Saturday, August 17, 2013

Music as Speech, Pt.2 -- Rhetoric


In a previous post I showed how a speech can have a musical flow to its lines. Poetry has a rhythm of its own in the way stressed and unstressed syllables play out over a line.

In this post, I'd like to show how the use of rhetorical devices and forms add logic and structure to a speech. In my next post, I'll show how this works in the world of music.

Rhetoric can seem like something very distant from today's world, but I will try to show that even though the word conjures up images of men in togas making speeches about "virtue" or "honor", it retains as much power to organize thought and stir emotions as it ever did.

But first a short introduction: Rhetoric was one of the "trivium" or "three ways" taught along with grammar and logic since the Middle Ages in a university. The trivium, along with the quadrivium made up the seven liberal arts.

Roman texts such as Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria were studied and surviving copies of speeches from the Classical Greek and Roman times such as Pericles' Funeral Oration by Thucydides were dissected.


Last month marked 100 years since the Battle of Gettysburg -- the largest battle and the turning point in America's Civil War. Several months later, Abraham Lincoln gave a great speech on the battlefield, the Gettysburg Address.

To mark this centenary, I re-read Garry Wills' "Lincoln At Gettysburg". In the book, Wills draws parallels between the structure of Lincoln's speech and the structure or rhetoric of a Greek Funeral Oration. Greek ideas, architecture, etc. were very popular in America at the time as the Greek Revival style swept the Nation.

Thus, even self-educated men like Lincoln made a study of rhetoric as a matter of course.  It was both a way to make their ideas more convincing in the public forum and a way of fitting in with the educated class who were taught these subjects in a more formal setting.


Here is a comparison of the layout of the Greek Oration with Lincoln's words.

 Here are Lincoln's words:

As you can see, Lincoln's short address uses all of the parts of a Greek Funeral Oration, with a different order for those parts.

Maybe some in the audience that day were educated enough to grasp what form of address he used, but clearly everyone there was seized by the spirit of his words. And the spirit was informed by the power the structure of this rhetoric has had for centuries.

Rhetoric Today

The power of rhetorical speech continues to this day. Wills traces John F. Kennedy's lines,

"Ask not what your country can do for you, 
ask what you can do for your country"


"Let us never negotiate from fear, 
but let us never fear to negotiate"

back to another Greek orator, Gorgias. Here the rhetorical device used is antithesis.

At the end of this month we mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. This was the occasion for Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  In this speech King uses the cadences of the African American church and a form of litany through his repetition of the words in the title.

One can also point to Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in which he often used the phrase, "Yes, We Can" as a litany.

So clearly, while not part of regular, everyday consciousness, rhetoric is still used to good effect in public today.

I believe the same is true with classical music. Composers used (and use) musical forms of "rhetoric", but most performers are vaguely aware of them if at all.  In my next post, I'll show how to spot various types of musical rhetoric and how recognizing them can inform your interpretation and performance.


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