Music and Rhetoric at Padua

It’s been a while since my last post but I have no intention of adopting what is now an almost stereotypical attitude of apologetic resignation. I’ve been otherwise busy. Instead I intend to remedy my inattention with a slightly longer posting than usual! The last few months of research have been occupied with the question of emotion and music in preparation for the forthcoming joint conference of the Musicological Society of Australia and the International Conference on Music and Emotion entitled the Power of Music to be held in Perth, Australia, 30 November to 3 December 2011. After heading off in several directions including constructivist theories of emotion, psychological theories of emotion and the philosophy of emotion – the last of which proved to exude an irresistible attraction that nonetheless was leading me off in the “wrong direction” – my research arrived at both a surprising but in some ways not unexpected position that has blossomed into a conference paper and promises to be an avenue of further enquiry. Most of what follows isn’t in my paper, but serves to preface some interesting details.

The work of two historians immediately attracted my interest when beginning this project on music and emotions. Barbara Rosenwein’s Emotional Communities of the Early Middle Ages (Cornell, 2006) provides an excellent introduction to the history of emotions. It’s obligatory that one reads William Reddy’s The Navigation of Feeling (Cambridge, 2004) immediately after finishing Rosenwein, although the first half of his book contains some detailed prose on anthropological and psychological theories of emotion that often leaves the historian wishing for more historical examples. But I survived. An important term Reddy coins is “emotives”, that is statements or utterances – including non-verbal utterances – that are not simply descriptions of emotions but which can provoke responses in listeners. (Note my circumlocution here: Reddy seems consciously to avoid slipping into using heavily value laden terms like “affect”.) Rosenwein adopts Reddy’s term while rejecting his (somewhat Foucauldian) idea of emotional regimes, which he uses in relation to his research on emotion in the ancien regime, revolutionary, and post-revolutional society in late 18th-century France. Instead, she coins the term “emotional communities” to describe emotional groups whose members share similar modes of emotional expression or “emotives”. Rosenwein goes on to demonstrate how certain communities in early medieval Europe use emotives in their monuments and documents (the primary sources of a historian), and that these groups might be distinguished from one another on the basis of the presence or absence of these emotional expressions. Although we might ask whether emotions constitute the only force by which a community’s vocabulary is shaped and whether we risk falling into circular reasoning when we interpret the past in this this way (emotives are seldom black-and-white in their meaning and intent), her framework for an enquiry into the history of emotions is a persuasive one, but one that even she admits will develop and be challenged over time. Last and not least, I very much enjoyed reading this book!

So where does this leave me when dealing with emotions and music? Reddy provides an tantalising lead when he discusses non-verbal emotional signals (106). Although he is referring to facial expressions, gestures and vocal intonations, the step from these forms of expression, especially the last, to musical expression is an obvious one. How large this step is is bound to elicit debate depending on your position on whether or not music is able to represent specific ideas or not (Hello, music philosophy). On the other hand, anyone with the slightest notion of the significance of the “linguistic turn” in anthropology and the humanities (or with a good dose of Wittgenstein), will consider the possibility that how we frame the world in speech, how we verbally conceptualise the world and its phenomena, has a obvious bearing on how we conceptualise or indeed “preceptualise” non-linguistic utterances and actions.

This – with a few steps of reasoning cut out for convenience – leads me to rhetoric, not in the vague, largely meaningless sense that is often employed in everyday speech, eg. “that’s just idle rhetoric” or “spare me the rhetoric”, but in the sense of a set of precepts (rules) and practices (effective delivery) learnt by youths for the purpose of endowing their public speaking (oratory) with qualities of elegance and dignity. (I will leave the moral imperative of rhetoric aside for the moment.) Rhetoric’s connection to music is well known in the case of later repertoires of European music especially after c.1500. As an undergraduate a little more than 20 years ago, I learnt about movements like the Florentine Camerata, which emphasised the affective intonation of sung texts, or German Baroque musicians like Johannes Matheson, who explicitly linked rhetoric and music. However, few at that time dared to use rhetoric in relation to earlier musical repertoires.

Rhetoric’s precepts from its very earliest days recognise the importance of emotion in persuasive speech. One of its earliest formulations is Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Aristotle realises that not every argument can be won by logic alone, although he holds logic to be the superior mode of disputation. Other modes of persuasion, which can prove more effective and therefore economical than logic, are appeals to the character of a person and most importantly appeals to emotion. Appeals to character run along the lines of “All law-abiding citizens agree that the accused has committed a heinous crime”, while appeals to emotions might take the form: “Does it not sadden you to see the desecration of our city’s monuments, in those places our families once frequented in joyful celebration of our prosperity?” The first statement requires you, as a law-abiding citizen, to compare your character to that of another (which is sometimes a risky tactic if a listener happens to not respect or be bound by the law). The second asks a listener to respond to emotional prompts provided by the speaker. Instead of reasoning (eg. it costs the state and therefore taxpayers to clean up or replace graffitied monuments), we instead feel slighted through the loss of a natural state of human emotional existence, happiness. Now these are just my own examples (one of them paraphrases a part of successful argument Cicero gave in the prosecution of a corrupt Roman governor in 63 BC), but you get the gist. Due to the effectiveness of appealing to emotions in oratory, Aristotle devotes a considerable amount of space in his Rhetoric to classifying a long list of different emotions so that budding orators might better employ references to these emotions in their speeches.

Aristotle was not alone in his interest in rhetoric. Then again Aristotle seemed to be interested in just about everything! But the most influential writings about rhetoric in the middle ages were those written by Roman authors. Cicero didn’t ever attempt a complete manual of rhetoric, but did write no less than four treatises dealing with various topics in rhetoric. By far the most important of these in terms of its historical reception was his De inventione. The Rhetorica Ad Herennium – a text that was long thought to be by Cicero until Erasmus of Rotterdam demonstrated it could not be (Lorenzo Valla suspected earlier that it wasn’t Cicero’s) – also proved to be highly influential in the late middle ages. Other Latin treatises remained lost or fragmentary until the early 15th century: most of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (save for parts of Books 1, 2, and 9) and important sections of Cicero’s De oratore were unknown for medieval readers – save for any curious monks at St Gall and Lodi – until 1416 and 1421 respectively.

Despite the survival of the Ad Herennium, the medieval interest in rhetoric – with the exception of “sporadic” outbursts in the 12th century – was largely confined to what it had to offer for the art of letter writing and to a lesser extent the art of preaching. Only towards the end of the fourteenth century do we see a renewed interest in oratory at Padua in northern Italy. Already Padua had witnessed a growing interest in “restoring” Latin to its classical roots from the end of the thirteenth century. Notaries Lovato dei Lovati and Alberto Mussato in particular had sought to write prose and poetry that adopted to greater or lesser degrees of success the style of Cicero or Vergil respectively. (Ronald Witt has examined this movement and the development of humanist Latinity in this book In the Footsteps of the Ancients.) But Pier Paolo Vergerio (the Elder) was the first to demonstrate his skill in public oratory in Padua at the end of the 14th century. The skillful use of rhetorical precepts like figures of speech and periodic sentence structures is readily apparent in his speeches. Vergerio also uses his Latin to express ideas in a way that was not possible in Italian or Venetian, for example with regard to colours but also emotions. The late Michael Baxandall, one of the twentieth-century’s most well-known art historians, has already observed this phenomenon in his Giotto and the Orators. One example that Baxandall gives concerns the colour black. In Italian, we might use nero for black. But in Classical Latin, there is a choice of niger or ater, meaning “shiny black” and “midnight black” respectively. Thus Latin is able to provide a more nuanced description of “black”. In terms of emotions, Latin has several unique words like delicia, voluptas, oblectamen, desiderium, libido/lubido which express various degrees of pleasure ranging from sensual pleasure (“delicia”), to sensual or spiritual pleasure (“voluptas”, “oblectamen”) to “sexual” pleasure (“libido/lubido”). Latin rhetoric thus teaches one to describe the world in a different way compared to one’s mother tongue, instilling the student of rhetoric with whole set of precepts by which to form orations, and just as importantly, to judge orations.

Aside from different modes of persuasion, rhetorical theory also holds that certain figures of speech served as figures of pathos, that is figures that possessed the potential for emotive impact. Such figures have the capacity to move the mind (and possibly soul) of a listener. We call this internal motion “emotion”. (The ancient taxonomy of “emotion” is a detailed topic which I can’t treat here.) One of the simplest of figures of pathos was the repetition of a word or a phrase. Under normal circumstances, repetition in oratory was explicitly discouraged. Indeed it was considered immoral! But certain forms of repetition were permitted on account of their effectiveness. For example, a significant word might be repeated, eg. “You incited the riots, yes, riots!” The author of the Ad Herennium sums up the effect of this sort of repetition upon the listen: it is as if the words are a weapon striking the same wound again and again: a colourful image from a by-gone age of hand-to-hand combat and gladiatorial contests!

But what if rhetorical precepts also informed late medieval music? Was there a “rhetoric of music” already by the beginning of the 14th century, especially in those quarters where Latin rhetoric was held up as the ideal form of expression? If so, did composers seek to manipulate their musical materials in conjunction with sung text in ways that might betray rhetorical “thinking” in terms of figures of speech and period structures? In short, I believe that the answer to all these questions is “yes” but only to the extent that music is able to connect itself to various textual and contextual meanings. By contextual meanings I have in mind either the situation in which a new composition was performed or how the composer attempted to manipulate his musical materials in ways that conformed to held ideas about music, eg. the ethical nature of modes.

For my paper, I have decided to focus how one composition from c.1406 – if you accept David Fallows’s argument for this date – might be viewed from the basis of rhetorical precepts, especially those which are linked to emotional expression or to use Reddy’s term, emotives. The song is Johannes Ciconia’s Con lagreme bagnandome el viso, whose emotive text made it an obvious choice for this project. The rest of my discussion will have to wait until after I present at the conference, when I also hope to report on my experiences there.

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