What is Rhetoric and why is it relevant to music?  Why does it matter?

The relevance of Rhetoric to music of the baroque era is a large field of study and many people more knowledgeable than I have written about this.  I personally always enjoy reading Bruce Haynes’ many thoughts about this and if it’s not an area you already know about, Haynes’ somewhat polemical book The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century is an excellent place to start.  (and a great read – among other things he argues conductors meet the biological definition of a parasite … you don’t have to agree with everything Haynes says, but what he does say he expresses with great panache). 

My view, not always shared by everyone, is that our playing in the Queen’s Closet should be Rhetorical, and that approaching baroque music in this way is an important aspect of understanding and interpreting this music.  

But what does Rhetorical performance of music mean?

Throughout the baroque era the discipline of Rhetoric was widely studied and discussed and as an art form has been discussed by writers from Plato to the modern day.  The discipline of Rhetoric was widely applied to musical performance from Renaissance up to the move to Romanticism in music.  It was an approach widely considered to be integral to musical performance in the baroque era and few writers on musical performance at that time wrote without some reference to Rhetoric.

Quantz is a good example of this, and he gives a particularly useful description of Rhetoric in music.  In his widely read manual of musical performance in the 1720s and 30s On Playing the Flute he says: 

Musical execution may be compared with the delivery of the orator” 

and goes on to explain that orators and musicians 

have, at bottom, the same aim … to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners” and crucially, “to arouse or still their passions, and transport them now to this sentiment, now to that.”

Quantz was a widely travelled and respected musician of his time, and although only one voice from the time is a particularly strong and relevant one.  He talks about musical delivery, 

“ … we demand that an orator have an audible, clear and true voice; that he aim at a pleasing variety in voice and language; that he avoid monotony in the discourse, rather allowing the tone of the syllables and words to be heard now loudly, now softly, now quickly, now slowly; and that he raise his voice in words requiring emphasis, subdue it in others.”  

He then goes on to 

“… show that all of these things are also required in good musical execution … “ 

In a further paragraph, Quantz identifies what he considers to be poor musical execution, which includes: 

“ if everything is sung without warmth or played on the same level with no alternation of Piano and Forte;”

and for me crucially, 

if you … execute everything without feeling, without sentiment, and without being moved yourself … “

For me, many of the important aspects of rhetorical playing are captured here by Quantz, (and by other writers of course) … the speech like execution with diction, variability and an oratorical manner of playing, combined with a central aim of emotional response, and an aim to move your audience, and yourself, in performance.  Rhetorical music succeeds if a performance evokes emotions in the performer and the audience.

Come to think of it, I suspect the parallels Haynes draws of a conductor to a parasite is a particularly bold rhetorical device, rather than necessarily something to take literally.  He seems a bit angry perhaps, and if I were a conductor I may be moved to certain emotions reading his views …

Why is this important?  For me, music of the baroque era seems to be written in the main, with rhetorical execution in mind.  Not intended necessarily to be beautiful, or timeless, as was the case in Art music from the Romantic era and beyond, but to be a vehicle for performers to move audiences.  Approaching the music in this way, I feel, brings our audiences and ourselves closer to the heart of music of the baroque.