Roman oratorMusic, particularly instrumental music, is “a speech in sounds (Klangrede) or language in tones (Tonsprache)”. With that often quoted, but somewhat ambiguous phrase, Johann Mattheson wanted to point out that music can make sense without a text; and particularly, it can and should evoke a particular emotion in the listeners.

He elaborated this idea of music as Klangrede in a rather odd example: an aria by another composer, with the text omitted. Even in this mutilated form, its character of ‘sound-speech’ should be obvious in its formal structure. This he explains by using the plan for a formal speech or ‘oration’, according to the guidelines of rhetoric, the ancient art of making speeches.

Klangrede may sound like a metaphor, but there is in fact considerable literal truth in the concept. Just like a regular speech, or more generally, verbal discourse, a piece of music is composed of phrases and sentences. We recognize them as phrases and sentences because they follow a sort of musical grammar, with clear beginnings and endings, and ways of connecting them.

Mattheson is one of the most important witnesses for the existence of something like ‘musical rhetoric’ at that time – for the idea that rhetoric, as the art of making speeches, could be helpful in creating and understanding music. Since that date (1739) there has been much discussion of the close affinity between music and language; but less of speeches, the specific domain of rhetoric, than expressive and passionate speech. Immanuel Kant (1790) merely repeats a commonplace of the time, when he argues that the expressive intonation of speech is “like a universal language of feelings”. Music exploits this same expressive potential, and is therefore, even without words, “a language of the affects”.

An exception is the musician and musical scholar J. N. Forkel (1788). Like Kant, he defines music as “a universal language of feelings”. He also speaks of compositions as “speeches for feeling” (Reden für die Empfindung). As Mattheson had stipulated, these should follow a formal plan similar to that of a verbal  oration. This rhetorical schema he calls, surprisingly, “the aesthetic ordering of ideas”. With that relatively new, then fashionable term aesthetic he means “the way feelings and ideas develop out of one another”. That is basically what Mattheson too had meant, but the psychological focus is new.

If a piece of music is ‘a speech’, who’s speaking?

In the case of an opera aria, this is not a mystery: it is a certain fictional character (assuming that there is no mystery about fictional characters). The singer acts, at least superficially, the role of that character. If we speak of instrumental music, particularly solo music, as ‘a speech’ or a rhetorical ‘oration’, the consequence would be that the musician assumes the role of orator.

A comparison between orator and performing musician has been explicitly made by J. J. Quantz in his flute tutor (1752): “The orator and the musician have the same aim […]: to conquer the listeners’ hearts, to arouse or allay their feelings, and to transport them into one emotional state after another”. As Quantz notes, each may learn from the other; but since he writes for musicians, the orator is here the role model.

This manipulation of the audience’s emotional state traditionally belongs to the rhetorical strategy of persuasion; and persuasion is the aim of all oratory, or speech-making. But whether persuasion is an appropriate model for the musical experience, is open to debate.

We might compare Quantz’ oratorial roller coaster of affects with an observation made forty years later by H. C. Koch (1792), who speaks of a musical solo as “a monologue in passionate tones”, but qualifies this by terms that suggest the private sphere of soliloquy, rather than oratory: “the soloist is turned inward, as it were; nothing external has the slightest influence on the expression of feeling”.

Koch’s description is more in tune with what has come to be called the aesthetic appreciation of music. One might associate the different attitudes and role models with different kinds of solo music – the soliloquy for intimate chamber music, against oratory for the concerto.

Though the role model of the orator, along with the concept of ‘musical rhetoric’, has become rather popular among historically minded musicians, its validity is very limited. If music is discourse (‘a speech’), it is fictional discourse, a sequence of ideas that is represented, not a message from sender (‘orator’) to receiver (audience). It is contemplated by the listener in what Kant called a “free play of the imagination” – which, contra Kant, may include emotional imaginings and imagined emotions.

Persuasion is the stated purpose of oratory, and emotional influencing is one of its techniques, if not the most important. That may make it tempting to apply the notion of rhetorical persuasion to music, as a strongly emotive art. Persuasion, however, is always to something: it always has an aim beyond the emotion. But even the most emotionally engaging concert does not persuade me to anything. A piece of beautifully sad music may make me sad or leave my good mood intact – this is of secondary importance; what matters most, is that it allows me to respond (in whatever way) to a beautiful representation of sadness.

That is the aesthetic, against the rhetorical view. In practice, a stage performer has several options. She can present herself as a mere executant, or as a mediator (who herself may be a listener too); or as a quasi-actor, who creates a stage persona. She may also choose to present above anything else herself – though in the act she will inevitably create a persona that is not quite her true self. Different solutions are associated with different styles and subcultures.

Ever since Plato, the notion of rhetorical persuasion has been criticised as public manipulation and demagogy. For Kant, oratory is “the art of abusing people’s weaknesses for one’s own purposes”; and for that reason, it is “not worthy of any respect at all”. His abhorrence of oratory is a reasonable fear that reason will be buried beneath instinct, by those who are superior only in their lust for power.

Among today’s persuasive techniques the importance of eloquence has dwindled compared to that of algorithms and advertising. A sub-average command of language can even be an asset, rather than a handicap, as recent U.S. politics has shown. What remains the most dubious part of the rhetorical heritage is not its theory of speech techniques, but the ideal of persuasive leadership itself. Cut in stone or cast in bronze, one arm outstretched (adlocutio), the orator-hero has been replicated in countless dictator figures, from the Roman emperors, through Lenin and Mao, to Kim Il Sung.

No ideal can or should survive such consistent involuntary caricature and voluntary abuse.


This is an excerpt from my recent Shifting Paradigms: Aesthetics, Rhetoric, and Musicology in the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries.