Early Music and Historically Informed Performance Practice

The Performer as Orator

Cicero statue


Baroque musicians and theorists saw many parallels between the Greek and Roman art of rhetoric (oratory) and music.

According to ancient writers, such as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, orators employed rhetorical means to control and direct the emotions of their audiences and so persuade and move them.

It is not surprising to find Marin Mersenne in Harmonie universelle (1636) describing musicians as ‘harmonic orators’.

The Nature of Rhetoric explores the important distincition between primary rhetoric (the art of persuasion) and secondary rhetoric (the art of speaking or writing well).

This page is a draft of Chapter 1 from The Performer as Orator: Rhetoric and Historically Informed Performance by Greg Dikmans.

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. Thus it is advantageous to both, if each has some knowledge of the duties of the other.

— Johann Joachim Quantz: Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Berlin, 1752)

In this thesis I will be elaborating the concept of the performer as orator, and arguing its fundamental importance in any discussion of performance, in particular the performance of Western music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The passage quoted above aptly summarises my thesis and points to the approach I will take: to explore the relationships between rhetoric and performance practice. It will become clear that Quantz was correct in stating that it is advantageous for the performer to have some knowledge of the duties of the orator.

When I first read this passage, which is the very first thing Quantz has to say in his chapter titled ‘Of good execution in general in singing and playing’ (what in rhetoric is called delivery), it struck me as important because it described something I had experienced when playing and listening to music, though at the time I did not fully understand its meaning. The long search for understanding has ultimately led to this thesis.

Performance practice

In Western music today, performance is usually conceived as an interpretive art. Underpinning this is the idea of a ‘communication triangle’, a division of labour whereby ‘composers create musical works and notate them in scores from which performers perform [interpret] for the edification and pleasure of listeners’ (Burstyn: 693). This deeply entrenched view reflects the ‘romantic glorification of the inspired composer’, who is seen as the ‘creator of original musical edifices’ (Burstyn: 693).

One of the more significant contributions of the early music movement this century, with its shift of emphasis from the composer and the composition to performance practice, is that it has demonstrated that ‘at least as far as pre-classical music is concerned, [the concept of a division of labour] is far from accurate and in many cases simply false’ (Burstyn: 693). Performance practice studies, through the bringing together of musicological research and actual music making, have revealed a more complex and subtle picture about the relationships of performer and composer.

We can now speak of the two tasks of the performer, which mirror the twin tasks of the modern rhetorician: that of genesis (creation) and analysis (interpretation). In other words, in addition to the concept of the performer as interpreter, we can speak of the concept of the performer as composer.

Furthermore, what I will be arguing is that these two concepts are in fact two interdependent branches of a higher concept: the performer as orator. Not only was this the dominant conception of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western musical thought, and therefore worth exploring by those interested in performing music from that time, but it may also be useful when thinking about music from other times and cultures. This is because rhetoric (oratory), as well as dealing with genesis and analysis, also has much to say about the role of the audience, an, until recently, neglected area (1).

The performer as interpreter

The concept of the performer as interpreter is a relatively recent one, necessarily coinciding with the development of musical notation. However, for many centuries various aspects of a piece of music were not notated, either because the performer was the composer, or because the composer was involved in directing the performance or because the system of notation used, or the technology available to reproduce it (for example, block-type versus engraving), was not adequate, or for other reasons to be discussed below.

One of the tasks of performance practice studies is to elucidate these unnotated aspects (often termed performance conventions). While the trend has been for an increasing complexity of notation—from Beethoven onwards composers have attempted, more and more, to take back the responsibility for the creation and interpretation of their works—there will always be a need for performance practice studies because of the inherently limited nature of any type of musical notation.

However, one of the points I will be arguing is that a piece of music is not the notes on the page but the sounds that the audience hears, just as oratory is primarily a verbal rather than literary art. The musical ‘text’ should be seen as a set of ‘notes’ (as in guidelines or reminders) for a performance (musical delivery or oration): the ‘notes’ embody the ideas and arguments of the composer, which the performer (orator) then uses for the primary task of communication, which in music, as Quantz attests, can best be described as moving the affections.

Because, as rhetoric recognises, a particular performance takes place at a particular time and place, before a particular audience (even if is only the performer himself), in a particular venue and so forth (that is, within a particular context or situation), the performer (orator) needs to make judgements about how best to use the composer’s ‘notes’ in his delivery, which may include making anything from minor modifications or additions to major adjustments.

The act of interpretation is like an act of criticism in that the aim is to make the piece of music meaningful (or moving) for a particular audience, and as such can be conceived as an act of renewal or completion. It is through exercising his judgement that the performer also takes on the role of composer; and at different periods in music history the performer had the responsibility of exercising this judgement to a greater or lesser extent.

The performer as composer

The quote at the head of this chapter confirms that Quantz regarded a musician as being both performer and composer. This was the common view of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where very often the performer of a piece was also its composer. In the introductory comments to his chapter titled ‘The performer as composer’, David Fuller summarises the position as follows:

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the collaboration between composer and performer, without which no music can exist that is not improvised or composed directly into its medium (like electronic music), was weighted more heavily towards the performer than at any time since and perhaps before.

A large part of the music of the whole era was sketched rather than fully realized, and the performer had something of the responsibility of a child with a colouring book, to turn these sketches into rounded art-works (Fuller: 117).

He goes on to mention and give advice about many of the problem areas that are now well known to students of performance practice, but his main focus is on three areas particularly related to problems of notation (or lack of it): thoroughbass (which he sees as lying on the border between notated and unnotated music), ornamentation and rhythm (particularly, rhythmic alteration). What he does not do is attempt to explain why composers left so much up to the performer.

If the primary motivation of a composer is self-expression (as, for example, I would argue is the case in Romantic music), perhaps there is less need for the performer as composer. If the primary motivation is communication, as this thesis argues is the case with seventeenth and eighteenth century music, the need for the performer as composer is clear (and a grasp of rhetoric is vital) in order to bridge the gap or make the connection with a particular audience at a particular time and place.

The qualities of the ideal performer

The most important attribute of a performer is good judgement, or, as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century musicians and theorists described it, good taste. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the performer is constantly making decisions or value judgements. As already noted, the degree of judgement a performer may or is expected to exercise varies from period to period, and even from repertoire to repertoire within any particular period (it may even vary from piece to piece within the corpus of one composer). It may also vary according to the expectations and taste of a particular audience at a particular time. This raises a number of important questions: what informs good judgement or good taste?; and, can good judgement or taste be taught? In attempting to answer these questions, this thesis, like rhetoric itself, also addresses important pedagogical issues.

Put another way, we may ask: what are the qualities a performer needs to make good judgements or have good taste? These qualities relate to the Greek concept of ethos (‘character’, usually the moral character of a person, either the speaker or the listener), as expounded by Aristotle, who identified it as one of the three artistic or intrinsic means of persuasion (the other two are logos and pathos). The answer involves two parts or elements, both of which inform and complete the other, and both of which, ideally, need to be present: intuition (talent) and intellect (knowledge). Intuition is the talent or capacity to do the musically ‘right’ thing, seemingly without instruction or special consideration (also called musicality). Intellect has to do with the sources of musical insight, the means by which a musician increases his or her knowledge through the pursuit of relevant information and through reflection and analysis (criticism).

The discussion of the qualities required of a musician (whether composer or performer) is not new. In the Introduction to the Versuch, titled ‘Of the qualities required of those who would dedicate themselves to music’, Quantz puts it as follows. The first quality required of someone who wishes to become a good musician is ‘a particularly good talent, or natural gift’ (Introduction, § 4), and secondly, that to excel in music the musician must ‘feel in himself a perpetual and untiring love for it, a willingness and eagerness to spare neither industry nor pains’ (Introduction, § 8), what he later calls ‘the inclination for music’ (Introduction, § 9). He then goes on to caution that

[i]ndustry founded upon ardent love and insatiable enthusiasm for music must be united with constant and diligent inquiry, and mature reflection and examination. In this respect a noble pride must prevent the beginner from being easily satisfied, and must inspire him to gradually perfect himself (Introduction, § 12).

In all this a balance must be maintained, for

[t]oo great a dependence upon talent is a great obstacle to industry and subsequent reflection. Experience teaches that we encounter more ignorant persons among those who possess especially good natural gifts than among those who enhance mediocre talents through industry and reflection (Introduction, § 14).

The preceding discussion is summarised in Diagram 1.1.

Diagram 1.1 — The qualities of the ideal performer
diagram 1.1

The process of constant and diligent inquiry combined with mature reflection and examination can be seen as a process of conceptualisation, the search for explanations and understanding (see below). It is a process of education rather than just training: asking, ‘Why should I do this?, rather than, ‘What should I do?’

A multi-discipline approach to the study of performance practice

In this thesis I will demonstrate the utility of a multi-discipline or holistic approach to the study of performance practice. While I will be focusing in particular on music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this approach has applications well beyond that boundary. One would expect that such an approach needs little justification, however there are practitioners and teachers today, as in the past, who view such an approach as ‘academic’ (in the negative sense of theoretical or intellectual rather than practical) and see those who follow such an approach as ‘specialists’ (in the sense of ‘non-mainstream’). These same people, and many can be found in music departments and faculties in Australia as elsewhere, regard the main function of (tertiary) study as training rather than education. I hope that this thesis will help to refute such a narrow view—if one thing should become clear, it is that the approach I am advocating is intensely practical, of invaluable use in solving the many practical problems a performer encounters and in answering the many questions a performer should ask.

The anti-academic view is not new. Again it is apposite to quote a telling passage from Quantz’s Introduction to his Versuch, where he argues for a multi-discipline approach. It reveals something of Quantz’s own background, and also that of his audience, one including a knowledge of Greek philosophy and oratory, as well as an interest in pedagogy:

He who does not possess sufficient natural gifts for academic study probably has even fewer gifts for music. Yet if someone who gives himself to academic studies has sufficient talent for music, and devotes just as much industry to it as to the former, he not only has an advantage over other musicians, but also can be of greater service to music in general [and thereby also to society] (2) than others, as can be demonstrated with many examples.

Whoever is aware of how much influence mathematics (3) and the other related sciences, such as philosophy, poetry, and oratory, have upon music, will have to own not only that music has a greater compass than many imagine, but also that the evident lack of knowledge about the above-mentioned sciences among the majority of professional musicians is a great obstacle to their further advancement, and the reason why music has not yet been brought to a more perfect state.

This seems inevitable, since those who have a command of theory are seldom strong in practice, and those who excel in practice can seldom pretend to be masters of theory. In these circumstances is it possible to bring music to some degree of perfection? To do so, serious counsel must be given to young people who dedicate themselves to music that they endeavour not to remain strangers at least to those sciences mentioned above, and some foreign languages besides, even if time does not permit them to engage in all academic studies. And for those who propose to make composition their goal, a thorough knowledge of acting [= delivery?] will not be unserviceable [my emphasis]

— Quantz, Versuch, Introduction, § 19).

While we must acknowledge the context of Quantz’s work, that ‘it is the synthesis of the experience of one man active at a particular period in time in a certain milieu’ (4), his observations and comments about the state of music are still relevant today, as is his call for a broader, multi-discipline (holistic) approach.

The nature of explanations and understanding

What I will be offering in this thesis are explanations relating to the many problems that arise in the study of performance practice. I will largely be engaged in an a priori mode of argumentation, taking rhetoric as the cause and examing its effects in music. Music is not the only discipline that is in a constant and evolving search for explanations. In recent years (in keeping with Quantz’s ideal) I have been greatly inspired and refreshed by my reading of popular books on science, in particular books dealing with recent developments and investigations in areas such as quantum physics and chaos theory.

The quantum physicist David Deutsch, in The Fabric of Reality (1997), notes that ‘[s]cientific knowledge, like all human knowledge, consists primarily of explanations (p. 30).’ Part of his discussion of the nature of explanation and understanding is worth quoting here:

[I]t is hard to give a precise definition of ‘explanation’ or ‘understanding’. Roughly speaking, they are about ‘why’ rather than ‘what’; about the inner workings of things; about how things really are, not just how they appear to be; about what must be so, rather than what merely happens to be so; about laws of nature rather than rules of thumb. They are also about coherence, elegance and simplicity, as opposed to arbitrariness and complexity, though none of those things is easy to define either. But in any case, understanding is one of the higher functions of the human mind and brain, and a unique one. Many other physical systems, such as animal’s brains, computers and other machines, can assimilate facts and act upon them. But at present we know of nothing that is capable of understanding an explanation—or of wanting one in the first place—other than a human mind. Every discovery of a new explanation, and every act of grasping an existing explanation, depends on the uniquely human faculty of creative thought (p. 11) [my emphasis].

Later in the book, Deutsch devotes a chapter to the discussion of justification and makes the important point that ‘[e]xplanations are not justified by the means by which they were derived; they are justified by their superior ability, relative to rival explanations, to solve the problems they address [my emphasis] (p.84).’ In this statement he is attempting to refute the common assumption that

theories can be classified in a hierarchy, ‘mathematical’ → ‘scientific’ → ‘philosophical’, of decreasing intrinsic reliability. Many people take the existence of this hierarchy for granted, despite the fact that these judgements of comparative reliability depend entirely on philosophical arguments, arguments that classify themselves as quite unreliable! In fact, the idea of this hierarchy is a cousin of the reductionist mistake I discussed in Chapter 1 (the theory that microscopic laws and phenomena are more fundamental than emergent ones). The same assumption occurs in inductivism, which supposes that we can be absolutely certain of the conclusions of mathematical arguments because they are deductive, reasonably sure of scientific arguments because they are ‘inductive’, and forever undecided about philosophical arguments, which it sees as little more than matters of taste [my emphasis] (p. 84).’

Yet, as I have already noted, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries taste was regarded as the final arbiter in the judgements musicians need to make when they perform. This is why performers need to go beyond the positivist approach and engage in philosophical discussion and speculation.

As I have discovered after many years inquiry into and reflection on the many issues relating to performance practice, the process of finding explanations is an ongoing and evolutionary one; there are no easy answers. Deutsch sums this up when he states that ‘[i]n the Popperian scheme of things, explanations always lead to new problems which in turn require further explanations’ (p. 139).

According to Deutsch’s line of thought, rhetoric can be seen as a higher-level theory, or, as the ancient Greeks and Romans saw it, a tool of knowledge. My thesis, therefore, is that rhetoric provides legitimate explanations of relevance to the study of performance practice (and of all music generally).


The next chapter will present an account of the nature of classical rhetoric which has been defined as

that theory of discourse developed by the Greeks and Romans of the classical period, applied in both oratory and in literary genres, and taught in schools in antiquity, in the Greek and western Middle Ages, and throughout the Renaissance and early modern period (Kennedy: 3).

By the end of antiquity classical rhetoric was a standard body of knowledge derived from a small number of Greek and Roman sources, which, once fully developed, remained essentially unaltered. It was, however, constantly revised and adapted, and often made more detailed. It is an incipient characteristic of classical rhetoric that over its long history it underwent a process of compartmentalisation and fragmentation. This, combined with the shift of emphasis from oral to written language after the disappearance of public forums following the end of the Roman republic, led to its decline as a tool of knowledge, especially after the sixteenth century.

By the nineteenth century, classical rhetoric, or what little part of it that still remained, had fallen into discredit. Negative views toward classical rhetoric, or rather what it became after antiquity, persisted well into the twentieth century and even today the word rhetoric is usually used pejoratively.

Since the 1930s a renewed interest in rhetoric has emerged along with an attempt to restore it to the study of communication. This has taken two forms:

  1. studies, such as George A. Kennedy’s Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (1980) and A New History of Classical Rhetoric (1994), and Brian Vicker’s In Defense of Rhetoric (1988), that present accounts of classical rhetoric and its relevance today; and
  2. the development of what has been termed modern or new rhetoric, which takes classical (largely Aristotelian) rhetoric as a starting point and shifts the emphasis from the speaker or writer to the auditor or reader.

In this thesis I will be drawing on both these approaches.

For Chaim Perelman, author of The New Rhetoric, modern rhetoric ‘is a practical discipline that aims not at producing a work of art but at exerting through speech a persuasive action on an audience’ (Perelman 1). This definition is in fact an accurate description of classical rhetoric as it was originally conceived by the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle. In reclaiming or restating this view of rhetoric, which they see as having philosophical interest, proponents of the new rhetoric are consciously rejecting a view that sees rhetoric as an art of expression (or self-expression) aimed at producing a work of art, whether literary or verbal (or musical), with, they would argue, mainly decorative or aesthetic value.

Both these points of view are present in classical rhetoric (historically, the second grew out of the first), and, as I will argue in the next chapter, can be characterised as primary or functional rhetoric (the art of persuasion) and secondary or decorative rhetoric (the art of speaking or writing well). Throughout its long history, rhetoric has experienced shifts of emphasis between these two poles, and modern rhetoric can be seen as attempting to shift the emphasis of rhetoric back to its primary or functional role (the Aristotelian position).

Part of my thesis is that in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in France there was also a shift of emphasis back to primary rhetoric that is reflected in the musical thought of that time; I will also argue that this French thinking had an influence on some later German musicians, such as Quantz, who virtually ignored the emphasis placed on secondary rhetoric by their German contemporaries and forebears [from Burmeister to Mattheson].

The perspective of modern rhetoric (denoted by the term ‘situation’) is one of context, based on the belief that ‘all utterance [or all human discourse], except perhaps the mathematical formula, is aimed at influencing a particular audience at a particular time and place, even if the only audience is the speaker or writer himself’ (Sloan 1); and the methodology (denoted by the term argumentation) it uses for ‘the uncovering of those strategies whereby the interest, values, or emotions of an audience are engaged by any speaker or writer through his discourse’ (Sloan 2), is based on the belief that ‘any utterance may be interpreted rhetorically by being studied in terms of its situation—within its original milieu or even within its relationship to any reader or hearer—as if it were an argument’ (Sloan 1). According to this view, the ‘traditional figures of rhetoric’, which are a manifestation of secondary rhetoric and which have received the main emphasis in modern studies on musical rhetoric, ‘are usually only abridged arguments, as, for instance, a metaphor is an abbreviated analogy’ (Perelman 2).

What makes modern rhetoric such a powerful higher-level theory (as Deutsch would have it), is that it links a focus on genesis (creation)—the focus of classical rhetoric—with a focus on analysis (interpretation); that is, it links the speaker or writer with the auditor or reader. As Sloan states:

Rhetorical analysis is actually an analogue of traditional rhetorical genesis: both view the message through the situation of the auditor or reader as well as the situation of the speaker or writer. Both view the message as compounded of elements of time and place [the milieu of creation], motivation [the mind of the creator] and response [the audience] (Sloan 2).

The context, then, is made up of three elements, each of which influence the others, and which itself influences both genesis and analysis. The preceding discussion is summarised in Diagram 1.2.

Diagram 1.2 — Rhetoric: its twin processes and context
diagram 1.1

An interpretation or analysis (that is, explanation) that emphasises the context of a ‘text’ is therefore, by definition, a rhetorical analysis, as distinct from other kinds of analysis (denoted as literary or stylistic analysis) that attempt to isolate or abstract the ‘text’ from its context. Perelman states this position as follows:

the new rhetoric is opposed to the tradition of modern, purely literary rhetoric, better called stylistic, which reduces rhetoric to a study of figures of style, because it is not concerned with the forms of discourse for their ornamental or aesthetic value but solely in so far as they are means of persuasion and, more especially, means of creating “presence” (i.e., bringing to the mind of the hearer things that are not immediately present) through techniques of presentation (Perelman 3).

Many so-called rhetorical analyses of music are in fact stylistic analyses (using the labels and terminology of rhetoric and applying them to musical figures).

The figures of speech (or style), which became such an important element of classical rhetoric, are best viewed as tools to be used in the twin processes or tasks of rhetoric. Classical rhetoricians included a discussion of the figures under the heading elocutio (or decoratio), which is usually translated as ‘style’, and divided them into two categories according to function: the tropes (textural effects) and the schemes (structural principles). Tropes, such as metaphor, simile and hyperbole, ‘pertain…to the texture of the discourse, the local colour or details’; schemes, such as allegory, antithesis and apostrophe, pertain ‘to the structure [of the discourse], the shape of the total argument’ (Sloan 3).

Such a neat division is certainly attractive, especially when using the figures (viewed as lower-level components) as the basis for a literary or stylistic analysis; what Deutsch would call a non-holistic, reductive explanation. However, Sloan makes an important point that highlights the limited value of such analyses:

a certain slippage in the categories trope and scheme became inevitable, not simply because rhetoricians were inconsistent in their use of terms but because well-constructed discourse reflects a fusion of structure and texture. One is virtually indistinguishable from the other (Sloan 3).

In other words, the figures cannot usefully be extracted or abstracted from the context as outlined in Diagram 1.2. Sloan summarises these point as follows:

a modern rhetorician would insist that the figures, like all the elements of rhetoric, reflect and determine not only the conceptualizing processes of the speaker’s mind but also an audience’s potential response. For all these reasons figures of speech are crucial means of examining the transactional nature of discourse (Sloan 3).

The notion of a transaction (a two-way process) brings us back to the central argument of my thesis: that the primary motivation of seventeenth- and eighteenth century musicians was communication (an end outside or beyond itself) rather than self-expression (an end in itself), with the aim (the conclusion or settlement of the transaction) of arousing the passions of the audience.

If we accept that the most important attribute of a performer is good judgement or good taste, then the perspective of (modern) rhetoric is of undeniable use in the study of performance practice because it provides a rational or logical framework for discussing value judgements. Quantz clearly accepted this, not only in his discussion of good execution, but also in the important final chapter of the Versuch—‘How a musician and a musical composition are to be judged’—which deals with forms and styles.

Rhetroic and music: music as eloquence

One of the assumptions of this thesis, one that was dominant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is that the ancient Greeks were correct in their belief that music plays a fundamental role in society because of its power to have a direct effect upon the soul and actions of mankind. This presupposes that music possesses a content beyond its purely musical syntax and structure, and that that content is describable in emotive terms. This is itself based on the view, first discussed by Plato and Aristotle, that music ‘imitates’ or ‘represents’ the characters and passionate tones of men with the aim of arousing such passions in the listener.

René Descartes, in the very first sentence of his Compendium Musicæ (written in 1618 but not published until 1656), actually defines music in these terms:

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

So for Descartes, music has the same primary function as rhetoric.

[Descartes and his French contemporaries were Aristotelians—this reflects a shift of emphasis back to primary rhetoric in seventeenth-century France. The English and German emphasis at this time was on secondary rhetoric.]

But musicians and theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and, indeed, those of earlier periods) saw parallels between rhetoric and music on the secondary or decorative level as well: the level that includes musical syntax and structure. In Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636), Marin Mersenne, a friend and correspondent of Descartes, states that:

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 and writing counterpoint will not be second to rhetoric.

This view was still current at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and, if anything, had become more widely accepted. Michel de Saint Lambert, in Les principes du clavecin (Paris, 1702), states that an oration actually imitates a piece of music, that music is more naturally rhetorical than speech. It should be noted that Saint Lambert’s treatise is not a philosophical work (like those of Descartes and, to a large extent, of Mersenne), but a practical handbook aimed at beginner harpsichordists. His argument occurs in Chapter 8—‘Concerning the signs that indicate metre and tempo’—the type of chapter one would find in any music primer today that aimed to teach the student how to read music. By making the analogy with rhetoric, Saint Lambert is assuming his readers already have a grasp of that discipline.

A piece of music somewhat resembles a piece of rhetoric [une Pièce d’Éloquence], or rather it is the piece of rhetoric which resembles the piece of music.