Can a discussion of historical performance practice and reflection on theoretical concepts influence personal interpretation of contemporary art music? Why this fascination with language, and by extension, with rhetoric performance practice? I became conscious of these problematics during my 2011 encounter with the artistic director of the European Chamber Music Academy and former violist of the Alban Berg Quartet, Hatto Beyerle. In attending his Master classes and through long discussions with him in the evenings, I realized how little we actually know today of the rhetoric rules of music that reigned over performance practice of the eighteenth century. Further-more, I wondered if we had not somehow lost sight of the benefits that such an awareness might bring to music interpretation.

When I began to parse the sources from 1750 and onwards: Leopold Mozart, C.P. E. Bach, Johann Mathesson and Johann Quantz, I was very inspired by the richness of knowledge and potential advice. Until this time, I had only heard about the sources second hand and had never realized how stimulating a direct encounter could be. These handbooks were meant to give advice to contemporaries, but it felt as if many of these thoughts and concepts could be both universal and contemporary. The historical sources also resounded with my previous knowledge but in a more detailed manner. The emphasis on flexibility as the essence of good baroque interpretation particularly resonated with my own music practice as flexibility creates what Donington refers to as a: “spontaneous liberty within bounds” ((Donington, R. (1982). Baroque Music: Style and Performance: a Handbook: Norton, p. 6 )) Robert Donington concludes in his 1982 book on baroque performance that:

So far from being, as once was thought, arigid discipline, rhythmically strict and sonorously monotonous, baroque music abounds in variability. Beneath the symmetry, the flexibility; behind the scanty notation, the performer’s open options. Order and proportion, though unquestionably relevant, are only half the story of baroque music: the other half is impetuosity and fantasy ((ibid, p. 171)).

To my mind, the concept of variation, impetuosity and fantasy should be considered an important part of any interpretation of music.

The idea of a rhetoric understanding of music stems from antiquity, and the music students of the baroque era studied rhetoric to “make music talk”. The analogy between music, speech and passions is described in literature from 1600-1800, particularly originating in Central Europe. In the Occidental music, rhetoric was of great importance to all aspects, from compositional form to embellishments and performance practices. Instrumentalists were encouraged to imitate speech in performance.

Rhetoric played a central part in the Middle Ages, being one of the Septes Artes Liberales, and during the 17th and 18th centuries, discussions about rhetoric dominated discourse on music theory and delivery, particularly in Central Europe. Burmeister is seen as the first to systematically describe these figures in his Musica Poetica from 1606 ((Burmeister, J., Rivera, B. V., & Palisca, C. V. (1993). Musical poetics. New Haven: Yale University Press.)). Sources like Johann Quantz, Leopold Mozart, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach and Johan Georg Sulzer also talk about arousing music’s passions in the performer in order to subsequently move the listener. In mid-eighteenth-century Berlin, influential practitioners and theoreticians requested that instrumentalists transport themselves into the passions of the music to move their audiences: “A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved.” ((Bach, C. P. E., & Mitchell, W. J. (1949). Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments: Eulenburg, p. 152)). There was a strong belief that specific elements in music, such as chromatics, harmonic, and motifs, could evoke specific feelings in the listener. Although among primary sources there can exist substantial differences between authors regarding figures and their use and meaning, there is nonetheless consensus on the fact that musical-rhetorical figures were regarded as an artful and expressive musical device.

The aim of rhetoric has been explained to: “to ensure as positive a reception as possible within a defined group” ((Andersen, Ø. (1995). I retorikkens hage. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.)). Rhetoric is divided into five parts: the first few concern creating a speech (composing) and the last one, actio (greek) or pronuntiatio (latin) is the art of using your speech (or music performance) to convince. This latter is the part which for me is the most important to the performing issues, even though knowledge of the first four parts concerning the content, the build-up, and the form of the music are also essential components to making a good actio. Quantz urges the musician to look at the orator as a model for good performance ((Quantz, J. J., & Reilly, E. R. ([1752] 2001). On playing the flute. London: Faber and Faber.)).

A successful performance (during this period), or oration in the rhetoric style, was judged on its capacity to stimulate the audience’s emotions. A good orator would use gestures, articulation of words, tempo, rhythm, intonation and dynamics to convince the listener of his or her message. An example of a bad orator would have been someone monotonously reading aloud from a text. These different components were considered to be just as important in music performance ((Tarling, J. (2005). The weapons of rhetoric: a guide for musicians and audiences. St. Albans: Corda Music.)).

Rhetoric performance practice encompasses the shaping of figures, motifs and individual notes through changes in harmony, dynamics, timing, rhythm and articulation. This interpretational method emphasizes the importance of flexibility and innovation; there must always be variation, which adds a supplemental dimension in making music speak to the listeners and hold their attention. Both musicians and composers were trained in these rhetoric rules, and the scores are minimally annotated because the performer was expected to “fill in the blanks”. The composer trusted the musicians to follow the established practice and conventions of the time. Rhetoric techniques became embedded in music composition and performance and remain the principle language of tonal music compositions.

During the reign of rhetoric, it was most important to make the audience feel affects through the music, as opposed to the romantic period during which the performer is responsible for revealing the composer’s emotions in the music. After the French Revolution, music was meant to convey the feelings of the genius composer. Knowledge of rhetoric rules faded away after about 1820, and it has been said that the romantic period marks the end of rhetoric music. Nevertheless, the rhetorical models still continue to influence traditional compositional analysis and forms. While key characteristics were studied commonly as a vital subject by composers in the eighteenth century and as a fundamental part of musical education by many young musicians in the early nineteenth century, this tradition had all but disappeared by the middle of the twentieth century ((Ishiguro, M. A. (2010). The affective properties of keys in instrumental music from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Master Theses ), University of Massachusetts Amherst, p. 2))There is also the hypothesis that rhetoric performing principles continued to exist, at least in the practice of the performers living concomitant with the new romantic compositional ideals. The prominent conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt ((Harnoncourt, N. (2007). «Töne sind höhere Worte»: Gespräche über romantische Musik. Salzburg: Residenz-Verl.)) states:

Beethoven left a sketch in which he describes his interpretation of G minor as a black key, and Berlioz wrote extensively on instrumentation and its affective properties in his Grand traité d’instrumentation (1843). However, it is reasonable to claim that the tradition of using key characteristics was a thriving, well- known, practiced, and disputed matter not only among music theorists, but also among young students and amateurs in the early nineteenth century ((Ishiguro, M. A. (2010). The affective properties of keys in instrumental music from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Master Theses ), University of Massachusetts Amherst, p. 46)).

Although theories on what these doctrines meant are no longer important, they are however valid as composition techniques. Three small examples: 1) Repetitio, a motif used repeatedly to create a gradual building of tension; 2) Interrogatio, the phrase ending on a raising second, which might give the feeling of a question asked; 3) Diminutio, various elaborations of longer notes through subdivision into notes of lesser duration, which is a well-known compositional technique in developing a theme. Knowledge of the figures makes you interpret them a little differently, and it can be valuable to a performer to be aware of these as a key for interpretation.

Much has been written about rhetoric performance practice and theories through the scholarly and performative HIP movement, so a more thorough rulebook of this subject lies outside the scope of this project ((Bartel, D. (1997). Musica poetica: musical-rhetorical figures in German Baroque music. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.))((Donington, R. (1975). A performer’s guide to Baroque music ([Rev. ed.]. ed.). London: Faber and Faber.))((Donington, R. (1982). Baroque Music: Style and Performance: a Handbook: Norton.))((Faulkner, Q. (1984). J. S. Bach’s keyboard technique : a historical introduction. St. Louis: Concordia.))((Forsblom, E. (1985). Mimesis : på spaning efter affektuttryck i Bachs orgelverk (Vol. 3). Helsinki: Sibelius akademin.))((Goldberg, S. M., & Beghin, T. (2007). Haydn and the performance of rhetoric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.))((Golumb, U. (2008). Rhetoric in the Performance of Baroque Music. Goldberg Early Music Magazine, 51, 56-67.))((Harnoncourt, N. (2007). «Töne sind höhere Worte»: Gespräche über romantische Musik. Salzburg: Residenz-Verl.))((Harnoncourt, N., O’Neill, M., & Pauly, R. G. (1995). Baroque music today: music as speech : ways to a new understanding of music. Portland, Or.: Amadeus Press.))((Haynes, B. (2007). The end of early music: a period performer’s history of music for the 21st century. New York: Oxford University Press.))((Lyngstad, D. (2017). La musikken tale. (Master thesis), Det Kongelige Danske Musikkonservatorium.))((Tarling, J. (2005). The weapons of rhetoric: a guide for musicians and audiences. St. Albans: Corda Music.))((Taruskin, R. (1995). Text and act: essays on music and performance. New York: Oxford University Press.))((Veilhan, J.-C. (1979). The rules of musical interpretation in the baroque era (17th-18th centuries), common to all instruments. Paris: A. Leduc.)). My task is to shed new light on these principals and explore them in the light of our contemporary music performance.

Further reading…