Rhetoric is defined as “the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively” (thefreedictionary). Throughout history, the relationship between rhetoric and music has often been a close one, especially in the Baroque period (rhetoric).
The term ‘baroque’ was derived from the Portuguese barroco, meaning “oddly shaped pearl.” Since the nineteenth century, it has been much used to define the era in Western European music from around 1600 through to 1750 (Baroque). The comparison of history’s greatest musical masterpieces to a misshapen pearl seems unwarranted today. However, the critics of the nineteenth century who coined the phrase felt that music of Bach and Handel, for example, sounded excessively ornate and overstated. Since those days, “baroque” has ridded itself of such connotations, and now the term provides a description for one of the most influential and varied periods in the history of music (Baroque).
Until quite late in civilisation in the West, music was considered , primarily, a vocal art form. As a result of this, the use of words was very important. Therefore, composers were often stimulated by rhetorical principles when joining text with music (rhetoric). Also, even after independent instrumental music became widely popular, rhetoric principles carried on being used for music, both vocal and instrumental.
There are basic common elements between rhetoric and music, for example the structured development of sound and some performance aspects (McCrelles). It was predictable, therefore, that connections between the two would be documented and researched. An example is Quintilian, who commented on the eloquence of music as a form for the orator (McCrelles).
Studying the course of musical history reveals that the use of the rhetoric in musical compositions is evident in the Baroque period, more than in many other eras.
The History of Rhetoric in Music
Interpretations in resemblances between music and rhetoric rarely happened in the medieval period. However, their role developed in the sixteenth century when artistes started to use the rhetoric. By this point, the rhetoric was a key element in education and in teaching of musical composition.
Theorists of a German musico-rhetorical practice brought the principles of rhetoric further towards the core of music theory. In doing so, they created a ‘metalanguage’ in music as well as for everyday language (McCreless). They did this by defining it as a musical composition model. As this effort went further than purely drawing analogies, it stood out in the history of music and rhetoric. The work proceeded to a general acceptance of musical matter to rhetorical concepts (McCreless).
What is still quite ambiguous is how links such as these worked in controlling the craft of composition. Research into this topic is somewhat vague, overall. This is partly as since the nineteenth century, the disciplines of rhetoric have disappeared from the majority of educational systems. Consequently, modern-day scholars and musicians are mostly unqualified in the matter.
It was only as recently as the twentieth century that music historians acknowledged the important role that the rhetoric had held upon past theoretical and aesthetic ideas within music. Once this had been recognised, however, there was a renaissance of rhetorical study within academic settings. It is mostly thought that the reason for this revival was the spread of language as a valuable ability in the twentieth century.
Susan Langer: Feeling and Form
Susan Langer’s Feeling and Form suggests the aesthetic symbol of musical wonder. Langer does this by introducing the idea of ‘illusion of life’ (Bailey). The illusion of life is brought about “when an audience internalises aesthetic symbols and experiences the life-view offered within the musical phenomena” (Bailey, p 2). Langer is the first to introduce an organised aesthetic theory like this, and is frequently quoted by scholars of rhetoric of music (Bailey).
On its ground level, Langer’s ontological creation of music is as a starting point in a musician’s mind, and in particular a musician whose work is planned to be performed to an audience. Langer writes that “A musical work grows from the first imagination of its general movement up to its complete, physical presentation, its occurrence” (Bailey, p 2). Immediately, music is invented as an idea inside the mind of a composer. By development and expansion, the music is then brought to life in practice.
Langer’s idea of music contains a metaphorical matrix. The matrix is “in music the fundamental movement of melody or harmonic progression, which establishes the greatest rhythm of the piece and dictates its scope, is born of the composer’s thought and feeling” (Bailey, p 3).
Therefore, in its early stages, a piece of music becomes solid through the emotions of its composer. In Langer’s matrix of creating music, there exist many options which, “cannot all be realised, so that every choice is a sacrifice” (Bailey, p 3). It is stemming from these feelings that symbols and the ‘idea’ of a piece is organised and developed. Langer says, “Under the influence of the total ‘idea,’ the musician composes every part of his piece” (Bailey, p 3). It is from music’s ontological conception such as this, that its rhetorical stimulus is chosen (Bailey).
The Emergence of a German Baroque Period
“Two themes consistently receiving attention in German Baroque music treatise are music’s speculative mathematical foundation and its intended edifying effect” (Dietrich, p 10). Johann Gottfried Walther, who was both Bach’s cousin and colleague, presented his compositional research studies with the following definition of music, correlating with both of these points: “Music is the science and art widely to arrange proper and agreeable sounds in a correct manner, and to execute them pleasingly, in order to foster God’s glory and all virtue through their conscience” (Dietrich, p 10). Even though Walther’s Italian colleagues had discarded the idea of music being a mathematical science, the thought of music being a “heavenly-philosophical and specifically mathematical” (Dietrich) discipline continued to be popular in Lutheran Germany during the course of the majority of the Baroque. Although the philosophical foundation for a concept such as this comes from the ‘Lutheran theocentric philosophy of music,’ its historical root is in classical and medieval notions of music. In order to gain a clearer and more thorough understanding of German Baroque music, it will be necessary to explore these classical and renaissance influences (Dietrich).
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the cosmological centre of music shown in the numerological concepts of music theory changed to an anthropological centre shown in the rhetoric influences of musica poetica (Dietrich). This occurred at the same time as the Renaissance move in importance from the “mathematical quadrivium to the linguistic trivium” (Dietrich, p 20). This change happened, in Italy, at the beginning of the Baroque period. Consequently, musical composition was viewed from an aesthet perspective, as opposed to speculatively. Music had turned into the language, in itself. At this time, certain German Lutheran writers started to discuss musica poetica, a category third to music theory and music practice.
In response to the decrease in respect for the medieval speculative music theory, Adam von Fulda said: “The unfortunates! They do not seem to know that Boethius said in the XXXIII chapter of the first book of his Institution: ‘id musicus est, qui ratione perpensa’ (the musician is one who measures by reason)” (Dietrich, p 20). Several years later, Nicolaus Listenius presented the phrase musica poetica as a musical composition genre (Dietrich, p 20). Then, in 1563, Gallus Dressler first used the phrase as the title if his compositional essay, introducing it as a definition of both a genre and of a discipline. By 1600 rhetorical principles and terminology were used regularly, along with the idea of musical-rhetorical figures. These had been firmly rooted within the discipline of musica poetica, via the writings of Joachim Burmeister (Dietrich).
In the seventeenth century, Lutheran Germany considerations on music were still centring “around theocentric, mathematical-scientific concepts inherited from medeivil music theory” (Dietrich, p 27). Nevertheless, the Renaissance thought and Lutheran theology caused the speculative perception of music to change into more a ‘humanised’ concept of music as a discipline. The use of music as a method of communication caused the practical work of composition more visible than music theory. However, rather than discarding the speculative music science as inapt, German writers attempted to include “Lutheran theology and Boethian mathematics” in the concept of music as a humanistic form of art. The increasing Renaissance and Lutheran prominence of the trivium, language and rhetorical ideas became momentous features of musical compositions. This resulted in musica poetica.
Bach’s Use of Rhetoric
Bach was an accomplished craftsman. He lived and worked in a time when composers created works in response to his employer’s demands (Johann). In the case of Bach, his various working positions required different types of music. In his post as court organist in Weimar, he created his most significant organ compositions, and when he worked as a composer for the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, he made ensemble music . Above these posts, however, Bach’s most influential and long-standing position was as the cantor of the Leipzig St. Thomas’s Church. It was during this time that he composed the majority of his well-known church music (Johann).
Bach also held a zeal for completeness. There is evidence for this in many of his compositions, which appear to be exercises in which he tries out every plausible option. A good example of this is in the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s “two collections of preludes and fugues” (Johann). In these collections, Bach investigates every feasible major and minor key (Johann).
“The observation that music is ‘gestural’ or contains ‘rhetorical figures’ is valid especially for Baroque music, although it applies also to other styles” (Kubik & Legler, p 1). It definitely does apply to the music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach.
It is easy to identify connections between music and gesture. For example, there is the association between a recitative’s structure and its overall delivery. A recitative piece often begins with a chord, and is then proceeded by a melody. Such a melody might initially appear to be deficient in a definite expression. However, then some word will consequently be articulated via musical rhetoric (Kubik & Legler, p 18).
If Bach’s ‘word-paintings’ are related to figures of musical rhetoric, the majority of them can be better understood. However, in a few cases, there exists a gesture that aids the understanding of the meaning (Kubik & Legler, p 19). One such example is in the aria “Nun mogt ihr stolzen Feinde schreken” from the Christmas Orantorio. At the aria’s start, it is not easy to understand the meaning of the figure similar to a trill, without having a prior familiarity of the text. However, when the words are sung in performance, it becomes clear that the trill belongs to the word ‘schreken’ (frighten). Once the text is heard, the figure is demonstrated as a gesture of ‘trembling’ (Kubik & Legler, p 19).
Overall, however, Bach was less concerned with gestures than many of his colleagues who regularly wrote for opera. In Bach’s music the internal meaning of Bach’s music is far more significant than its external and visual elements.
During the twenty-first century there was a massive increase in media attention on analysing political rhetoric. Television, advertising and mass media are some examples of elements due to which the rhetoric has returned as important in people’s minds. Following this, there has been a modern day revival of research into the influence of the rhetoric.
Regarding music, the rhetoric discipline was well-discussed among educated people in the nineteenth century. However, as the years went on the concept almost disappeared, and only now is it rising again as being recognised as an important influence of music development in the western world.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, musica poetica was introduced and made popular. However studying key figures, such as Johann Bach, bring to light just how much the rhetoric was used in the Baroque period, and how important it was in understanding the meaning of compositions by such artists.
In view of the revival of awareness of rhetorical significance, it is feasible that the western world will see a further rise in the use of rhetoric in musical compositions. As the importance of rhetoric is, once again, creeping into many areas of life and art, it is likely to continue to spread in appreciation and use.
The relationship between music and the rhetoric dates back hundreds of years. However, evidence suggests that the Baroque period saw a noticeably greater use and importance of this wonderful relationship.
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