--principally instrumental composition. In the Classical era, the rondo finds its place as a final movment of sonatas, chamber music, symphonies, and concertos.

The basic rondo form looks like:

A B A C A D A etc.

Green stipulates that to count as a rondo the refrain must appear at least three times.

In essence, therefore, the rondo is an open ended form. It presumes literal repetitions of A (the theme) in the original (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. Caplin [source] suggests that the theme can be ternary, rounded binary or binary, and will close with a PAC. It seems to me,however, that ternary, as defined in McMAC 1999, is unsuitable 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. 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.

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

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.

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 merely an extended ternary form in essence. [can we get more info on this??]

The B,C, D, etc. sections--the episodes or couplets--are based on the idea of contrast to the A theme.

Classical rondos admit of introductions, codas, transitional and re-transitional passages. It may be interesting to see how such passages are used in specific movements.

We are finding in the classical repertoire several interesting phenomena. First, the ending of the rondo theme is often not as clear cut as the theory would suggest.  Composers make make use of several PACs in quick succession, any of which could be used as the "real" ending of the theme.

Further, we are finding extensive use of transitions and retransitions in the classical rondo, which provide more dramatic and developmental qualities to the couplets.

Finally, we do fine the intermixture of elements from the rondo theme and the couplet themes, particularly near the end of a rondo.

All of these "abberations" may be understood primarily as means of investing the basically static form with various degrees of dramatic and narrative elements.  These trends are increasingly evident in sonata Rondo (see below).

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.

Interestingly, William Caplin notes the similarity of thematic structures between rondo and ritornello. [source]

Both forms have in common the idea that something--Green p. 153 calls it a refrain--is repeated from time to time.

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. (Green, p. 153)

Interestingly, William Caplin notes the similarity of thematic structures between rondo and ritornello. [source]

Sonata Rondo.

Classical Rondo and Da-capo form: It is interesting to note that a closer rapprochment of rondo and ritornello appears when we consider what Green calls the "classical rondo". It's form is A B A C A B A, where the first B is in V.

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.

This appears to resemble the da capo form if A is considered the ritornello. However, the dynamic qualities tend to be much different. In particular, the da capo form first section would typically be a binary form in itself. Further, the first thematic statement in da capo would be I, not V.