Of Pavans & Potatoes: Elocutio [Prattica di Retorica in Musica 3]

In a development I had not anticipated, this is now the third post inspired by an April Fools’ Day joke, for which I faked up the title page of an imaginary Baroque treatise on The Practice of Rhetoric in Music. It started me thinking…. Why can we not find such a book amongst historical sources? What would it say, if we could find it? Could I write it myself?

I don’t know if my unicorn-hunt will one day lead to an actual book, but after thinking about Inventio and Dispositio, my mind turned inevitably towards the third of the Canons of Rhetoric, Elocutio (style). And as a gesture of sprezzatura (elegant casualness, being ‘cool’), I departed from the previous style of titles. You might well have expected a Pavan, and I couldn’t resist a favourite line of Shakespeare:

Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’

(The Merry Wives of Windsor V v). The ballad of Greensleeves is sung to the Passy-measure Pavin (Twelfth Night V i, but you knew that already). And I hope this citation is not too, hmm, let me say ‘salty’: circa 1600, potatoes were considered to be an aphrodisiac.

 

Potatoes in Gerard’s (1597) “Herbal”

 

Elocutio

 

This article is written for you to read, but I could have recorded it as a podcast or video-clip, and I could even have sung it to you. Music itself is a style of elocution. Once the choice is made, to Deliver our Material in musical style, historical principles apply. ‘Art’ in the 17th century is not ‘free self-expression’ but a collection of organising principles. And so the Art of Rhetoric is created according to the five Canons, and other organising principles.

The organising principles of Baroque Music are Rhetorical, because Music itself is a Rhetorical Art. Perhaps this is why we don’t have a book on Rhetoric in Music, because there wasn’t any music that was rhetoric-free! Any treatise on Music could justly be re-labelled as dealing with Rhetoric in Music. Any advice about musical Delivery will be advice about Rhetorical performance in music. The sources that we already know are labelled just “about Music” – but we can be utterly confident that everything they say will follow the principles of Rhetoric in Music.

 

Rhetoric in Music throughout all the Canons

 

And since Music is itself Rhetorical, we don’t have to “add Rhetoric”, like some kind of sauce, to our music at the last moment. Rhetoric in Music is not limited to the final canon of Delivery. Rather, a musical work has been created Rhetorically at every stage. The ingredients, the artistic material has been chosen and/or created rhetorically (inventio); and structured rhetorically (dispositio); the musical style (elocutio) has been chosen to suit that material and structure, perhaps prima prattica polyphony for a religious text; or according to the secunda prattica, solo voice and continuo, the stile rappresentativo, for music-drama; or a violin-band in dance-rhythms for a Ballo.

Different genres of music, even different dance-types, reflect different choices of elocutio, and those choices may influence decisions within the next two canons of Rhetoric.

Rhetoric & the memoria of Music

 

Memoria, the process of memorisation or at least deep study, is Rhetorical in music, as it is in any performing art. We memorise material, structure and style: and in Early Music, these are source-based historical elements. We should start from the best available source of the musical material (inventio) , and study the outlines and cross-connections of its structures (dispositio).

And when, as modern-day performers, we memorise some historical elocutio, our understanding of that style will be based on our knowledge of period performance practice. [So we might later have to re-learn the material and update the style, as our knowledge increases with further study]. But we are not instructed to memorise an individual interpretation – those personal choices are made later, in the final canon of Delivery.

Of course, that is a counsel of perfection. For most of us, our study of a new piece is not chronologically ordered and divided into mutually exclusive compartments, according to the sequence of the Canons of Rhetoric. Rather our ideas emerge holistically, as we progress from sight-reading to the profound understanding that comes only after many performances. And sometimes we need to move rapidly from sight-reading to first performance with little time for deep reflection. But it would be an interesting exercise, perhaps for a student working towards an examined performance, to structure one’s study strictly according to the Five Canons.

Nevertheless, it is good discipline within Historically Informed Performance to avoid making choices earlier than needed. That means working from period sources and applying historical principles as far as possible, and only making personal decisions when sources and principles can tell you no more. By this point, the choice should be between options, all of which are historically appropriate: if not, period information and historical principles will aid you in eliminating inappropriate options, before continuing!

Committing an interpretation to memory too early has other risks, too. Spontaneity disappears if a “spontaneous’ treatment is hard-wired into the memorisation. It might be an interesting and appropriate idea to pause before a certain, particularly intense word, perhaps an exclamation, in order’to increase the dramatic effect [approved by ll Corago]. If you memorise the ‘straight’ version, and apply the pause in performance, both performer and audience can feel the effect of an unexpected delay. But if one memorises the delay, it becomes ‘part of the piece’, and there is no longer any spontaneity in it. For the audience too, the effect will be lessened, if not destroyed, because the end result is that memorised material is being delivered ‘straight’, precisely as memorised.

Probably the worst fault in memorisation is to have re-composed the piece, perhaps without careful consideration (perhaps without even noticing!), and to memorise this version, in the self-deluding hope that it would be more ‘spontaneous’, more ‘free’ or ‘better’ than the original.

When some singer tells me that they have memorised Monteverdi’s Lettera Amorosa or the Testo’s role in Combattimento, my heart sinks. Because nearly always, they have not memorised Monteverdi’s score, but rather their own interpretation of it. And their skewed version is by now so hard-wired, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to fix even the most glaring errors during rehearsal. Saddest of all, this ‘personal interpretation’ is almost certain to resemble closely all the other ‘individual’ versions: long notes will be shortened, short notes will be lengthened, rests will be disregarded.

The remedy is to consider Elocutio – style, before Memorising. Afterwards is too late. Perhaps there really is something in the classic ordering of the Canons of Rhetoric!

 

Delivery & Decorum

 

Delivery, both the basic sound (Pronuntatio) and all the accompanying subtleties of Actio (contrasts of tone-colour, gesture, facial expression, body posture and movement, communication of changes in the Four Humours etc), is the pinnacle of the Art of Rhetoric. Here, we may well be inspired to recognise connections with other Arts, arts that are also rhetorical, especially when the principles of those arts confirm one another.

This painstaking attention to conformity of detail is the Rhetorical doctrine of Decorum. In everyday speech, ‘decorum’ is the formal etiquette of social behaviour, doing the appropriate thing in each situation, respecting  the solemnity of certain occasions, sharing hilarity at suitable moments; how to dress, how to behave, how to speak. In Rhetoric, Decorum expresses the concept that every small detail should be suited to, fitting with every other detail and with the overall design.

Decorum is the craftsman’s discipline that the woodworking on the inside, never seen by anyone else, is as fine as the outside work. Decorum is the scientist’s discipline that the smallest discrepancy challenges a hypothesis and can even shift a paradigm. Decorum is the artist’s discipline that every tiny detail must be absolutely right. Decorum is the Historically Informed Performer’s discipline to review every aspect of performance in the light of newly emerging Performance Practice insights.

Decorum is the discipline of Rhetoric.

Certainly it is appropriate to consider parallels between Music and other Rhetorical arts. In particular, we can hope to find links between period sources on Rhetorical speaking – the origin and central meaning of Rhetoric itself – and musical delivery. And we would expect to find devices from spoken Rhetoric already at work in the music we are studying, manners of Rhetorical speech already prescribed in treatises on musical delivery. It would be surprising, even alarming, if this were not the case!

 

Of Pavans

We might recognise the falling tear melody in the first four notes of Dowland’s Lacrime, and see it as an imitation of the gesture of crying (the finger drawing a tear from the eye and down the cheek) that we see in paintings, in literature, and in works on gesture.

 

 

This recognition supports our emotional connection to the music, and would encourage us to show in performance this gesture, or another period gesture of Sorrow, in which the hands are squeezed together as if to force tears from the eyes…

 

 

… and even the appropriate body posture (inward focussed, head inclined, eyes downcast etc).

 

 

This Rhetoric of tears is clearly seen in the music of Lacrime, and we should recognise and support it in aspects of Delivery that go beyond music.

But we do not need to redouble the musical gesture itself. Dowland’s music will not be ‘more expressive’ if we add ‘more descending’, and fall a seventh, rather than a fourth. Rather, this attempt would destroy another part of the musical rhetoric, its harmony, wrecking the composer’s dispositio (harmonic structure) and elocutio (harmonic language).

That example might seem so obvious as to be unncessary. But let me present a parallel case.

We might recognise the slow Pavan tempo of Lacrime, and the long first note as a ‘tear’,  slowly welling up, and gathering speed as it rolls down the cheek in the next two downward directed and faster moving notes. We might see not only the written pitches, but also Dowland’s notated rhythm, as an imitation of the gesture of crying, and link it appopriately to slow hand and body movements, and the slow walk of someone in despair. This would encourage us to enact our gestures and bodily actions, even our eye-movements suitably slowly.

Just as with the written pitches, this Rhetoric of Rhythm is already in the music itself, and we do not need to redouble it musically. Dowland’s music will not be ‘more expressive’ if we add ‘more slowness’ to the general tempo, or use romantic rubato to make this particular tear-gesture last more than a dotted minim. Rather, that attempt would destroy another part of the musical rhetoric, its rhythm, wrecking the composers dispositio (rhythmic structure, i.e. Tactus) and elocutio (rhythmic style, i.e. Pavan movement).

 

 

Of Potatoes

 

Some modern-day experts on Rhetoric correctly identify Rhetorical practices of speech and movement, especially elements of dramatic timing, which can also be heard in music. This is very illuminating and inspiring. But before we gleefully apply these practices to our Delivery, we should rather be concerned, even alarmed: why has the composer not included these Rhetorical elements in his own elocutio?

On closer examination, we might find that they are already there, and should not be added again.

Did you already salt the potatoes, dear?

Or we might find that (for one reason or another) a particular element is not appropriate for this application, but was recommended in the context of another genre, national style, or period.

I’ve salted the potatoes, shall I add salt to the rhubarb too?

If something should be added by performers rather than notated by composers, we can expect to find specific advice in sources on musical performance practice.

 

Research into Potatoes

When I googled “Add salt to potatoes?”, I got an immediate, clear answer:

Salting the water in which you cook starches (pasta, rice, potato) is an effective way of enhancing the flavour of the finished product – boiling starches absorb salt well.

Immediately below this, Google informed me that

People also ask… Why add salt to potatoe water? How much salt do I add to water for potatoes? Should you salt potatoes before frying? What does soaking potatoes in salt water do?”

 

As iconographical evidence, there were three images captioned Salt Potatoes.

 

 

And the links below went “Salt your potato-water“, “Why is it important to put salt…” and so on to the bottom of the page.

From this, I quickly deduce that potatoes are not grown ‘ready salted’, and that salt should indeed be added by the cook, later in the process. I did track down one outlier recommendation for the waiter to salt them just before serving, but this was for roast spuds anyway. The vast majority of sources recommended adding salt to the cold water before boiling.

 

Confutatio

 

As Historically Informed Performers, we should take at least this much care, not to over-season our music with salty Rhetoric. We should check if this particular Rhetorical flavouring has already been composed-in. If not, we should check if our favourite flavouring is truly appropriate. And we should check that it is we (performers), who are expected to add it.

We learn good taste in music from the ‘cookery books’ of historical treatises. And those treatises are already applying Rhetorical principles. So we should be highly sceptical, if we feel the need to add some piece of Rhetoric which is neither notated nor mentioned in musical treatises.

And if that piece of Rhetorical Delivery would damage some other element of Rhetorical structure, of dispositio, we should not add it. We would not paint the exterior of a renaissance cathedral with some brightly-coloured paint that had the side-effect of dissolving stonework, especially not if our decorative inspiration comes from pre-raphelite wallpaper!

Yes, this is a strongly-worded confutatio! But we have plenty of treatises on music. If your beloved ‘rhetorical’ practice is historical and appropriate to music, it will be manifest either in composition or performance practice. Certainly it will not be contradicted by period performance practice instructions.

 

Consensus

 

Of course, there are grey areas, and difficult questions where sources (even within one period and culture) genuinely differ. But my example of salt potatoes was deliberately basic, and my Google search can be imitated in scholarly investigation. We should first look at obvious, well-known sources, and see if we can find an overwhelming consensus.

One of the problems of today’s Early Music is that specialist experts discuss abstruse corners of the field so passionately, examining exceptional cases and outlier opinions (in both primary and secondary sources), with the result that historically informed (but non-specialist) musicians and mainstream performers can easily lose sight of standard period practice and the overwhelming historical consensus.

There is such a consensus amongst historical sources regarding rhythm. “Tactus is the Soul of Music.

In Rhetorical terms, Tactus is part of the Dispositio of music. In choosing mensural music as his Elocutio, a composer has nailed his Rhetorical colours to the mast of Tactus. It is certainly true that Rhetorical speech varies the syllabic pace according to the Affekt, and takes time for structual clarity (punctuation) and dramatic effect. Baroque composers notate this, using Tactus as the measure of Time.

Seicento Recitative notates the dramatic timing of 17th-century theatrical delivery. Peri and Il Corago tell us quite clearly that musica recitativa is modelled on the declamatory delivery of a fine actor in the spoken theatre.  In England, a song-book owned by Samuel Pepys praises Henry Lawes’ precision in notating in music the timing effects of Rhetorical punctuation.

No pointing Comma, Colon, halfe so well
Renders the Breath of Sense; they cannot tell
The just Proportion how each word should go,
To rise and fall, run swiftly or march slow;
Thou shew’st ’tis Musick only must do this …

[From Edmund Waller’s dedicatory poem to Lawes of 1635, reprinted in Henry Lawes, Ayres and Dialogues, for One, Two, and Three Voyces (London: Printed by T. H. for
John Playford, 1653)]

For precision notation of rhetorical timing in Shakespeare’s To be or not to be, see ‘Tis Master’s Voice: A Seventeenth-Century Shakespeare Recording?  in Shakespeare & Emotions (2015).

 

Peroratio

 

In the search for Rhetorical eloquence in our music-making, the appropriate Elocutio will have Decorum. It will be consistent with the material (inventio) and its musical organisation (dispositio). It will also be consistent with what we read of Pronutatio and Actio in musical sources. Where other arts inspire us with examples of Good Delivery, we should expect to find that their Rhetoric is already in our Music.

We should consider whether Rhetorical elements have already been built-in by the composer, before we assume that we should bolt them on as performers. We should test our proposed translation of ‘foreign’ Rhetorical elements (from other arts) against what we already know in music’s ‘native tongue’.

The Practice of Rhetoric in Music is already written, in period treatises on the Practice of Music.

It is wonderful that we can use other Rhetorical arts to fill gaps in our musical knowledge, and to inspire passion in our musical practice. But the Rhetorical discipline of Decorum requires that we remain wary against introducing any contradiction.

For this reason, I do not acccept the argument that ‘Rhetoric’ is a valid reason for abandoning all that we know about Tactus and Rhythm in baroque music. On the contrary, if Harmony is Music’s shapely Body, and Text is her Mind, then Tactus is the Soul of Musical Rhetoric.

 

 

PS
About those potatoes – the Folger Shakespeare Library re-created a c1700 recipe for Potato Pie. It does not use salt!

 

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