Listen to this: Rondo

As we discussed in a previous post on the Minuet, classical music doesn’t always have to be as hard as it seems to be. With some simple listening tips, the arcane (seeming) can often become clear.

Let’s take a look at the “rondo.” It is defined as a “musical form in which the first section comes back to frame episodes” (in “The Penguin Companion to Classical Music”). It’s sort of like a pop song, in which the chorus keeps coming back. The word “episodes” in this case just refers to the material in between the returns of the rondo main theme; the episodes are sections where the composers go on little musical adventures.

Rondos end up having forms like this: ABACABA, the “A” being the returning main theme and the other letters being episodes.

Let’s say no more, and listen to a rondo, the last movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Here’s a map, with timings to the video above.

Section A: The main theme of this rondo is heard right at the beginning.

Section B: The first episode starts at 34″.

Section A returns at 2’06”. Notice the pre-echo of the theme before the return.

Section C (second episode) starts at 2’39”.

Section A returns at 4’18”.

Section B (the first episode varied) returns at 4’51”. It leads to solo piano cadenza at 6’23”.

Section A returns in the orchestra at 7:07. The rest is coda, or epilogue.

Listen to this: Minuet

We sometimes make listening to classical music seem like a more complicated thing than it really needs to be. True, you can always know more about such a rich subject as classical music; but some simple listening tips can go a long way in aiding the novice. For instance, just knowing the names and sounds of the various instruments in a symphony orchestra can help a listener make better sense of what he’s hearing.

So, too, with the form, or structure, of a piece. This is just the way a piece of music is laid out, it’s overall architecture. This, too, can get very complicated fast, but often it isn’t. As with the basic structure of a Minuet, or its descendent, the Scherzo.

The basic structure of a Minuet is A, B, C, A, B, with the letters corresponding to the various sections of the piece. Sections A and B, both repeated the first time around, contain related musical material. Section C, also known as the Trio, has contrasting material and instrumentation, and usually two sections that are repeated as well. Then, it’s back to the top for another run-through of A and B.

It’s all easy to hear, especially once you have some signposts. So here are the timings for the various sections in the minuet above, from Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, “London.”

Section A starts at the top and the repeat starts at 11”.

Section B starts at 20”. The repeat of same starts at 59”.

Section C starts at 1’38”. This section has two parts, both of which are repeated, as you can hear. Section C ends at 3’12”, at which time there is a short transitional section to take us back to the beginning …

The return of Section A begins at 3’27”. It is repeated.

Section B returns at 3’45”. It is not repeated.

(Different conductors make different decisions about repeats when Sections A and B return.)

There you have it. This structure holds true for almost all minuets and scherzos even into the 20th century, though A and B sections are often longer and sometimes there are two Trios.