The Birth of Rhetoric in Music
By: Heather DeRome, with thanks to Frank Koonce.
Very rarely in the history of music has there been a development that did not grow out of established practices and traditions. Changes to the status-quo always seem to come about either as an elaboration of what is being done and taking it one step further, or else reacting to it and rebelling against it. For example, much of what evolved in the twentieth century in art and music was a reaction against romanticism. In fact, the early-music movement in the twentieth century largely came about as a reaction against romanticism, as well. On the other hand, many of the musical developments in the Romantic Era were a result of composers taking harmony one step further, insofar as their use of chromaticism and modulations to distantly related keys. Following that, the atonal and then the avant-garde music in the early twentieth century pushed that envelope to the point of destruction.

But in 1602, when Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) published his "Le nuove musiche,"1 a collection of monodies with basso continuo, along with an introduction that stated his aims in rather polemic terms, this landed on the musical world in Italy like a clap of thunder in a clear blue sky; We take it so much for granted now, that we may not stop to realize that we could have gone in a different direction, and that many aspects of classical music, romantic art-songs, and even much of avant-garde music were a direct result of Caccini's publication. Our popular music definitely grew out of this as well.

What Caccini was calling for, was that music should follow the text. This seems so obvious to us now, but not all cultures have this in their musical traditions, and much of Western music did not have it either, before Caccini’s "New Music."

Listening to certain madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), specifically the ones that were written before Caccini's collection of monodies, the words are often so obscured by all the other lines that they can not be made out. The music conveys the emotion of the text (we can thank theorist Gioseffo Zarlino [1517–1590], some fifty years earlier for that); however, the words in these madrigals--as entities in themselves with their own sonic qualities––are not married to the music.

Caccini proposed that "a modern composer listen to people of high and low conditions speaking with each other, in all real life situations, taking note of how the conversation unfolds, sonically."2 (It is not clear whether the word “condition" translates as “mood" or ""social class"; however, both of those could likely have been what he meant).

Now Caccini, as influential a musical figure as he was, was not a composer of the same stature as Monteverdi. Caccini's manifesto (which is really what it was), in its most narrow terms, proclaimed that monody with figured bass was the only way to achieve the aims set out in "le nuove musiche." The instrumental accompaniment must have no interest that would detract from the text, which should be sung without ornamentation, unless the singer was "so uninspired [by the accompaniment] that he or she needed to add interest for the listener’s sake."

Although Monteverdi did not espouse Le nuove musiche in its most narrow terms, he and Caccini, along with Zarlino, systematically began to dissect the language and to codify its fragments. Words and phrases were ascribed individual musical figures, which mirrored the actual sounds of the spoken language. In the end, an immense vocabulary of figures with pre-determined meanings, and which were familiar to every cultivated listener, was born. It is surely not a coincidence that the proponents of this new music were Italians; the language is already so musical. (But wait a minute: Do we consider the Italian language so musical, precisely because of the work of Caccini and his colleagues? That is to say, is Italian a musical language? –Or is music an Italian language? -Italy was the main influence throughout Europe during the Baroque period, largely because the great violins as well as violinist/composers were imported from Italy, and the work of Vivaldi and Corelli was so widely disseminated throughout all of Europe.) Regardless of all that, in much of the monody and recitative that followed, it was hard to tell if the music was meant to imply a sung text or a spoken song. Italian is so rhythmic and melodious that it was simply a matter of exaggerating it a little. And Monteverdi was able to use these ideas with the mind and heart of a genius--not only were his subsequent madrigals hugely influential in spurring on the Baroque period, but his work continues to sound new and fresh, and to challenge us, even today.

Now, musicians have always enjoyed playing the tunes of well-known songs on their instruments, and so it was not long before instrumental music also made use of this repertory of figures that were associated with speech, and which were familiar to educated listeners. Popular tunes were used in ricercares and then in fugues; this is well documented. But also, what is important to realize is that, eventually, as a direct outgrowth of the work of Caccini and his colleagues, instrumental music also became like a discourse--a conversation that could be listened to on its own terms.

And thus musical rhetoric came to be. This all happened in a time when people were reviving everything they could about ancient Greek culture. Rhetoric, and the art of delivery was a big part of that trend, and, for Caccini to bring it into the musical world, may not really have been such "a clap of thunder in a clear blue sky" after all.

One may examine Bach's music and find isolated figures that clearly have their origins as speech figures.3 It really is a matter of an evolution, in a sense, i.e., taking those figures that were discovered in monody, and in a "spoken" type of singing––the recitativo secco––and having attached them to instrumental music. Also, Bach worked with the classical rhetorical principles that had been studied for centuries as part of the Greek revival of the Renaissance, and which he himself taught in school and consciously applied to his own music. Thus, we find a very refined sonic vocabulary, born in Italy but transposed to the German language; that is to say, with more incisive accentuation. What is particularly striking with Bach, is how he has incorporated the whole arsenal of counterpoint into these rhetorical principles.

This concludes the first part of The Birth of Rhetoric in Music. Part-two will discuss how we can approach Bach's music, and especially the Sonatas and Partitas, with a keener awareness of the rhetorical principles at play.

[1] (accessed 20 August 2019).

[2]Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Musik als Klangrede: Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis. Salzburg and Vienna: Residenz Verlag, 1982. Trans. Dennis Collins as Le discours musical: pour une nouvelle conception de la musique (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1984), 178.

[3]See this video about the BWV 1001 presto, which shows how Bach has used these figures, and also has drawn from a more archaic writing style, perhaps tipping a hat to his predecessors.

Copyright Koonce/DeRome, 2019. All rights reserved.