by Hermann Max

Principles of Rhetoric – An Historical Overview

When rhetorical devices began to appear in Renaissance music, the use of rhetoric could already look back on a long history dating from the beginning of Antiquity. At first, a skillful speech was an invaluable means of influencing the outcome of a trial. From here, rhetoric was taken up in late Roman-Christian Antiquity as a powerful instrument to use in sermons, where listeners responded with enthusiastic applause to particularly ornate and dazzling turns of phrase.

Rhetoric remained a powerful tool – also in music – up until the beginning of the 19th century. The art of oration was a model for musicians. In the Catholic world as well as in Protestant Latin schools of the Middle Ages, rhetoric was a required subject of study, and thoroughly permeated human communication. Around 1500, composers of the caliber of a Josquin began using key words in texts as a basis for their compositions. This is plain to see in the Italian Renaissance madrigal. Here, a huge arsenal of musical structures and conventions developed, based on standard texts. Examples are the use of falso bordone for treachery and betrayal, or chromaticism as an ideal means of expressing materia tristis. Imitare le parole was obligatory for composers. Music became intimately interconnected with, even subordinated to speech, as expressed in Monteverdi’s famous imperative “L’oratione sia padrona dell’armonia e non serva.”

Music with text is sung speech. During this period, musical imitation of speech becomes more or less law. Not only must a text’s meaning be clearly expressed in a composition; it must have an overpowering effect on the listener. Only when human passions dominate a text is it suitable for a composer like Monteverdi. Zarlino further insists that harmony and rhythm should also reflect the text. Musical-rhetorical figures are born: music finds pictorial-affective language corresponding to literary ornamenta, and the most important words in the text become the means of expression in compositions. Here it is important to remember that these figures always represent an exaggeration, intensification. Using a rhetorical figure means leaving behind everyday means of expression, that is, exaggerating.

These musicians’ work is marked by rationality: they want to name everything, believing that what can’t be named can also not be understood. Discourse must be made so lively that the events described seem to be actually taking place. The same immediacy is expected in music. Figures should lend both spoken and musical discourse greater emphasis and more grace. The theory of figures becomes the underlying principle of composition of the period, structuring the process of composition and enlivening performance. History shows how powerful and influential the principle of rhetoric was. Its importance, which reached its highpoint in the Baroque period, is still largely underestimated.

Rhetoric and Affect

The final ingredient in maximizing music’s impact is the expression of affect through the text. Figures serve not only to enliven the delivery of a discourse but also to communicate its affect: they become the language of the passions.

Johann Gottfried Gottsched (1700–1766) makes this comparison: a duelist, fighting for his life, doesn’t face his opponent in a stiff and motionless stance behind his drawn sword, but rather first bends down, then straightens up again, now lunges forward, retreats, etc. , and in a like manner is the soul engaged, when in the throes of passion. And, just as the swordsman besets his adversary by means of his changing postures, so can a speaker (or musician) use strong figures of speech (or music) to terrify, sadden, elate, or infuriate his listener, and earn his applause.

Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia universalis, Rome 1650) describes quite concretely how musica, exactly as the orator, should move its listeners with artful design, now with a modus of laughter, now of weeping, following immediately with a modus of love, devotion and justice, or quite opposite affects. Kircher argues that lifeless things, tones, should be invested with the qualities of living human beings. This demands detailed and painstaking work, to give musical themes in all their forms and transformations a wealth of variety in performance.

Before examining some motet excerpts in this light, we should return to Kircher, who in his Musurgia describes affects and their transformations by way of short musical examples by Abbatini, Gesualdo, Giovanni Troiano and Palestrina. He shows exactly how, in a contrapuntal movement, through the progress of the individual voices in conjunction with harmony and rhythm (including cross-relations, dissonances, chromaticism, intervals, syncopation, corta and bombus figures) strong expressions of affect result with the use of the tremendous arsenal of musical-rhetorical figures. Kircher illustrates the affective aspect of intervals with the example of tetrachords: if a half-step occurs at the beginning of the tetrachord, an impression of gentleness is created, suitable for the expression of sadness or love. A half-step in the middle produces the affect of seriousness, or tenacity. When the half-step makes up the final interval of the tetrachord, then a sense of hardness and strength is the result. The half-step – the soul of music – has a decisive role in affect. Through its very languor and softening effect, it is stronger than the other intervals. Its weakness actually lends it great power.

The remarkable attention to detail in varying the palette of affects was familiar to all musicians in the 17th and 18th centuries. Through the writings of theoreticians like Kircher (he was in contact with the most important musicians of his day) and practicing musicians like Caccini (forward to Le Nuove Musiche, Florence, 1601), a kind of standardized canon of interpretative conventions developed, which was applied to the everyday performance of music and which obviated the need for interpretive instructions from a conductor. Each musician was the interpreter and actor of his own part. With regard to the interesting question of how musicians rehearsed in the Baroque period, one thing is certain: each musician recognized exactly the expressive character called for in the singing or playing of his part. Rehearsal was a process of recognition. Without any intervention by a conductor (in the modern sense), each musician was fully capable of interpreting his part so as to reveal its expressive potential to the listener.

Equal to Kircher’s writings in its sweeping influence all over Europe was Giuglio Caccini’s forward to his collection Le Nuove Musiche, which can only be touched on briefly here. Countless music theorists throughout Europe took up his the ideas.
Caccini began his publication with a forward because he had heard his works badly performed. He also writes that music is first and foremost speech and rhythm, and only secondly sound; music is speaking in tones. Of primary importance in his teaching was the transmission of the meaning of the text. He criticizes the singing of runs, which are for him merely decorative and the opposite of real passion. To correctly use the two main means of expression, that is, swells and esclamazione (accents), a musician had to first understand the inner meaning of the work’s text. In his Arie devote of 1608, Ottavio Durante refers to Caccini in his forward, describing exactly when esclamazione and swelled tones should be used. Caccini describes very precisely the dynamics to be used in the various swells and esclamatione (languida, viva and rediviva). Absolute dynamic exactitude is called for.

I am convinced that, in spite of all our knowledge of historical performance practice, our performances are still heavily informed by 19th century musical style, simply because this era is nearer to ours. The power of this tradition has not been broken. Our knowledge of music performance, compared to the knowledge and skill of the highly educated Baroque musician, is necessarily sketchy. We seriously underestimate the prowess of our colleagues of the 17th and 18th centuries. The unbelievably detailed instructions of Kircher and Caccini are astonishing, and help us understand that this music was not first and foremost preoccupied with esthetics, but with impressing upon the listener the shock of horror, the sweetness of love, the bitterness of betrayal, the mercilessness of death, how painful loneliness, or how crippling sadness can be. Our use of language is also no longer as rich as in the Baroque period. A singer, having spent years learning the art of oration, applied this knowledge of rhetoric to his singing. Song texts were also spoken, accompanied by the gestures and expressions which were likewise a subject of study. Only when the prosody of a text was fully understood was the text sung, and the pattern of affects in the musical composition discovered.

The more deeply we look into music history, the more questions of performance practice we have to answer for ourselves, since ever fewer precise indications are to be found in scores and parts. The occasional indications of articulation or dynamics often only meant: Look out, not to be played as usual. This “usual” way differed from place to place, according to the customs of the local musicians. Dynamic and articulation markings were indications of the music’s affect. The musician’s primary concern was to recognize and express this affect. Playing a piano passage merely softly is much too neutral. We must find out what affect is meant by this piano. The same thing applies to agogic: it also must transport a meaning, an affect, which can be recognized and understood by the listener.


Bartel, Dietrich, Handbuch der musikalischen Figurenlehre, Laaber, 1985
Dammann, Rolf, Der Musikbegriff im deutschen Barock, Köln, 1967
Goldschmidt, Hugo, Die italienische Gesangsmethode des XVII. Jahrhunderts, Breslau, 1892, Reprint Leipzig, 1978