Rhetoric in the Performance of Baroque Music

Rhetoric in the Performance of Baroque Music is an article by the musicologist Uri Golomb. After one of my conversations with Elizabeth Blumenstock, she forwarded me a link to this article. The TL;DR is "Rhetoric: not as straightforward to apply to baroque music as you thought." The connection between baroque musicking and rhetoric - the art of persuasion - is undeniable. That said, the exact nature of that connection is a fertile ground for disagreement, and this article serves as a great introduction to some different schools of thought.

as before, this special indent indicates when I'm recapping or paraphrasing Golomb.

...and the lack of indent indicates when I'm adding my own thoughts. Let's get to it!

Uri Golomb: Rhetoric

HIP musicians from Bruce Haynes to Gustav Leonhardt to Nikolaus Harnoncourt agree that one of the aesthetic ideals of baroque music is rhetoric - the analogy to persuasive speech. While observers and outsiders seem more interested in analyzing the "How" - size of forces, instrument types, pitch levels and temperaments - this aesthetic ideal of rhetoric - the "Why" - has received a lot of attention within the HIP movement and has even sparked controversy.

There's not a lot of meat to this introduction and frankly it's tough to follow - Golomb touches on a number of subjects that could be the subject of scholarly articles but doesn't settle on "Controversy regarding Rhetoric" until the very end of the section. I'm glad this is the subject we're settling on, though, and I expect the rest of this article will be meaty indeed.

Figurenlehre: Rhetoric as semantics

The early treatise writers described the acts of composing and performing music using the vocabulary of vocal rhetoric. In the late 19th century, romantic musicologists such as Kretzschmar, Schering, Schmitz, and Unger began assembling a Figurenlehre, a kind of dictionary of musical "figures" and their corresponding meanings. With the knowledge of the meanings of these figures, an educated audience member would comprehend the music on a different level.

I follow but immediately potential problems spring to mind. I haven't seen these Figurenlehre but if it's how I imagine ("the note sequence A-C-B-A indicates pensiveness") this seems like a good idea that is absolutely doomed by the complexity of different situations and settings any musical figure will find itself in - differing tempos, emphases, tonalities, instrumentations, dynamics, etc all would seem to subtly or drastically change the basic meaning. 

This system was enshrined as an orthodoxy by the mid-20th century, which corresponded with a vogue for an emotionally-detached, objective performance style for baroque music, encouraged by Schering. The reasoning was that music that was so imbued with hidden symbolism and explicit meaning shouldn't be disturbed by the whims of a performer. The other point of view, that it was the job of the musician not the musicologist to illuminate these meanings, was exemplified by Albert Schweitzer.

This is about to get juicy, and we'll dive into some audio samples in a minute. I have to say, though, that the emotionally-detached, objective performance style is very much alive and well. At many points during my conservatory training and carrying forward into my professional career, I've been given directions such as "Let the music speak for itself" and "Don't do too much" and "This music should line up like clockwork." A musical example: Helmuth Rilling (noted critic of HIP in general) directing the opening chorale of Bach's Cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns due Stimme.

I'm not going to judge an entire style - different people like different things - and any style can be done well or poorly. From a purely personal standpoint, though, it is a lot more rewarding to concern myself with conveying emotions and meanings than it is to concern myself with being together and balanced.

Some members of the early HIP movement consciously rebelled against the trend for objective style. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, for example, was fully in support of the "Rhetoric as Semantics" position of the Figurenlehre but followed in Schweitzer's footsteps in terms of conveying meanings through performance. Not everyone in the movement followed the same path, however. Joshua Rifkin, for example, cast doubt on the entire concept of Figurenlehre and belittled performances that "milk every little gesture for all it's worth."

Musical examples, please! With Helmuth Rilling's precision and dispassion in our ears, let's hear Harnoncourt's take on the same movement from Bach's Cantata 140:

The contrasts are everywhere, and the article will get into some of the specifics later, but listen to the big picture - for lack of a better term, there is content to this performance. There is an urgency to communicate something, and decisions have been made which (if executed poorly) could have endangered the overall precision in favor of this communicative content. What was even and regular from Rilling is shapely and unpredictable from Harnoncourt.

And as for Joshua Rifkin... I need to look more into his philosophy, because I've only encountered it in the context of his contrarian views in relation to other HIP musicians. The impression is somewhat of a killjoy, and the refrains of "that's not historically supported" and "you've gone to all this trouble to arrive at a conclusion which is just common sense," is a bit of a wet blanket on the whole concept of investigating history with the aim of enriching current music making - the search for Haynes's "serendipity." I'm ready and willing to be convinced otherwise, but that is my impression for now. This impression is backed up, to my ears, by this recording of our favorite Bach Cantata movement:

The performance is on period instruments and includes some nods to beat hierarchy but I would put the spirit of this performance much closer to Rilling than to Harnoncourt. There is a reluctance to "do too much" and the result is a bit constrained and careful.

Rhetoric as Speech

Some HIP musicians acknowledge the weaknesses of the Figurenlehre "rhetoric as semantics" camp but unlike Rifkin also acknowledge the insights a rhetorical approach can give to baroque performance. These performers take a more pragmatic approach that Golomb refers to as "Rhetoric as Speech." The key here is simply to perform as if speaking - individual words have emphases placed on certain syllables, and tempo, cadence, and emphasis rise and fall organically as would a paragraph - according to the tensions and directions of a particular phrase. This highly-detailed work, particularly in the area of articulation, tends to give performances in this style a comparatively "chopped up" effect, and this attention to words tends to suppress effects like long-term crescendi or rubato. Strangely enough, the same could be said of Rilling-esque "objective" style - in both approaches, large-scale gestures are minimized, but in Rhetoric as Speech, the surface teems with rubato, dynamic inflection, and variety of articulation - elements which are generally absent in objective style.

Let's return to our buddy Bruce Haynes (performing the oboe solo in Bach Cantata #187 under Gustav Leonhardt) for a quintessential example of "Rhetoric as Speech" but first set him up with Helmuth Rilling in the same piece:

That is very fine modern oboe playing, with beautiful tone and technical assurance. Let's now hear a speech-based rhetorical performance:

This is one of my favorite examples of this style of performance - nearly every single note has something interesting going on with the attack, the sustain, and the end. The rubato, on a surface level, is near-constant. Overall, it is almost difficult to believe that these two recordings are of the same piece of music.

Rhetoric as Speech and Rhetoric as Semantics: A Comparison between Harnoncourt and Leonhardt

The two contrasting approaches to musical rhetoric, Semantic and Speech-based, are exemplified by comparing Nikolaus Harnoncourt (in the Semantic camp) and Gustav Leonhardt (Speech), particularly in their later careers. Harnoncourt becomes more and more "interventionist" with frequent local use of legato and more overt dynamics in the service of semantic meaning. 

Golomb titles this section "A comparison between Harnoncourt and Leonhardt" but then goes on to describe Harnoncourt pretty much exclusively. I think he's a fan. It's a bit difficult to find recordings of Leonhardt and Harnoncourt on the same piece, so apologies for that, but let's refresh our ears with some very typical Leonhardt (no crazy Bruce Haynes oboe extravaganza in this one)...

This is the aria "Gesegnete Christen, glückselige Herde" from Cantata 184. There is pleasant back and forth with strong and weak beats, and the whole thing has a "sprung" and alertly communicative quality. The quick notes from 0:14 to 0:20 build up a nice momentum which is elegantly released by a subtle hold up at the end of the run before going on its merry way.

And now for Harnoncourt. Here is the famous chorus "Zion hört die Wächter singen" from Cantata 140:

The Harnoncourt trademarks are here in abundance - the little phraselets at the beginning, so similar to those neatly demarcated by Leonhardt, seem to reach towards each other. At the repeat of the phrase from 0:08 to 0:14, the dynamic hushes and the phrases very nearly connect. Then we have the clearly-defined contrasts between the legato and the separated. My favorite little detail is the odd little kick to the last note of a group in 0:31, which leads to a graceful conclusion of the phrase. These details mean something to Harnoncourt, in a semantic sense, but the exact meaning is probably less important than the fact that it is there.

Rhetoric and Polyphony

Harnoncourt discusses something rarely touched upon buy HIP musicians: that rhetoric as it pertains to speaking is concerned with a single voice, but that musical rhetoric often deals with polyphony - that is, multiple independent voices being heard simultaneously. Rather than simply prioritizing harmony (which would lead to flat individual voices concerned only with matching the others), or polyphony (which would lead to a confusion of peaks and valleys as different voices rise and fall without regard for each other), it should be possible to realize each voice in a rhetorical way, while maintaining awareness for the others. This can create some internal tension in the music, which should be embraced as a characteristic of a dialogue.

This is pretty great - I particularly like the expansion of the idea of rhetoric from simply oration to a dramatic scene - a dialog. After all, when more than one voice is heard in conversation, rarely are both voices simply agreeing with each other - points are considered and then interrupted by contrasting points, and this energy of dialog can translate beautifully into polyphonic music. Let's return to an earlier sound clip - this is Harnoncourt in Cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns due Stimme:

From the beginning to 0:16, we have a rather polite exchange of words. Then in 0:17, the strings start getting very animated, the oboes suddenly become standoffish, and the basses, perhaps worried about a fight about to break out, start scurrying around, "calm down, break it up, calm down!" The violins continue their animation, with dynamics strongly matching the shape of their line, the oboes independently laying down suspensions, until finally the bass seems to get everyone back in line in the nick of time for a unified cadence at 0:31.

It's not necessary to be able to pick all of this up - it took me multiple listens - but the fact that there is dialog between different personalities enriches the performance and gives it layers and texture. And, yes, a tinge of uncertainty and drama. Rifkin, in comparison, seems stripped of that drama:

This is an excellent performance, and it would be completely understandable to gravitate towards a performance such as this, but to my ears I miss that drama that Harnoncourt found - with Rifkin there is never any doubt that all the musicians are safely together and interlocking perfectly to come together for that perfectly lovely cadence. 

Summary: Rhetoric and Humanisation

The influence of rhetoric on historically-informed performance, whether semantic- or speech-based, has lent a human face to music which was previously considered unapproachable, forbidding, and almost superhuman in its perfection. Now, HIP musicians are pushing rhetorical application into the 19th century, the era of romanticism. The idea that rhetorical traditions continued and coexisted with the newer romantic impulse, peacefully or otherwise, is leading to new insights into the musical content of the great romantic masterworks.

Besides being a seeming teaser for another article on romantic rhetoric, that pretty much sums up the article. Thanks for reading!

Source: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Rhet...