Terms of Expression

I’m always intrigued by the differences between various languages, words that exist in one language, but not in another. For example, the German word konsequent does not have a direct equivalent in English. Consistent, self-consistent, responsible, reliable, accepting the future consequences of one’s present actions – these are some of the areas of meaning, but there is no single English word that fully conveys the significance konsequent has for German-speakers.

But in English we do have a word – inconsequent – that neatly conveys the opposite: ‘not connected or following logically”. I think the absence of an English word for the positive qualities of konsequent says something about the respective national characters!

Within one language, words also change their meanings with time. A favourite example is the Duke of Wellington’s comment after the battle of Waterloo in 1815: “It has been a damned nice thing”. Of course, he didn’t mean that it was a pleasant occasion, with a good time had by all, as ‘nice’ would suggest today. His next words clarify the period meaning: “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”. The earlier meaning of ‘nice’ is preserved in the modern phrase ‘a nice distinction’ – a subtle, fine distinction.

Meanings that change over time and words that are missing from certain cultures warn us to be careful when considering how emotions might be expressed in music of the past. Most of today’s standard terms for musical expression – mezzo piano, legato, rubato etc – are not found in early 17th-century notation, and are not part of the artistic discourse of the time. We no longer think that this means Monteverdi’s music was performed without expressive subtlety: we’ve moved on from mid-20th century theories of Terassendynamik. But clearly, in the 17th-century expression was being notated and discussed in different terms.

One practical consequence of our Text, Rhythm, Action! research is that we try to use appropriate period vocabulary in rehearsal discussion and for coaching notes. Our intention is to match artistic priorities in rehearsal to those of the original performers. But this presents an immediate challenge: the word ‘expression’ itself is conspicuously absent from early texts. This certainly does not mean that Monteverdi’s  music was inexpressive: the primary aim of 17th-century music was muovere gli affetti, to move the passions. But we can draw some nice distinctions between ‘expressing emotion’ and ‘moving the passions’.

In both Italian and English versions, the 17th-century term for emotion is plural: affetti, passions. Rather than steadily intensifying one emotion, they wanted to move between contrasting passions. So modern-day performers and directors might find it more effective to work on emotional contrasts, rather than simply looking for more intensity.

And the phrase ‘moving the passions’ begs the question: whose passions? The audience’s, of course. This puts a completely different spin on the whole business of emotions in performance. The 17th-century priority is to move the audience’s passions, whereas the romantic & modern term ‘expression’ focusses on what the performer does. The period term directs our attention away from the process and towards the desired outcome.

At the end of century, the distinction is made explicit in Brady’s 1692 Ode to St Cecilia, set by Henry Purcell, who himself sang the counter-tenor aria. Music is ‘Nature’s voice’, the ‘mighty art … at once the passions to express and move’. Beyond  expressing your feelings, music’s primary aim is to move the audience’s passions.

This – as the Duke of Wellington might say – is a damned nice thing. It’s a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference. Baroque music privileges the audience: it’s about moving their passions with ever-changing contrasts, not about a performer expressing his or her emotion.

Historically informed performance should encourage us to move beyond the selfishness of self-expression. Performers of baroque music, unlike Method actors, do not need to find their personal motivation before they can sing or play a certain phrase. It’s about the audience’s passions, not about your emotion.

And the clear structures of 17th-century texts and music are not some kind of obstacle threatening to block your personal involvement with the material – they are the elegantly designed framework, the beautifully crafted box in which to deliver passionate persuasion to your audience. In particular, performers should maintain the high priority of structured rhythm alongside the first priority of communicating the text and its passions to the audience.

If we take all this seriously, much of our rehearsal vocabulary and training commentary for early music should change. We should stop asking performers to ‘be more expressive’, and instead empower them to persuade their audience to feel the changing passions structured into the original work.

theatre-palais-cardinal Louis XIII

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.



3 thoughts on “Terms of Expression

  1. Pingback: Three ways to make Early Music more expressive (And is there a ‘true way’?) | Andrew Lawrence-King

  2. Pingback: Technique & Terminology (The Cremona papers: John McKean) | Andrew Lawrence-King

  3. Pingback: Technique (The Cremona papers: John McKean) | Andrew Lawrence-King

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