Matthew Boyle

Textual Rotations and the Two-Tempo Rondò

Studies of musical form in 18-century arias have recently emphasized aspects of text-setting conventions. This paper proposes that a common text-setting procedure from the eighteenth century—one where multiple settings of the same text appear within a single number—plays a key role in defining the generic shape, meaning, and expressive goals of the two-tempo rondò. I call this procedure textual-rotational form. It strongly parallels a musical principle that Hepokoski and Darcy call rotational form, which is a structuring device “that extend[s] through musical space by recycling one or more times [...] a referential thematic pattern established as an ordered succession at the piece’s outset” Textual-rotational form consequently refers to the ordered, cyclic presentation of poetic lines during the course of an aria or ensemble.

In 18th-century opera, textual and musical rotations were conventionally aligned. Unmarked, ‘sonata-like’ arias present their entire poetic text within the exposition before repeating musical and poetic material in roughly the same order. Expositions thus present the referential rotation for both musical and poetic parameters of a number. The stylistically marked rondò—an aria type with three stanzas and associated with serious characters—relies upon similar conventions. The rondò generally consists of a slow ternary section, setting the first eight lines of poetry, followed by a faster section that has a more flexible formal design, usually setting the final four lines. This paper will describe several text-setting and formal strategies of the rondò. It will also describe how these strategies interact with those of more common aria types and with near-contemporary accounts of attending to line endings in recited poetry. These strategies are closely tied to formal closure and ultimately correspond to a series of miniature generic and textual breakthroughs that lead to an aria’s final expressive state.