Musical Quotation Marks

‘Quotation’ is one of several terms that have been applied to music by analogy with their earlier linguistic usage (terms such as ‘sentence’, ‘period’, and ‘syntax’). In both music and language, some item ‘…’ is recognized as a replica or duplicate of its source.

It’s a special case of borrowing. Borrowing is something we do all the time, unavoidably: from other speakers, and from the common domain of language itself. Both language and music are replete with patterns (expressions, phrases, idioms, clichés, schemas). The borders between such patterns, quotations, and original inventions are often unclear. ‘Replete with patterns’ is, as far as I know, not an idiom, but a Google hit score of 22.2000 makes me doubtful. And who’s quoting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when she says It’s Greek to me? – Is that little phrase from Schumann’s Fantasie a Beethoven quotation or just a regular pattern?

A phrase may have been accidentally borrowed, because of its ordinariness, or by a quirk of the author’s memory. In neither case should we call it a quotation: quoting is something we do on purpose. There is no such thing as ‘involuntary quotation’.

What helps to distinguish quotations is quotation marks. In writing these are a fairly recent (eighteenth-century) practice. In music there is nothing like that – if there were, as silent graphic signs written in the score, these would have no meaning for the listener.

But quotation may also be marked in speech. Not so much by saying ‘quote … unquote’, which is a  verbalization of written quotation marks, or by finger quotes, which is a translation of the same into gesture, but by such means as a change of register, a slight pause, emphasis. Musical quotation marks may be often be very similar, and include any device that highlights a passage as in some way standing apart from the main discourse: a disruption of the flow by contrasting metre and rhythm, texture, dynamics, a discontinuity in harmonic syntax, or harmonic stasis.

Bach Cantata BWV158, manuscript by C.F. Penzel D-B Bach P 1047
Manuscript by C.F. Penzel.

Bach’s Cantata 158, Der Friede sei mit dir

The opening solo of Bach’s Cantata 158, for bass singer and basso continuo, is a miniature sermon on the liturgical salutation, Der Friede sei mit dir (Pax vobiscum). These formulaic opening words are continued in the text as an address to the speaker’s own soul (Peace be with you, my fearful conscience! Your Mediator has annulled the burden of your debt …).

In terms that are traditional in the philosophy of language, the words Der Friede sei mit dir are both ‘used’ and ‘mentioned’. They are ‘used’, because they are part of the speaker’s address to his own conscience (it’s what the speaker says). They are ‘mentioned’, because every believer recognizes them as a (slightly modified) liturgical formula with scriptural origins (it’s what God says).

That these words are ‘mentioned’ is made clear by the music. Though the piece as a whole is marked Recitativo, the salutation itself is sung as an arioso on a walking bass; the continuation, the sermon, as free recitative. This alternation of arioso and recitative clearly articulates the distinction between scripture and sermon. In this case the music, unlike the text, does not refer to a specific source (such as a chant associated with these words). Bach does use however a cadential formula in a way that emphatically exposes its formulaic nature, with its odd placement at the beginning of the piece. Both contrasting texture (arioso-recitative) and this odd ‘syntax’ mark this as quotation.

Singing for Somebody Else

This solo offers an extraordinary example of what was a regular procedure in baroque sacred recitative, the arioso treatment of quotations. In an (uncredited) entry Recitativ in Sulzer’s encyclopaedia of the arts (1774), the author speaks of ‘the insertion of other persons’ speeches and sayings, which the composer always executes as arioso’. Referring to a recitativo accompagnato for soprano from Carl Heinrich Graun’s Der Tod Jesu (nr. 3, Gethsemane!), he criticizes its treatment because he cannot ‘reconcile himself’ with the fact that the same person sings both her ‘own’ text and that of the person she quotes.

… it would be hard to find something more beautiful in this manner than this arioso, considered by itself; and yet it has always been offensive to me, and remains so as often as I hear this passion. It is not possible for me to accept that the person who is reciting sings now on his own behalf, then on another’s. And yet I cannot see why the same dramatic device does not displease me in epic poetry. If my feeling about this is not mistaken, therefore, I would say that it is all right to speak in name of somebody else, and with his words, but not to do the same singing. However, I would not dare to proclaim my feeling about this as law. (My transl.; Sulzer 1774: 944)

In fact, the singer is always voicing the words of some named of unnamed character. The quotation therefore is a replica within a replica. Maybe this author’s feeling is a result of the more intense concreteness of the sung utterance, and a corresponding stronger physical involvement of the singer. In any case, it seems to express a tendency to interpret all musical discourse as two-dimensional, literal and necessarily sincere, lacking in double meaning.

Chorale as Testimony: Cantata 80, Ein’ feste Burg

Some thirty years earlier, Johann Mattheson has briefly discussed quotation in the context of musical rhetoric. He speaks of chorale melodies ‘introduced’ into a composition by way of ‘citatum or allegatum’, serving the rhetorical purpose of ‘testimony or confirmation’. The terminology is borrowed from the law court.

This locus testimoniorum may be most useful to music, when one would introduce some existing song, which is known to nearly everybody, such as the church hymns etc., in such a way that it may serve the matter on hand as testimony or confirmation, as citatum or allegatum […]. (My transl.; Mattheson 1999/1739: 217-218)

Chorale melodies may be incorporated in a composition as a building block, without standing out as an alien element, as is often the case when Gregorian chant is used in renaissance polyphony. I would call this ‘constructional borrowing’ rather than quotation, even though there still may be a hidden reference or allusion to the musical source or the associated text. On the other hand, the melody may also be foregrounded (‘mentioned’) as a musical ‘object’ that is clearly distinct from the main musical discourse.

Bach’s exploitation of the various possibilities inherent in the use of chorale melodies is unequalled. A notable example is the Reformation Cantata BWV80 (Ein’ feste Burg). Martin Luther’s chorale is used variously in the foreground and in the background. The magnificent motet of its first movement presents the ornamented chorale in fugal treatment. This may be considered a case of constructional, rather than quotational use of the chorale. Fascinating however is its use at a second level: each new series of fugal vocal entries culminates in an augmented, canonic statement of subsequent chorale lines in the high and lowest registers of the orchestra. This is probably the most emphatic confirmatio one can think of, and it stands out from the continuous fugal texture as an indubitable reference to the original source.


Mattheson, Johann. 1999. Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg 1739). (Kassel [etc.]: Bärenreiter).
Aus den letzten loco testimoniorum ist in der Music der beste Nutz zu machen, wenn man ein von andern verfertigtes Lied, das sonst fast iedermann bekannt ist, so wie zum Exempel die Kirchen-Gesänge etc. auf gewisse Weise an- und einführet, daß es der vorhabenden Materie zum Zeugnisse oder zur Bekräfftigung, als ein citatum oder allegatum diene; ….

Sulzer, Johann Georg. 1774. Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste. Vol. 2 (Leipzig: Weidemanns Erben und Reich). (Authors involved in the article Recitativ (Musik) may have been Sulzer himself, J.Ph. Kirnberger, J.A.P. Schulz and J.F. Agricola. The translation by Matthew Boyle, Music Theory Online 23 (2)., is not free from errors.)