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Rondeau Music: Definition, Form & Examples

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The rondeau was a popular French song form that dates to the 13th century. In this lesson we will discuss the form, how it changed, and composers who used it.

The 13th Century Rock Star

In the Medieval period if you were a trouvère, or a traveling musician in France, life was pretty good. You earned a good living. You were popular at court. You could even make the ladies swoon and faint with your love songs. All this fame and fortune, however, depended upon your ability to compose the most popular song of all, the rondeau.

The Medieval Rondeau

The rondeau was a fixed form of French lyric poetry. Fixed form meant that the structure of stanzas and rhymes had to follow a certain pattern. The poems consisted of four stanzas, in which the first and last were identical.

These poems were often sung. They could be performed as solos or duets, accompanied or unaccompanied. The song form became known as the rondeau as well.

Manuscript of a rondeau about love by Baude Cordier, c. 1350-1400
Rondeau manuscript by Baude Cordier

Form

Each stanza of the rondeau consisted of two parts, 'A' and 'B.' The capital letters show a repeat of both the rhyme scheme and the music, while the lower case letters show a repeat of the rhyme scheme with different music. Using these letters we can diagram the rondeau form as follows:

Stanza 1 -- AB

Stanza 2 -- aA

Stanza 3 -- ab

Stanza 4 -- AB

Or, written another way: AB aA ab AB

Manuscript with miniature of Adam de la Halle
Manuscript with image of Adam de la Halle

Composers

The earliest surviving examples of this rondeau form are by the composer/poet Adam de la Halle, who lived in the 13th century. He was among the first composers to employ polyphony, or more than one melody of equal importance sounding simultaneously, in the rondeau. Tant Con Je Vivrai, by de la Halle, is a lovely polyphonic three voice rondeau.

Guillaume de Machaut was another composer of rondeaux. The greatest composer/poet of the 14th century, Machaut made subtle changes to meter and rhyme that helped to refine the rondeau form. He was capable of great expressive range within the fixed form. A famous Machaut rondeau is Rose, liz, printemps.

The Renaissance Rondeau

In the 16th century Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois were prominent rondeau composers. This would be the height of the rondeau song form. Stanzas became longer, sometimes containing as many as six lines. The melodies became more graceful, with less dissonance and jarring rhythms. De plus, en plus by Binchois is an important example of the Renaissance rondeau.

The Baroque Rondeau

Baroque harpsichord
Photo of Baroque harpsichord

By the end of the 16th century the fixed forms gradually faded away. Poets and composers wanted more freedom. However, the rondeau lived on in a slightly altered format in harpsichord music. French composers such as François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau composed in this new rondeau style. If we use 'A' to indicate the repeated rondeau theme, we can diagram the Baroque rondeau thus:

A B A C A D...A

This continues as long as the composer wishes. There is still the recurring refrain, but now it simply alternates with different musical themes. Since there is no poetry, there are no longer repeated stanzas and rhyme schemes to deal with.

The Baroque period has a very famous rondeau. It was composed for a small instrumental ensemble by Jean-Joseph Mouret in 1729 and is titled Rondeau from Suite de symphonies. It became popular as the original theme music for Masterpiece Theater on PBS. The form of this rondeau is A B A C A. The opening trumpet fanfare-like melody is the 'A' theme, recognizable around the world.

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