Cyclic form

Cyclic form is a technique of musical construction, involving multiple sections or movements, in which a theme, melody, or thematic material occurs in more than one movement as a unifying device. Sometimes a theme may occur at the beginning and end (for example, in Mendelssohn's A minor String Quartet or Brahms's Symphony No. 3); other times a theme occurs in a different guise in every part (e.g. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony).

The technique has a complex history, having fallen into disuse in the Baroque and Classical eras, but steadily increasing in use during the nineteenth century (Randel 2003).

The Renaissance cyclic mass, which incorporates a usually well-known portion of plainsong as a cantus firmus in each of its sections, is an early use of this principle of unity in a multiple-section form (Burkholder 2001). Examples can also be found in late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century instrumental music, for instance in the canzonas, sonatas, and suites by composers such as Samuel Scheidt, in which a ground bass may recur in each movement (Macdonald 2001; Randel 2003). When the movements are short enough and begin to be heard as a single entity rather than many, the boundaries begin to blur between cyclic form and variation form.

Cyclic technique is not typically found in the instrumental music of the most famous composers from the Baroque and "high classical" eras, though it may still be found in the music of such figures as Luigi Boccherini and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (Macdonald 2001; Taylor 2011). It is hard to find overt instances of thematic recall between movements in Mozart, for example, and Haydn uses the technique on only a few occasions—such as at the end of the Symphony No. 31, where the music recalls the horn call heard at the very opening of the work (Webster 2002). In sacred vocal music, on the other hand, there are some important exceptional examples, such as Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor and Mozart's Requiem and Mass in C major, K. 317 (Macdonald 2001).

Although other composers were already using this technique, it is Beethoven's example that really popularised cyclic form for subsequent Romantic composers (Taylor 2011). In the Fifth Symphony, a large part of the scherzo movement is recalled to end the finale's development section and lead into the recapitulation; the Ninth Symphony's finale rapidly presents explicit reminiscences of the three preceding movements before discovering the idea that is to be its own principal theme; while both the Piano Sonata Op. 101 and Cello Sonata Op. 102 No. 2 similarly recall earlier movements before their finales.

Many composers in the nineteenth century followed Beethoven's lead. In the 1820s, both Franz Schubert and the young Felix Mendelssohn wrote numerous important cyclic works: Schubert, in the Wanderer Fantasy (1822) created a "4-in-1" double-function design that would leave its mark decades later on Liszt, while Mendelssohn, in such works as the Octet (1825) and String Quartet No. 2 (1827) created highly integrated musical forms that proved influential for later Romantic composers (Taylor 2011). Another significant model was given by Hector Berlioz in his programmatic Symphonie fantastique of 1830, whose "idée fixe" serves as a cyclic theme throughout the five movements. By the 1840s, the technique is already quite established, being found in several works by Robert Schumann, Fanny Hensel, Niels Gade, Franz Berwald, and the earliest compositions of César Franck (Strucken-Paland 2009).

Mid-century, Franz Liszt in works such as the B minor Piano Sonata (1853) did a lot to popularize the cyclic techniques of thematic transformation and double-function form established by Schubert and Berlioz. Liszt's sonata begins with a clear statement of several thematic units and each unit is extensively used and developed throughout the piece. By late in the century, cyclic form had become an extremely common principle of construction, most likely because the increasing length and complexity of multiple-movement works demanded a unifying method stronger than mere key relation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Vincent d'Indy, a pupil of Franck, promoted the use of the term "cyclic" to describe the technique (Strucken-Paland 2009).

The term is more debatable in cases where the resemblance is less clear, such as in the works of Beethoven, who used very basic fragments. Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is an example of cyclic form in which a theme is used throughout the symphony, but with different orchestration. The "short-short-short-long" four-note motive is embedded in each movement.


Examples of cyclic works from the classical era and afterwards are:


  • Burkholder, J. Peter. 2001. "Borrowing, §5: Renaissance Mass Cycles". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Macdonald, Hugh. 2001. "Cyclic Form". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Randel, Don Michael. 2003. "Cyclic Form". The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0674011632.
  • Strucken-Paland, Christiane. 2009. Zyklische Prinzipien in den Instrumentalwerken César Francks. Kassel: Bosse.
  • Taylor, Benedict. 2011. "The Idea of Cyclic Form". Mendelssohn, Time and Memory: The Romantic Conception of Cyclic Form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 6–51.
  • Webster, James. 1991. Haydn's 'Farewell' Symphony and the Idea of Classical Style: Through-Composition and Cyclic Integration in his Instrumental Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further reading

  • Chusid, Martin. 1964. "Schubert's Cyclic Compositions of 1824". Acta Musicologica 36, no. 1 (January–March): 37–45.
  • Proksch, Bryan. 2006. "Cyclic Integration in the Instrumental Music of Haydn and Mozart." Ph.D. Diss. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Rosen, Charles. 1995. The Romantic Generation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Saffle, Michael. "Liszt's Sonata in B minor: Another Look at the 'Double Function' Question." JALS: The Journal of the American Liszt Society 11 (June): 28–39.
  • Tucker, G. M., and Roger Parker. 2002. "Cyclic Form". The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Vande Moortele, Steven. 2009. Two-dimensional Sonata Form: Form and Cycle in Single-Movement Instrumental Works by Liszt, Strauss, Schoenberg, and Zemlinsky. Leuven: Leuven University Press.
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