Seckendorff, alias Peale

Is speaking a kind of singing? Are we talking tunes?

The common sense answer is: evidently not. Music — most music at least — has fixed pitches, pitches that make up a scale. If we speak of ‘speech melody’, we’re simply using the word ‘melody’ in a broader sense.

Seckendorff shows the expression belonging to a toothache (after a drawing by Wilhelm Tischbein).
Seckendorff shows the expression belonging to a toothache (after a drawing by J.H.W. Tischbein).

Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff was not a common sense man. Seckendorff thought that speech too has its scale, though with much smaller intervals. Singing is a kind of speaking, but louder, and in the effort of producing volume we loose the finer pitch distinctions of speech. In fact, all speech is a kind of music – he called it ‘the concert on the musical scale of speech’.

This allows us, Seckendorff thought, to bridge the gap between speaking and singing. He demonstrated this by declaiming poems to his own piano accompaniment, producing a kind of speech-song, or rather song-speech.

Seckendorff was active as a professional declaimer around 1810, when a fashion for declamation was reaching its peak in Germany. Many actors were touring around with programmes of poetry and drama, performing in musical concerts, or in their own ‘declamatoria’. Seckendorff was not an actor, but a dropout government official, and acting was not considered a suitable profession for a Freiherr. This may explain why he performed under a stage name, Patrik Peale, though it doesn’t explain why it should be an English one. (It may have something to do with his earlier visit to America.)

In the same period flourished a very peculiar fashion for mime, living statues, and tableaux vivants. Here too Seckendorff went along (or took the lead), showing himself and his family members on stage in such compositions as Christ Praying on the Mount of Olives and A Father Protecting His Child from the Attack by a Wild Animal. It must have looked rather like a ghostly cabinet of living wax figures.

If Seckendorff is remembered nowadays, it is mostly for his two volumes (plus appendix) of Lectures on Declamation and Mime (1816). These are clearly indebted to the rhetorical tradition, with its cultivation of speech and gesture (or body language), as well as to the study of paintings. The images (in the appendix) show various kinds of facial expressions and postures, ranging from a ‘toothache’ to ‘false admiration’.

As for the problems of speaking and singing — and the broader issues of language and music (what are they? how do they relate?) — these cannot be resolved with common sense alone. Unfortunately, where Seckendorff departs from common sense, his ideas tend to be crackpot rather than constructive. But the few available biographical data were intriguing — and as I delved into period journalism and the memoires of contemporaries, I discovered that the story of his life was well worth telling.*

*Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff, alias Patrik Peale: A Biographical Note
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