Early Music and Historically Informed Performance Practice

Quotations about Historically Informed Performance



A curated collection of quotations and longer extracts that show the importance of knowing about rhetoric and the passions.

The passions are the only orators who always convince.

— Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1665)

The Performer as Orator explores this in more detail.

Music: Definitions

René Descartes

This is how René Descartes begins his treatise on the mathematics of music:

‘The OBJECT of this Art is a Sound. The END; to delight, and move various Affections in us.’

[Alternative translation]

‘The basis of music is sound; its aim is to please and to arouse various emotions [passions/affections] in us.’

— René Descartes. Musicæ Compendium (1618 / published posthumously in 1650).

‘The exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal bursting forth in sound.’

— St Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologieae (1266-73).

Johann Sebastian Bach

‘An agreeable harmony for the honour of God and the permissible delights of the soul.’

— Johann Sebastian Bach. Quoted in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations.

‘Music is the human treatment of sounds.’

— Jean-Michel Jarre (1948- ). Quoted in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations

Music: That one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and the expression of emotion.’

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., 1944.

The Purpose of Music

Marin Mersenne

‘[The aim of the composer should be] to express the conceptions of the mind and … to impress them with the greatest possible effectiveness on the minds of the listeners.’

— Vincenzo Galilei. Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna (1581).

Vincenzo Galilei was a member of the Florentine Camerata.

Marin Mersenne

‘Music … is made particularly and principally to charm the spirit and the ear, and to enable us to pass our lives with a little sweetness amidst all the bitterness that we encounter there.’

— Marin Mersenne. Harmonie universelle (1636).

Marin Mersenne

‘Music hath two ends, first to please the sense, and that is done by the pure dulcor of harmony [sound] … and secondly to move the affections or excite passion. And that is done with measures of time [structure/form/proprotion] joined with the former.’

— Roger North. The Musicall Grammarian (1728).

‘For changing people’s manners and altering their customs there is nothing better than music.’

— Shu Ching (sixth century BC). Quoted in Shapiro, An Encyclopedia of Quotations about Music (1978).

‘You can’t mess with people’s heads, that’s for sure. But that’s what music’s all about, messing with people’s heads.’

— Jimi Hendrix (1942-70). Quoted in Shapiro, An Encyclopedia of Quotations about Music (1978).

The Passions

François Duc de La Rochefoucauld

The passions are the only orators who always convince. They have a kind of natural art with infallible rules; and the most untutored man filled with passion is more persuasive than the most eloquent without.’

‘In the human heart new passions are for ever being born; the overthrow of one almost always means the rise of another.’

— François Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales (Paris, 1665).
[Reflections or aphorisms and moral maxims.]

The Passions of the Soul

René Descartes

We can define [the passions of the soul] generally as perceptions, sensations or commotions of the soul which we relate particularly to the soul, and are caused, maintained and strengthened by some movement of the [animal] spirits.

— René Descartes. Les passions de l’âme (1649). [The passions of the soul.]

According to Descartes the animal spirits function similarly to our modern understanding of the nervous system. They are produced in the blood and are responsible for the physical stimulation which causes the body to move.

Bernard Lamy
The Passions Aroused by Sound Alone

Johann Mattheson

Lamy‘s discussion of the Animal Spirits is based on René Descartes Les Passions de l‘Âme (The Passions of the Soul) published in 1649.

‘To search into the Causes of this marvellous sympathy betwixt Numbers and our Soul, and how they come to that power and Efficacy upon our passions, we must know that the motions of the mind do follow the motions of the Animal Spirits; as those Spirits are slow or quick, calm or turbulent, the mind is affected with different Passions: The least force is able to obstruct or excite the Animal Spirits, their resistance is but small; and their Levity is the cause that the least unusual motion determined them; the least motion of a sound puts them in agitation.’

‘Our Body is so dispos’d, that a ruff and boysterous sound forcing our Spirits into the Muscles, disposes it to flight, and begets an aversion, in the same manner as a frightful Object begets horror by the eye. On the other side a soft and moderate sound, attracts and invites our attention. If we speak lowd or hastily to a Beast, it will run from us; by speaking gently, we allure and make it tame. From whence we may collect that diversity of Sounds do produce diversity of motions in the Animal Spirits.

‘Every motion that is made in the Organs of Sense, and communicated to the Animal Spirits, is connext by the God of Nature, to some certain motions of the Soul: Sound can excite passions, and we may say, that every Passion answers to some sound or other [my emphasis]; which it is, that excites in the Animal Spirits, the motion wherewith it is allyed. This connexion is the cause of our Sympathy with Numbers, and that naturally according to the Tone of the Speaker, our Resentment, [i.e. feeling] is different. If a tone be languishing and doleful, it inspires sadness; if it be lowd and brisk, it begets vivacity and courage; some Ayres are gay, and others Melancholly.’

‘To discover the particular Causes of this Sympathy, and explain how among the numbers, some produce sadness, some joy, we should consider the different motions of the Animal Spirits in each of our Passions.’

‘It is easy to be conceiv’d, that if the impression of such a sound in the Organs of hearing is follow’d by a motion in the Animal Spirits like that which they have in a fit of Anger (that is, if the be acted violently and with inequality), it may raise Choller, and continue it.’

‘On the contrary, if the impression be doleful and melancholy, if the commotion it causes in the Animal Spirits be feeble and languishing, and in the same temper as commonly in Melancholy, what we have sayd ought not to seem strange; especially if we reflect upon what has been deriv’d to us from many eminent Authors relating to the strange effects of Music.’

— Bernard Lamy (1640-1715). L’art de parler (Paris, 1675. English trans, 1676). [The art of speaking.]

The Performer as Orator

Johann Joachim Quantz

Musical execution may be compared with the delivery of an orator.

The orator and the musician have, at bottom the same aim in regard to both the preparation and the final execution of their productions, namely to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners, to arouse or still their passions, and to transport them now to this sentiment, now to that. ’

— Johann Joachim Quantz. Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Berlin, 1752). Ch. XI: Of good execution in general in singing and playing: § 1.

François Couperin

‘Experience has taught me that hands that are strong and capable of executing that which is fastest and lightest are not always those which succeed in the tender and sentimental pieces, and I would acknowledge in good faith that I like better what touches me than what surprises me.’

— François Couperin. Preface to the first book of Pièces de clavecin (Paris, 1713).

Music as Eloquence

Marin Mersenne

Airs in a way ought to imitate orations, in order to have members, parts and periods, and make use of all manner of figures and harmonic passages, as the orator does, so that the art of composing airs and writing counterpoint will not be second to rhetoric.’

— Marin Mersenne (1588-1648). Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636).

‘In every piece, the notes are separated by little bars into equal little portions that are called MEAUSRES. This does not mean that every measure of a PIECE contains the same number of notes. It means that the notes in a measure when added together are equal in value to the notes in another measure that have likewise been counted together, just as a crown is worth either two thirty-sous coins or four fifteen-sous coins.Æ

‘The notes are separated this way to show the divisions that occur naturally in the melody [chant]; for the melody of a piece is not composed without order and without reason — it is formed of several segments that each have a complete meaning; and a piece of music roughly resembles a piece of eloquence, or rather it is the piece of eloquence that resembles the piece of music [my emphasis]; for the harmony, the number, the measure, and the other related things that a skilful orator observes when he composes his works belong far more naturally to music than to rhetoric.’

‘Be that as it may, just as a piece of eloquence has its whole, which usually is composed of several parts; just as each part is made up of periods that each convey a complete meaning; and just as the periods are composed of clauses [membres], the clauses composed of measures, and the measures composed of notes; so the melody [chant] of a piece of music has its whole, which is always made up of several repeats.’

‘Each repeat is composed of cadences, which convey a complete meaning and form the periods of the melody. The cadences are often made up of phrases [membres], the phrases of measures, and the measures of notes. Thus the notes correspond to letters, the measures to words, the cadences to periods, the repeats to the parts of the oration, and the whole to whole.’

‘But these divisions in the melody are not perceived by everyone who listens to singing or to an instrumental piece. You must belong to the profession to feel them, with the exception of a few divisions that are so blatant that everyone understands them. They are nonetheless marked in the musical score [tablature] by the bars that separate the measures, and by a few other typographical characters [caractères] that I will discuss at the appropriate time.’

— Monsieur de Saint-Lambert (fl c.1700). Les principes du clavecin (Paris, 1702). Ch. 8: Concerning the signs that indicate metre and tempo.

Mattheson on the Affections

Johann Mattheson

‘Anything which proceeds without these praiseworthy affections amounts to nothing, does nothing, and is worth nothing, be it where, how and what it chooses’.

It is obviously easier to express different passions in vocal music where there is a clear text, nevertheless this doctrine applied equally to instrumental music.

‘It should be noted that in the case of plain instrumental music which hath no words, as in each and every melody, one’s [i.e. the performer’s] purpose should be to imagine and incorporate the reigning passion of the moment, so that the instruments, by means of their tone, immediately present an eloquent and understandable address [i.e. oration]’.

Even dance movements could have ‘affective’ connotations:

  • a minuet implied ‘moderate merriment’;
  • a rigaudon ‘dallying jest’;
  • a gavotte ‘triumphant joy’; and
  • a passepied ‘giddiness, unrest, and vacillating spirits’.

‘Nowhere are proper dance melodies in this form and their true character to be found more than in the music of the French and their clever imitators, of whom Telemann is the chief’.

— Johann Mattheson (1681-1764). Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739).

Francesco Geminiani
An Introduction to Good Taste in Musick

Francesco Geminiani

‘To the End … that those who are Lovers of Musick may with more Ease and Certainty arrive at Perfection, I recommend the Study and Practice of the following Ornaments of Expression, which are fourteen in Number; namely,

  • (First,) Of the PLAIN SHAKE [simple trill]. The plain Shake is proper for quick Movements; and it may be made upon any Note, observing after it to pass immediately to the ensuing Note.
  • (Second,) Of the TURNED SHAKE [trill with termination]. The turn’d Shake being made quick and long is fit to express Gaiety; but if you make it short, and continue the Length of the Note plain and soft, it may then express some of more tender Passions.
  • (Third,) Of the Superior APOGIATURA [sic]. The Superior Apogiatura is supposed to express Love, Affection, Pleasure, &c. It should be made pretty long, giving it more than half the Length or Time of the Note it belongs to, observing to swell the Sound by Degrees, and towards the End to force the Bow a little: If it be made short, it will lose much of the aforesaid Qualities; but will always have a pleasing Effect, and it may be added to any Note you will…
  • (9th and 10th) Of PIANO and FORTE. They are both extremely necessary to express the Intention of the Melody; and as all good Musick should be composed in Imitation of a Discourse, these two Ornaments are designed to produce the same Effects that an Orator does by raising and falling his Voice…
  • (Twelfth) Of the SEPARATION [French: accent and port-de-voix]. The Separation is only designed to give a Variety to the Melody, and takes place most properly when the Note rises a second or third; as also when it descends a second, and then it will not be amiss to add a Beat, and to swell the Note, and then make the Apogiatura to the following Note. By this Tenderness is express’d.
  • (Thirteenth) Of the BEAT [mordent / French: battement]. This is proper to express several Passions; as for Example, if it be perform’d with Strength, and continued long, it expresses Fury, Anger, Resolution, &c. If it be play’d less strong and shorter, it expresses Mirth, Satisfaction, &c. But if you play it quite soft, and swell the Note, it may then denote Horror, Fear, Grief, Lamentation, &c. By making it short and swelling the Note gently, it may express Affection and Pleasure.
  • (Fourteenth) Of the Close SHAKE [‘vibrato’ / French: flattement]. This cannot be described by Notes as in former Examples. To perform it, you must press the Finger strongly upon the String of the Instrument, and move the Wrist in and out slowly and equally, when it is long continued swelling the Sound by Degrees, drawing the Bow nearer to the Bridge, and ending it very strong it may express Majesty, Dignity, &c. But making it shorter, lower and softer, it may denote Affliction, Fear, &c. and when it is made on short Notes, it only contributes to make their Sound more agreeable; and for this Reason it should be made use of as often as possible.

‘Men of purblind Understandings, and half Ideas may perhaps ask, is it possible to give Meaning and Expression to Wood and Wire; or to bestow upon them the Power of raising and soothing the Passions of rational Beings? But whenever I hear such a Question put, whether for the Sake of Information, or to convey Ridicule, I shall make no Difficulty to answer in the affirmative, and without searching over-deeply into the Cause, shall think it sufficient to appeal to the Effect.

Even in common Speech a Difference of Tone gives the same Word a different Meaning. And with regard to musical Performance, Experience has shewn that the Imagination of the Hearer is in general so much at the Disposal of the Master that by the Help of Variations, Movements, Intervals and Modulation he may almost stamp what Impression on the Mind he pleases.

‘These extraordinary Emotions are indeed most easily excited when accompany’d with Words; and I would besides advise, as well the Composer as the Performer, who is ambitious to inspire his Audience to be first inspired himself, which he cannot fail to be if he chuses a Work of Genius, if he makes himself thoroughly acquainted with all its Beauties; and if while his Imagination is warm and glowing he pours the same exalted Spirit into his own Performance.’

— Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762). A treatise of good taste in the art of music (London, 1749). The art of playing on the violin (London, 1751).