Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rhetoric and Music

Wagner meets Jelly Roll:

Rhetoric and metaphysical meaning

- A paper on rhetoric and music by Marc Hannaford -

* * *

What is musical meaning? Where does it reside and how can it be known?[1]

Lydia Goehr’s questions echo the concerns of many: from Enlightenment, through Romanticism, and into modern times.

Goehr’s premise is to “try to answer these questions by focusing on the view that music means something, not just because it is a well-formed symbolic language, but because when human beings engage with this language they express something about themselves as human beings." In discussing Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger (premiered in 1868), she outlines how Wagner illustrates, in his subject matter and philosophy, a view that music best expresses itself when it reflects social, historical and political connections with the society in which it is produced. His rhetoric is contained within both the gesture of composition and the work itself.

Wagner saw that by reuniting music with the Greek concept of mousike,[2] it regained its philosophical, political (therefore social) and artistic functions. He saw this as necessary because he thought the more popular, formalist approach lacked human and metaphysical significance.[3] In my opinion, however, it is this play between the ‘formalist’ and ‘expressionist’ ideals, also present in the duality of medieval rhetoric, which favored eloquence and the technical aspects of delivery, and Renaissance rhetoric, which emphasised persuasion and invention,[4] that allows music expressive potential.

Taking this concept and transporting it onto music such as Ferdinand ‘Jelly-Roll’ Morton’s Library of Congress recordings[5] allows us to examine these recordings in a literal and metaphysical light. Within these recording rhetoric unfolds, reflecting Morton’s music, life and opinions, through combinations of music, speech and singing. This rhetoric informs us not only historically, in terms of the people and music in and around New Orleans at the turn of the century, but also highlights Morton’s philosophy on music, morality and society. Here we can see how a premise similar to Goehr’s can reveal the metaphysical ‘expression’ of Morton’s recordings.

Much like Wagner imbuing Die Meistersinger with an expression of his own philosophy, Goehr’s methodology allows us to reveal the metaphysical, historical and personal expressions of Morton in the Library of Congress recordings.


Blake, Wilson, J. Buelow George, and A. Hoyt Peter. "Rhetoric and Music." Grove Music Online.

Goehr, Lydia. The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Morton, Ferdinand. Complete Library of Congress Recordings: Rounder Records, 2005.

[1] Lydia Goehr, The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1.

[2] In this context ‘mousike’ refers to the combined practice of speech and music. It is derived from Homer’s poetry and its reference to the 9 ‘muses.’ The term later came under the modern conception of ‘music.’

[3] Goehr, The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy, 2.

[4] Wilson Blake, J. Buelow George, and A. Hoyt Peter, "Rhetoric and Music," Grove Music Online: 2.

[5] Ferdinand Morton, Complete Library of Congress Recordings (Rounder Records, 2005).

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