Musical Poetics

In the traditional liberal arts curriculum, music was classed alongside the mathematical disciplines of astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry. This placement reflects the theoretical nature of musical inquiry in the classical and medieval world, in which theorists sought to explain musical phenomena through ratio, proportion, and cycle. However, a historical precedent for a rhetorical approach to music exists in the practice of musica poetica in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Germany. Influenced by the intellectual tradition of the Reformation, musica poetica sought to reconcile the practical concerns of music theory, composition, and performance with principles of classical rhetoric. In this essay, I offer an introduction to a core text of this tradition: Joachim Burmeister’s Musica poetica of 1606, a work that laid the foundation for the German Baroque musical tradition and the work of composers such as Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johann Sebastian Bach. With Burmeister’s work as a starting point, I will conclude with a few observations on how the position of music study in the modern liberal arts curriculum can be informed by aspects of musica poetica.

During the Renaissance, the rediscovery of texts by Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and other classical-era writers led to a renewed interest in rhetoric. Ideas from this discipline exerted a profound influence on the development of humanistic thought in the Renaissance. For example, Philip Melanchthon’s advocacy for the use of rhetorical techniques in Biblical study prompted important changes in the German education system in the sixteenth century.

It did not take long for music theorists to apply rhetorical ideas to their own discipline. By 1600, authors such as Nicolaus Listenius and Gallus Dressler had begun to articulate a system in which the principles of rhetorical logic, structure, and delivery were applied to musical performance and composition. This new approach was termed musica poetica, a term that served to differentiate this approach from the mathematically-oriented perspective of musica theoreticaMusica poetica provided both a philosophical framework and a practical musical syntax that allowed for rhetorical expression through musical means.

From a theoretical perspective, the musician was now capable of moving, delighting, or instructing their audience in precisely the same fashion as the orator.

An important consideration here is whether the music is texted or instrumental. Obviously, texted music communicates with the listener in a far more immediate manner than instrumental music. That is not to say, however, that untexted (in other words, instrumental) works cannot move the listener through rhetorical means—a distinction that Burmeister and other early commentators were quick to point out. Unfortunately, a detailed discussion on this point is outside the scope of this essay. I would observe, however, that no less a figure than Martin Luther—an accomplished singer and instrumentalist in his own right—comments on the value of both vocal and instrumental music in his many discussions of the topic.

Joachim Burmeister was born in Lüneburg in 1564. After early studies in music, he matriculated at Rostock University, an early center of humanist education, and earned a master’s degree in 1593. Although he would continue his musical work on a part-time basis, Burmeister’s professional life centered on his work as a teacher of Latin, classics, and Greek at the Rostock town school. He also maintained his connections to the rich intellectual life in Rostock and beyond; for instance, his theoretical works on music demonstrate an awareness of contemporary composers and musical commentators.

As a skilled practical musician with a formal education in the humanities, Burmeister was uniquely positioned to address both the practical and the theoretical aspects of music. Burmeister was not the first author to espouse the new musical-rhetorical ideal, he was the first to apply classical rhetorical principles to questions of musical expression and construction in an intellectually rigorous manner. The real innovation here is his use of rhetorical principles to understand both the structure and the surface of a musical work, and it is on these two aspects that I will focus.

The traditional rhetorical process consists of five stages. In the first two steps, inventio and dispositio, the orator identifies a topic, gathers relevant supporting information, and organizes this material in a logical way. This is followed by elocutio, in which the basic material is adapted into sentences, phrases, and figures of speech. The final two stages concern the memorization and delivery of the oration with appropriate vocal inflections and physical gestures. As the scholar Dietrich Bartels notes, the final stages—memoria and actio—fell out of favor in the Lutheran educational tradition during the sixteenth century. Consistent with this practice, Burmeister also focuses on the initial three stages of the rhetorical process.

For Burmeister, the composer must confront questions of inventio and dispositio—the selection of a topic and the gathering of relevant information. Burmeister identifies five critical areas of compositional decision making. First, they should select a mode, and decide whether the melodic material will be primarily diatonic or chromatic. Then, they must choose a type of polyphonic texture and an appropriate style of melodic writing. Finally, the entire piece must be sectioned into smaller structural units, or periods.

In his discussion of musical structure, Burmeister proposes that a musical composition can be understood as containing three parts: the exordium, or introduction; the main body of the piece in which the primary musical ideas or propositions are stated and confirmed; and the ending. Like his rhetorical models, Burmeister refrains from dictating the exact techniques or elements that can be used in each of these sections. For example, he states that the exordium will often begin with a fugue, but could also consist of a different music texture, such as noëma (the use of a rhythmically-unified texture in the midst of an otherwise polyphonic passage.)

The process of elocutio—that is, the stage in which the orator molds basic ideas and information into phrases, sentences, and verbal flourishes—is an area of special focus for Burmeister. He writes: “A musical ornament or figure is a passage, in harmony as well as in melody, which is contained within a definite period that begins from a cadence and ends in a cadence; it departs from the simple method of composition, and with elegance assumes and adopts a more ornate character.”

Here, Burmeister makes an explicit connection to the rhetorical use of figures of speech, with a recommendation that the composer occasionally depart from the “simple method of composition” by adding figural ornamentation that will shape the character and meaning of a musical line or passage—a musical practice precisely analogous to rhetorical elocutio. Burmeister’s discussion of musical figures (figurenlehren) was highly influential for later commentators. In fact, a direct line can be drawn between Musica poetica and the work of the Johann Mattheson, who continued to develop this idea well over a century later in the 1730s and 1740s.

Burmeister’s work represents a synthesis of the quadrivium and trivium, the mathematical and the rhetorical.

On one hand, Burmeister’s work acknowledges and speaks to the existing theoretical tradition by engaging traditional topics such as intervallic construction, dissonance and consonance, and harmonic structures. However, Burmeister expands on these previous models by incorporating rhetorical principles into his musical discussion with the same logic, intellectual rigor, and discipline that is seen in prior traditions of music theory. In Musica poetica, Burmeister argues that the rhetoric of music is just as important—if not more so!—than the math of music.

Interestingly, Burmeister’s Musica poetica makes use of its own core text: the music of the famed Franco-Flemish composer Orlando de Lassus (1532?-1594). Born in what is now modern-day Belgium, Lassus was a cosmopolitan composer who worked and traveled widely across Europe. His compositions encompassed the complete range of contemporary vocal forms, both sacred and secular, and were celebrated in both Catholic and Protestant musical circles. In Musica poetica, Burmeister’s musical examples were drawn nearly exclusively from the works of Lassus, and he recommends that his readers transcribe, study, and analyze Lassus’ works for themselves so that they can see further examples of effective musical rhetoric.

The philosophy of musical poetics can be profitably applied to musical study in the modern liberal arts curriculum. In the same way that rhetoric seeks to foster critical thinking and discernment in the learner, musical poetics provides a framework for understanding and evaluating musical works, and a rationale for musicians to develop their eloquence as performers, conductors, or performers. In the second half of this paper, I will briefly discuss the position of music-related coursework in the modern liberal arts curriculum, and will identify several areas in which principles of musica poetica can lead to a richer and more meaningful educational experience for learners. In the standard undergraduate theory curriculum, the study of form and analysis presents an immediate opportunity for the application of these concepts. In this area, students learn to recognize standard musical forms such as fugue, canon, binary and ternary forms, theme and variations, and sonata. With mastery, the student will be able to analyze the way in which the composer uses formal expectations to engage with—or even manipulate!—the listener. This is rhetorical analysis: we utilize the same critical thinking that a student of rhetoric applies to to a model oration.

Although Burmeister would have been baffled if confronted with a nineteenth-century sonata form, his model of rhetorical organization works well when applied to this repertoire. For example, in many of Beethoven’s sonata forms several contrasting musical ideas are “proposed,” and the various differences, similarities, conflicts, and eventual resolution among them provide the impetus for the musical narrative and thus the development of the piece itself—a rhetorical mode of understanding. Burmeister himself would have recognized aspects of musica poetica in the organization of sonata form.

Thinking in terms of music rhetoric allows students to form connections with other disciplines, such as literature or English composition, but also allows for interaction with their own experience as budding musical performers, conductors, or composers.

For the student musician, learning the correct notes and rhythms of a piece is only the beginning of the learning process. Most of their time will focus matters of interpretation. How is this piece constructed, and how is it structured? What are some of the main ideas that are presented, and how are they developed? When is it stable? When is it unstable? How can the composer and the performer play on the expectations of the listener? These are fundamental questions for every musician; and yet, they are simply rhetorical concepts transplanted to the field of musical performance. Aside from the difference of medium, the experience of a public speaking student would differ very little from that of a music student following the process that I have just described. In this act, the work of the musical performer extends beyonds Burmeister’s model to the final rhetorical stages of memoria and actio, in which the orator commits an oration to memory and prepares appropriate physical gestures that will support the delivery.

Undergraduate students in music are fully capable of learning and benefitting from the strategies discussed here, and that they often respond enthusiastically to this material when connections to other disciplines and historical practice is made clear. Musica poetica and the work of Burmeister offers a useful model for music education of all times, not just the German Baroque. When applied with integrity and creativity, rhetorical perspective in liberal arts music education offers a path into the future, while continuing to maintain a connection to the past.

Tom Mueller is Assistant Professor of Church Music at Concordia University Irvine