Sonata rondo form
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An explanation of sonata rondo form requires first some preliminary coverage of rondo form and sonata form.
A B A C A D A ...
Usually the episodes (B, C, D, etc.) are in a different key from the tonic.
Sonata form involves an opening section in the tonic, followed by a movement to the dominant key. Together, these musical events form the exposition. The following section is the development, which usually employs material from the exposition, rearranging it in various ways and migrating to musically remote keys. In the recapitulation, the original opening material is repeated in some form, then the material that earlier moved to the dominant is repeated in some form--but this time in the tonic. In abstract terms, then, sonata form looks like this:
[A B']exp [C"]dev [A B]recap
where a single prime (') means "in the dominant" and a double prime (") means "in remote keys".
Occasionally, sonata form includes an "episodic development," which uses mostly new thematic material. An example is the first movement of Beethoven's piano sonata Op. 14, no. 1. The episodic development is often the kind of development that is used in sonata rondo form, to which we now turn.
The simplest kind of sonata rondo form is a sonata form that repeats the opening material in the tonic as the beginning of the development section.
[A B']exp [A C"]dev [A B]recap
By adding in this extra appearance of A, the form reads off as AB'AC"AB, hence the alternation of A with "other" that characterizes the rondo. Note that if the development is an episodic development, then C" will be new thematic material--thus increasing the resemblance of sonata rondo form to an actual rondo.
The "delayed return" variant in Mozart
Mozart, in his piano concerti, often used a variant type of sonata rondo form, in which the themes of the recapitulation are rearranged: the opening bars reappear quite late, after most of the music of the exposition has been recapitulated, but before the final sequence of themes ("codetta") that rounds off the section. Thus:
[A B' Codetta]exp [A C"]dev [B A Codetta]recap
Mozart's purpose was perhaps to create a sense of variety by not having the main theme return at such regular intervals.
Often, regular sonata form includes a coda:
[A B']exp [C"]dev [A B]recap [D]coda
This longer version of sonata form has a counterpart in sonata rondo form. If the coda is arranged to begin with the opening material, then we have yet another instance of A:
[A B']exp [A C"]dev [A B]recap [A D]coda
Sonata rondo form as a variant of rondo form
It is also possible to describe sonata rondo form by starting out with rondo form and describing how it is transformed to be more like sonata form. For this explanation, see rondo.
Uses of the sonata rondo form
Sonata rondo form is almost exclusively used in the finales of multi-movement works. It is considered a somewhat relaxed and discursive form. Thus, it is unsuited to an opening movement (typically the musically tightest and most intellectually rigorous movement in a Classical work), and too long for a slow movement (where the slow tempo would make the full sonata-rondo formula impossible to realize in a movement of reasonable length). Here are some movements written in sonata rondo form:
- Beethoven, Sixth Symphony, last movement
- Beethoven, Eighth Symphony, last movement
- Haydn, "Drumroll" Symphony, last movement
- Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, last movement
- Charles Rosen, Sonata Forms. New York: Norton, 1988.