Rhetoric, Music, Exactitude

Giuseppe Carpani, writing about Haydn’s symphonies in 1812:

You find in it, as in orations by Cicero, almost all rhetorical figures applied; among them are gradatio, antitheton, dubitatio, isocolon, repetitio, congeries, epilogus, synonymia, suspensio; but very special is his usage of reticentia and aposiopesis, which, when used in one of his incomparable fast movements, create a marvelous effect.

The point? That you could listen to Haydn’s music and apply rhetorical figures/topics to it. For example, in a speech, to practice aposiopesis is when “a speaker comes to an abrupt halt, seemingly overcome by passion (fear, excitement, etc.) or modesty” (via). It’s not hard to imagine hearing something similar in music, which makes sense, since they’re both fundamentally aural arts.

Ok, fine. This kind of analysis could go on forever, applied to pretty much whatever music you wanted to. And when these figures were being actively taught to pretty much everyone educated in Europe in the 16th-18th centuries, it makes sense to assume that composers were purposefully using them (as, for example Ursula Kirkendale demonstrates in really, really deep detail in her reading of Bach’s Musical Offering).

But still: so what? I’m deeply interested in overlaps between music and rhetoric, as I’ve been telling people over and over since I decided on a dissertation topic. But I’m not really interested in this kind of thing, beyond a casual, “Oh! Interesting point!” It’s so detail-driven, so focused on a clever critic finding example after example of an obscure rhetorical figure with a Latin name in a measure of music.

That’s why I’m drawn to my project of speaking with composers instead of texts. I want to know in looser, more expressive terms how they want their work to be experienced by audiences, and what choices they made that make those purposes possible. That puts the composer in the driver’s seat, seconded closely by the reaction of the audience–and with me, the critic, sitting back in the distance to try to understand that interaction. It feels more honoring, more listening instead of speaking. I like that.

Still, that doesn’t mean I think the figures/topics are worthless. I mean, I did at first, when I first encountered them in a graduate class. But I changed my mind when I heard how that professor teaches them to students: as possible ways to frame a text when nothing is coming to mind, when you need a jumpstart to suggest ways of approaching a problem in a way that will work best for an audience. In other words, as inventional tools. But what inventional tools do today’s composers use? Surely not ones with rhetorical bases and Latin names, right?


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