A rondeau (plural rondeaux) is a form of medieval and Renaissance French poetry, as well as the corresponding musical chanson form. Together with the ballade and the virelai it was considered one of the three formes fixes, and one of the verse forms in France most commonly set to music between the late 13th and the 15th centuries. It is structured around a fixed pattern of repetition of material involving a refrain. The rondeau is believed to have originated in dance songs involving alternating singing of the refrain elements by a group and of the other lines by a soloist. The term "Rondeau" is today used both in a wider sense, covering several older variants of the form - which are sometimes distinguished as the triolet and rondel - and in a narrower sense referring to a 15-line variant which developed from these forms in the 15th and 16th centuries. The rondeau is unrelated with the much later instrumental dance form that shares the same name in French baroque music, which is an instance of what is more commonly called the rondo form in classical music.
The older French rondeau or rondel as a song form between the 13th and mid-15th century begins with a full statement of its refrain, which consists of two halves. This is followed first by a section of non-refrain material that mirrors the metrical structure and rhyme of the refrain's first half, then by a repetition of the first half of the refrain, then by a new section corresponding to the structure of the full refrain, and finally by a full restatement of the refrain. Thus, it can be schematically represented as AB-aAab-AB, where "A" and "B" are the repeated refrain parts, and "a" and "b" the remaining verses. If the poem has more than one stanza, it continues with further sequences of aAab-AB, aAab-AB, etc.
In its simplest and shortest form, the rondeau simple, each of the structural parts is a single verse, leading to the eight-line structure known today as triolet, as shown in "Doulz viaire gracieus" by Guillaume de Machaut:
Doulz viaire gracieus,
Sweet gracious face,
In larger rondeau variants, each of the structural sections may consist of several verses, although the overall sequence of sections remains the same. Variants include the rondeau tercet, where the refrain consists of three verses, the rondeau quatrain, where it consists of four (and, accordingly, the whole form of sixteen), and the rondeau cinquain, with a refrain of five verses (and a total length of 21), which becomes the norm in the 15th century. In the rondeau quatrain, the rhyme scheme is usually ABBA-ab-AB-abba-ABBA; in the rondeau cinquain it is AABBA-aab-AAB-aabba-AABBA.
A typical example of a rondeau cinquain of the 15th century is the following:
In the medieval manuscripts, the restatement of the refrain is usually not written out, but only indicated by giving the first words or first line of the refrain part. After the mid-15th century, this feature came to be regarded no longer as a mere scribal abbreviation, but as an actual part of the poetry. As the form was gradually divorced from the musical structure and became a purely literary genre, it is often not entirely clear how much of the refrain material was actually meant to be repeated. A rondeau quatrain in which the first refrain interjection (lines 7-8, rhymes AB) is preserved in full, while the final restatement of the refrain is reduced to a single line (A) or again just two lines (AB), ends up with a total of 13 or 14 lines respectively. This form is usually defined as the "rondel" in modern literary compendia.
Another version has the refrains shortened even further. Both restatements are reduced to just the first two or three words of the first line, which now stand as short, pithy, non-rhyming lines in the middle and at the end of the poem. These half-lines are called rentrement. If derived from the erstwhile rondeau quatrain, this results in a 12-line structure that is now called the "rondeau prime", with the rentrements in lines 7 and 12. If derived from the erstwhile 21-line rondeau cinquain, the result is a 15-line form with the rentrements in lines 9 and 15 (rhyme scheme aabba-aabR-aabbaR). This 15-line form became the norm in the literary rondeau of the later Renaissance, and is known as the "rondeau" proper today. The following is a typical example of this form:
A large corpus of medieval French rondeaux was collected, catalogued, and studied by Nico H.J. van den Boogaard in his dissertation Rondeaux et refrains du XIIe siècle au début du XIVe: Collationnement, introduction et notes (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969).
Like the other formes fixes, the Rondeau (in its original form with full refrains) was frequently set to music. The earliest surviving polyphonic rondeaux are by the trouvère Adam de la Halle in the late 13th century. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay, Hayne van Ghizeghem and other prominent composers were prolific in the form. Early rondeaux are usually found as interpolations in longer narrative poems, and separate monophonic musical settings survive. After the 15th century, the musical form went out of fashion and the rondeau became a purely literary form.
The musical rondeau is typically a two-part composition, with all the "A" sections of the poem's AB-aAab-AB structure set to one line of music, and all the "B" parts to another.
Although far rarer than the French usage, the Italian equivalent, the rondello was occasionally composed and listed among the Italian forms of poetry for music. A single rondello appears in the Rossi Codex. In addition, several rondeaux in French appear entirely in sources originating in Italy, the Low Countries, and Germany, suggesting that these works (including Esperance, qui en mon cuer) may not have a purely French provenance.
The French rondeau forms have been adapted to English at various times by different poets. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote two rondeaus in the rondeau tercet form, one of them at the end of The Parliament of Fowls, where the birds are said to "synge a roundel" to a melody "imaked in Fraunce":
In its classical 16th-century 15-line form with a rentrement (aabba-aabR-aabbaR), the rondeau was used by Thomas Wyatt. Later, it was reintroduced by some late 19th-century and 20th-century poets, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar ("We Wear the Mask"). It was customarily regarded as a challenge to arrange for these refrains to contribute to the meaning of the poem in as succinct and poignant a manner as possible. Perhaps the best-known English rondeau is the World War I poem, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae:
A more complex form is the rondeau redoublé. This is also written on two rhymes, but in five stanzas of four lines each and one of five lines. Each of the first four lines (stanza 1) get individually repeated in turn once by becoming successively the respective fourth lines of stanzas 2, 3, 4, & 5; and the first part of the first line is repeated as a short fifth line to conclude the sixth stanza. This can be represented as - A1,B1,A2,B2 - b,a,b,A1 - a,b,a,B1 - b,a,b,A2 - a,b,a,B2 - b,a,b,a,(A1).
The following example of the form was written from the point of view of one of the RAF officers carrying the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales to the plane that was to carry it to England.