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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 the Brahms Symphony No. 3); other times a theme occurs in a different guise in every part (Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique).
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.
In the Baroque and 'high classical' eras, cyclic technique is not typically found in instrumental music, though Luigi Boccherini’s music is an exception (Macdonald 2001). Mozart, for example, does not recall one movement's theme in any later movement anywhere in his quartets, quintets, symphonies or concertos. 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 (Macdonald 2001). 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 Mass in C major, K. 317 (Macdonald 2001).
It is with Beethoven that cyclic technique re-enters the musical mainstream. 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; and 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.
Many composers in the nineteenth century followed Beethoven's lead, most famously including the César Franck Symphony in D Minor, the Symphonie Fantastique, and numerous works by Franz Liszt. These works include the B minor Piano Sonata (Liszt) (1853), which also serves as a double-function form. 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.
The term is more debatable in cases where the resemblance is less clear, particularly 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. They all have the "short-short-short-long" four-note motive embedded into each movement.
Examples of 'cyclic' works from the classical era and afterwards are:
- Haydn - Symphony No. 31: material from start of first movement recalled at the end of the finale
- Haydn - Symphony No. 46: material from the menuetto third movement recalled in the finale
- Beethoven - Symphony No. 5: material from Scherzo movement recalled in the finale
- Schubert – Wanderer Fantasy
- Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique: 'idee fixe' heard in all five movements
- Liszt – Sonata in B minor
- Franck – Symphony in D minor
- Elgar - Symphony No. 1: theme from the 1st movement returns in the finale
- Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 4: 'motto' of first movement recalled in the finale
- Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 5: 'motto' of first movement recalled in all later movements; first movement's first subject recalled in the finale
- Rachmaninoff – Symphony No. 1
- Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major
- Enescu – Symphony No. 1
- Prokofiev - Symphony No. 6: theme from first movement recalled in the finale
- 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, MA: Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0674011632.
- 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.
- Rosen, Charles. The Romantic Generation. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1995.
- 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 1982): 28-39.