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Rondo, Rondò, or Rondeau? They Sound the Same But They’re All Different!

Cover artwork for the single release of The Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Blue Rondo A La Turk" by S. Neil Fujita.
Cover artwork for the single release of The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by S. Neil Fujita.

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Rondo, Rondò, Rondeau.

If you say them all out loud, it sounds like someone berating an unfortunate Italian clown. But these are all homonyms for quite different musical concepts — yes, you read that right, they’re all completely different from one another…

Strap yourself in, it’s about to get… structural!

Rondo

The most straightforward spelling of this word-chameleon is also the most straightforward to explain: a Rondo is a musical form with a main theme that keeps coming back again and again, broken up by little forays into musical territory to which we never return. It looks a bit like A B A C A D A, etc., making it the only representation of musical form to also read like a magic word from Harry Potter.

The fact that this form is defined by musical sections that we hear once and then never again means it’s not a form used much in pop music, because pop audiences like their songs “catchy,” which is vaguely synonymous with “repetitive.” But that’s not to say we don’t all know tunes that are in Rondo form.

My two personal faves are “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin and “Rondo all turca” by one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both of which still get plenty of well-deserved airtime to this day.

For the sake of being thorough though, a Rondo could, amongst other things, also be referring to a type of grape, a technical drill in soccer, a car made by Kia, a soda, a candy, a species of snake, or one of four localities in the USA (Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, and Virginia).

Rondò

That tiny distinction of an accent grave over the last “o” in this particular spelling of Rondò makes more difference than just how you pronounce it. In terms of pronunciation, the previous Rondo has the accent on the first syllable — RON-do — whilst this one has the accent on the second syllable — ron-DO.

Make sure you bring this up on a first date and insist on talking about it for at least thirty minutes.

A Rondò is a style of aria specific to Italian-style opera from the late 18th century. Like its etymological cousin, it also dictates formal considerations, but a much more conventional ABA form, often with a brief return to the B section or a neat little coda at the end, which musicologists represent as ABA’B or ABA’C.

Really though this is all semantic nerdery because Rondò wasn’t as much of a way to define form as it was to establish style and distinguish the status of the singer. Opera was kind of a big deal in Italy in the late 18th century, and since humans are humans no matter where or when they lived, a complex and ever-changing hierarchical food chain grew up around the opera scene, starting with lowly chorus members all the way up to the leading lady, kind of a Machiavellian mix of The Voice and Survivor.

For whatever reason, a Rondò became something of a status symbol for a singer, possibly because they were generally performed at the climax of the opera by the principal singer, and therefore presumably conferred rights to the biggest dressing room. They also tended to be emotionally-charged “death laments” or explosive declarations of undying love, which are like oxygen to opera singers (actually, singers of any genre now I think about it — except perhaps children’s performers).

As such, composers would sometimes assure a touchy prima donna that “her song was a Rondò” when in fact it was just a run-of-the-mill aria, I guess in the same way you might convince a 6-year old they have the biggest piece of cake from half a dozen identical slices of said cake.

Here’s one by Mozart from “La clemenza di Tito.”

+ Read more on Flypaper: “What the “Tristan Chord” Is and How to Use It.”

Rondeau

No, this isn’t just a “French-ified” spelling of one of the other concepts. It’s another thing entirely, but I must confess, we’re now venturing into slightly unfamiliar territory as this kind of Rondeau is today only peripherally related to music. Let’s give it our best shot.

Back in the 12th century, a new kind of musician sprung up in what is now France called a trouvère, also better known in English as a troubadour (technically they were slightly different depending on the region they came from. Be sure to follow up your first-date conversation about the differing pronunciations of Rondo/Rondò with this juicy fact).

Troubadours were aristocratic poet/musicians, and interestingly one of the first definitively “secular” musical movements in Europe since Christianity took over running things a thousand years before. Known for their flowery homages to all things chivalrous, troubadours became a ubiquitous fixture of noble courts around medieval France for over a century.

Just like Rondo/Rondò, a Rondeau is a specific form. It developed and spread during the time of the troubadours, and persisted throughout the medieval period and well into the renaissance as a conventional form for poetry and court music. It’s still in use today, though only as a classical structure for poetry.

I could try to explain the form of a Rondeau to you, but to be perfectly honest, there’s about half a dozen different varieties and the description of every one of them looks like someone got themselves a spoonful of the most boring alphabet soup ever and decided to make a poetic structure based on that, with a series of upper- and lower-case “A’s” and “B’s” stringing their way confusingly across the page.

So instead, I’ll chew up the rest of my word limit by attempting to write my own. You’re smart, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Ahem:

Oh man, I’m over this pandemic,
A life ruled by Covid-19.
Our precautions are now systemic.
Oh man, I’m over this pandemic.
At the risk of arousing polemic
Get out and get your vaccine.
Oh man, I’m over this pandemic,
A life ruled by Covid-19.

Ta da!

*Also a Rondeau is a kind of shallow casserole dish. Be sure to mention this during dessert on the aforementioned first date. Follow me for more dating tips @whyamI43andsingle.

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Tim Hansen

Tim Hansen is a composer, songwriter, music director, and storyteller inspired by a variety of gleefully dark sources. An enthusiastic and charismatic educator, Tim has created lessons for TED-Ed, is a composer in residence at Santa Sabina College, and is engaged with Musica Viva’s “Musician in the Classroom” program in Sydney. He is a co-founding director of W4 New Music collective in New York and has worked with ensembles including Synergy Percussion, the Song Company, Contemporaneous, Cadillac Moon, and TRANSIT. Tim holds a Masters in Music Theory and Composition from NYU.