Architecture, Rhetoric & Music in early modern Europe

© John Griffiths 2012



This article is an abbreviated version of the paper given at the Musicological Society of Australia national conference in Canberra on 4 December 2012. It is drawn from a much fuller article entitled “Architecture and Rhetoric in Music in the Age of Victoria” published in Estudios. Tomás Luis de Victoria. Studies, ed. Javier Suárez-Pajares and Manuel de Sol, Música Hispana, Textos, Estudios, 18 (Madrid: Instituto Complutense de Ciencias Musicales, 2013), pp. 231-245.



This study is the distillation of many years of observation and thought. It is an attempt to explain some of the design issues of renaissance music, and what it is about renaissance music that makes it sound like renaissance music. I am going to be brief and omit the detail and the theoretical discourse that underpins my arguments. It is an attempt to answer some of the big questions about Renaissance music, its essence, its beauty, and its capacity to move the soul.

We know that Renaissance musical humanists were unable to find Classical models for music in the way that was possible for painters, architects, philosophers or poets. Nonetheless, few would question the influence of Classical Antiquity on renaissance music and renaissance musical thought. There is an aesthetic connection, and my study is an exploration of this relationship. On the one hand, I am interested in music as a completely autonomous entity, but also in the ways it emulates the aesthetic and cultural values of its time, factors connected with stylistic identity and historical place. As you can see from the diagram below, the model that I am proposing is based on analogies with Renaissance architecture and rhetoric, that is, on design and discourse, and their use as the prisms through which to understand Renaissance music. It involves the static and dynamic, the spatial and the temporal in balanced conjunction.

One of the greatest impediments to what I am saying is the difficulty of finding proof. The formal aspects, the architectural dimension of sixteenth-century music is not discussed by theorists of the period. Sixteenth-century treatises operate at the micro level. They provide great detail about notation, intervals, rhythm, counterpoint, mode, cadences, —all the elements— but they do not discuss how to combine the parts into a coherent whole. Why not? Perhaps it was considered unnecessary. Especially in the dominant stream of vocal polyphony, text determines narrative, and hence music-text relationships make rhetorical development self-evident. But in the absence of documentary proof, if my argument is to convince you, it needs to be demonstrated through the music itself.

In architecture and art, the eye discerns “the Renaissance” easily. It revolves around proportion and balance based on geometrical principles. They underpin a Pythagorean view of the world in which everything in the cosmos is ordered: in which everything can be explained by reason and expressed through number. My argument is that the musical structures of the Renaissance are no different. It is simply that they are expressed through the dimension of time instead of space.

The ear is just as capable as the eye in sensing proportion. A set of arches as follows can function as an analogy to represent the way that temporal periodicity can be represented in two-dimensional space. Architectural diagrams can be used to represent time as well as space.

Diagram of the relationship of rhetoric and architecture to renaissance music
Basilica Sant' Andrea di Mantova and its proportions

Basilica Sant’Andrea di Mantova

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472)

The ear is just as capable as the eye in sensing proportion. A set of arches as follows can function as an analogy to represent the way that temporal periodicity can be represented in two-dimensional space. Architectural diagrams can be used to represent time as well as space. 

Architectural proportions
Rhetorical dispositio diagram

Turning to the temporal dimension, let us consider rhetoric. Rhetoric is the theoretical codification of oratory. Classical rhetoric divides discourse and argument into parts —its dispositio— that encompass a mood-setting introduction (exordium), the enunciation of the main topic of discussion (propositio), a summary of received opinion (narratio), the speaker’s argument (confirmatio), rebuttal of anticipated criticism (refutatio), and an ending that hits home the point (conclusio). It is a scheme that explains narrative and teaches how to manipulate dramatic tension as a tool for making discourse persuasive. The analogies with music are obvious yet, while musicologists are ready to acknowledge them, we have never been very adept at harnessing the rhetorical model as an analytical tool.

These diagrams to the right show the way that I combine purely architectonic representations of music with the rhetorical or narrative dimension. This is achieved by using the vertical dimension to show the level of dramatic intensity in the course of a musical narrative, and in figure 3, of using an oblique axis to reflect the way that dramatic tension characteristically accumulates within the individual episodes of musical works.

Rhetoric divides discourse into parts, but narrative relies on the conjuncture of all the parts. All the parts need to relate to one another to form a single cohesive argument. They do not need common content; they just need logical connection and coherence. Coherence is a fundamental part of the art of persuasion.

In music, coherence is achieved by a variety of associations, sometimes analogous to rhetorical discourse, occurring at different levels of the musical fabric. Each musical episode in Renaissance polyphony is usually built from a single thematic idea and, in vocal music, a single verse of poetic text.

Successive episodes are often connected, especially when the new verse of text is part of the same sentence as the one that precedes it. Cadences are both separators and conjunctions. When two episodes need to be perceived as one, composers used interlocking cadences so that no momentum was lost. At other times, the music comes to rest as if the end of a musical paragraph.

In the system I have developed for analysing renaissance music, I use three divisions: I call individual units “episodes”, groups of episodes are “periods”, and then if I needed a term to describe the design or image of an entire work, I might use the German term “Gestalt”.

rhetoric, proportions, narrative
rhetoric, proportions, narrative, music
rhetoric, proportions, narrative, music

The question is whether this framework of architecture and rhetoric can provide an insightful way of developing a deeper understanding of sixteenth-century music. We need to look at specific examples. I have chosen for this purpose two well-known works: a madrigal by Cipriano de Rore and a motet by Tomás Luis de Victoria.

Cipriano de Rore’s late madrigal “Da le belle contrade del Oriente”, published at the end of his career in (1566) is a work that has been reprinted many times in influential historical anthologies of music for over half a century, and is still studied in many undergraduate university courses throughout the world. The text is a Petrarchan-style sonnet of 14 lines, dividing into 2 quatrains and 2 tercets. Each of the four sections has a particular message: the first quatrain describes the lover’s rapture. In the second quatrain bliss turns to despair (and Rore heads off to the sharp side of the harmonic spectrum). The first tercet is a lament that contrasts pleasure and pain (and the music is full of flats), and the final tercet is a recognition that there is no escape: the spider gets her fly.

Da le belle contrade d'oriente

The point that I want to make about this piece is, firstly, that it displays a high level of carefully-designed arithmetically-proportional architecture and, secondly, that this has never caught the attention of modern commentators. As you can see below, each of the two main poetic divisions of the sonnet is set to exactly 80 semibreves each, despite them being respectively of 8 and 6 verses of text. Moreover, the evidence that Rore wanted this to be understood is unequivocal: he separates the two halves of the work with a full semibreve of silence.

In the commentary on this piece in the Norton Anthology of Western Music by Claude Palisca, one of the most influential scholars of humanism in renaissance music of our time, for example, there is no cognisance of the work’s architectural balance. Palisca, instead focuses on the habitual: textural variety, word-painting devices, and the bold harmonic language (including the use of triads as extreme as E major and D-flat major in a piece composed in F).  He observes the silence separating octave and sestet, but didn’t pick up that its location at the arithmetical midpoint of the composition.

Da le belle contrade d'oriente

The following diagram is an attempt to represent the architectural and rhetorical structure of the piece. This will not be convincing unless you verify it through your own observation. I suggest you  listen to it. In the recorded version by the Orlando Consort []. The real time divisions match the score closely. I recommend you follow the text, observing the diverse materials used to set each line, the strong cadences between episodes, and the even stronger structural divider between the two larger periods, even if the Orlando Consort in this recording try to reduce it to the shortest length they can get away with.

Da le belle contrade d'oriente

How common is it to find Renaissance works with these kinds of architectural proportions?  My random exploration over the years have shown many examples, in vocal polyphony from Josquin to through to Palestrina, and in instrumental fantasias by Francesco da Milano, Alberto da Ripa, Miguel de Fuenllana and many others. In the case of Fuenllana whose 51 fantasias I have studied in detail, over half of them have their main internal cadence exactly at the midpoint, or so close to it that it would be perceived as the midpoint in performance.

Recently I tested six Masses by Tomás Luis de Victoria with the same aim. Here are the results. Expressed here as ratios, the movements of these masses shows similar levels of proportionality in their architecture. At least eighteen of the thirty individual movements test positive to proportionality, and a further five movements could also be considered as possibilities. This represents between 60% and 77% of the total and, surprisingly, includes all of the “Gloria” and “Credo” movements in which the length and the nature of their texts might be more likely to interfere with architectural proportions than in short-texted “Kyrie” or “Agnus Dei”.

Victoria Masses, proportions

Victoria’s well-known motet “Nigra sum sed formosa” is a succinct example of the conjuncture of architecture and rhetoric. In six voices, it is a potent setting of the ambiguously sensual antiphon from the Song of Songs that is sung at Marian Vespers. It shows Victoria’s concision at its best. The text is only eight verses, and the entire setting is only 69 bars of music. Given the brevity and the meaning of the text, Victoria arranged the text into the five units shown in the lower part of the slide, four groups of 12-13 bars, giving the work balance and a sense of internal symmetry, plus one longer section of 19 bars, deliberately extended for rhetorical reasons: to raise the sense of expectation leading to the sublime moment of the text “Surge, amica mea”.

Nigra sum sed formosa

This is also the critical point in the work and marks its midpoint, the point of division between its two major periods. The outer framework is balanced as two large architectural sections of 32 and 33 bars, plus a four-bar cadential extension from bar 65. This structure is reinforced by parallel cadence patterns.

The rhetorical dimension of the motet is evident in the close relationship between music and text. In terms of the rhetorical dispositio, the first episodes of the motet are analogous to an exordium and propositio. Each is complete in its own right, built from paired verses of text that are developed with textural parallelism: verses 1 and 3 are more or less homophonic, and their complements (verses 2 and 4) are set imitatively. This is in contrast to the second half of the work that begins and ends with imitation textures and that employs contrasting homophonic voice groups in its central 20 bars.

The second half of the work commences with a highly madrigalian setting of verse 5 in episode 3. The intensity that accompanies the “Surge, amica mea” text is sustained for quite some time to emphasize the passing of winter at the opening of episode IV, gradually losing intensity as the texture loses density and complexity. In the closing verse that declaims that the “time of pruning has arrived” Victoria returns to imitative writing, but slowing the harmonic rhythm to counter its rhythmic intensity. The final cadence comes at bar 66, followed by a coda with a pedal in two voices and a characteristic set of plagal cadences.

Nigra sum, proportions

I have annotated the score to show the divisions between verses, and the principal thematic material throughout. 

Victoria, Nigra sum
Victoria, Nigra sum
Victoria, Nigra sum
Victoria, Nigra sum
Victoria, Nigra sum
Victoria, Nigra sum

The purpose of this paper has been to question how Renaissance composers manipulated the dimensions of time and space. There should be nothing strange about the fact that their conceptual framework should coincide with the dominant intellectual and aesthetic trends of their time. In fact, it is embarrassingly obvious, but perhaps it is equally troublesome that contemporary musicology should be so out of tune and out of time with the notions of architecture and rhetoric. They are, after all, perhaps the strongest factors that make renaissance music sound like renaissance music, distinct from the music of any point in time within Western cultural history. The implications are substantial: if nothing more, they remove the need to search for understanding through operators such as tonality or the melodic relationships that provide coherence in later music styles. Architecture and rhetoric are analogies that invite us to consider musical works in both space and time, to consider they way they are understood by both the senses and the mind. In the same way that the Pythagorean unity of body and soul was thought to balance the human spirit, renaissance composers worked to balance architecture and rhetoric, thereby harnessing emotion and intellect in sublime equilibrium.