Gesture and rhetoric in the seventeenth-century English lute song and the twenty-first-century Indian semi-classical song

Rosemary Carlton-Willis


The use of physical gesture in early modern European art song has not attained the respectability of vocal performance practices such as historically informed ornamentation. Song was related at this period to both acting and oratory, and in England, musicians moved freely between the two spheres of theatre and court: a failure to engage with physical performance practice represents a false separation of the music from the performative norms of the spheres in which it took place. The difficulty lies in resurrecting a semiotic system in which the attendant behaviours from which audiences derive meaning are unrecoverable. Indian and Pakistani solo classical and semi-classical song incorporates natural and stylised gesture in performance in ways which resemble the gesture systems described in English early modern treatises. I suggest that an engagement with the living system of rhetorical performance practiced in Indian art song may invigorate the process of reimagining England’s lost performance practices, and place early modern English song within a continuum of rhetorical performance styles still meaningful today.

Rosemary Carlton-Willis performed ‘So, so, leave off this last lamenting kiss’ by Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger (1609), accompanied on the viola da gamba by Sam Stadlen.

The gestures you just saw were adapted from gestures described in John Bulwer’s treatise of 1644, Chirologia, or the Natural Language of the Hand, and Chironomia, or the Art of Manual Rhetoric. They included adoro (to adore), antithesin exornat (antithesis), sic ostendebit seipsum (for speaking about oneself), auditores mitigabit (to appease listeners) and valde aversatur (rejection, loathing).

Anyone working in this field owes a debt of gratitude to Robert Toft, whose Tune thy musick to thy heart made Bulwer’s text newly accessible for musicians. Bulwer’s treatise is a description of gestures in use in the seventeenth century. He is referring to the art of public speaking in the professional arena – not to music or to stage acting. The gestures include those used in delivered speeches, and those used in ordinary conversation by the educated classes – ‘adoro’ (which is a kiss of the fingers to an admired contemporary or superior) is an interesting one – very un-English to our modern sensibilities! Bulwer comments that it was used by men at court to indicate high respect and affection towards another man whom one admired. In the seventeenth century, those who went to a grammar school, or who were educated by tutors would have been taught rhetoric and the principles of oratory as a matter of course, and many would have been expected to need it in their working lives.

Within this verbal and performative cultural context one of the important socio-musical developments of the sixteenth century was a shift in the classification of music from a primarily mathematical to a verbal and rhetorical art.1 The ‘rhetoricising of music’ consisted of attempts to make the technical and performative aspects of music consistent with textual meaning and affect, to the point of influencing not only the emotions of the listeners, but also their ethical and behavioural framework. Music, together with poetry, was given mythical origins in the story of Orpheus, in which the singing and playing of Orpheus has a civilising influence on primitive humans, drawing them out of their savage animal lives into organised communities, and enabling them to contemplate higher concepts than their immediate material concerns. Rhetoricians related the persuasive power of music to poetry and oratory, and one strand of contemporary discourse suggested that to combine music and words was to increase the power of the affect, since the words were not only processed intellectually by the listener, but also carried directly through the ear to the soul on the singer’s breath. Lute songs particularly can be seen to be rhetorical constructs, which are put together with rhetorical figures in both text and music, to express textual meaning and affect to move the passions of the audience.

The most important part of rhetoric is the pronunciation or delivery of the text. In The Art of Rhetoric (1553), Thomas Wilson states that ‘pronunciation is an apt ordering, both of the voice, countenance and all the whole body according to the worthiness of such words and matter as by speech are declared’. In the foreword to his Book of Ayres (1601), Philip Rosseter declares that musicians should maintain ‘a manly carriage in notes as in action’. If we treat a lute song as a rhetorical performance we cannot escape considering the physical performance practice that was associated with all other rhetorical performances in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. In the context of a rhetorical art, it is false to separate the strictly ‘musical’ performance practice from the extra-musical elements. Or, as Behague put it in 1984, ‘Practices of performance result from the relationship of content and context. To isolate the sound content of a performance and call such an operation ‘Performance Practice’ is no longer justifiable’.

Nevertheless, due to the difficulties of resurrecting a semiotic system in which the attendant social constructions that gave the gesture meaning have been lost, physical performance practice has not achieved the same respectability as vocal performance practices such as ornamentation.  Consider this gesture for instance: ‘exprobrabit’. Demonstrates gesture. This gesture was used to express blame and extreme disapprobation. But how, actually was it used? Like this? Demonstrates several ways of using the hand position. We actually have no way of knowing, because even when we look at paintings in which this or similar gestures appear, we have no way of seeing it in movement, or knowing to which specific social contexts it applied. Time has been spent constructing coherent methods of using gesture in Baroque opera. This is partly because there are an increasing number of sources in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which appear to show a continuous tradition (as shown by Anthony Rooley in his talk earlier in this conference). An example is the work done in this field by Les Arts Florissant, who use very stylised gesture in the performance of French Baroque opera. This form of gesture, related to the ballet, is well supported by Baroque sources treating of the comedie-ballet. But lute song is totally different beast: obviously the florid and stagey dance-informed manner will not do. So how should we use our hands?

Abraham Fraunce gives us a clue in his treatise The Arcadian Rhetoric (1588). ‘The gesture must follow the change and variety of the voice. Yet not parasitically as stage players use, but gravely and decently as befits men of greater calling.’ This is a tremendously useful piece of information, because from it we can infer a spectrum of physical performance practice from the public oratory used by priests, lawyers and politicans to stage acting. Professional musicians had a unique mobility between the different fields in which rhetorical performance was in daily use. The same musician might at various points in his life be educated at a grammar school or be a choral scholar or a member of a boys’ theatre company, provide music for plays at the public and the private theatres and hold a position at court or receive the patronage of a wealthy family and reside in their household. The boy players of the private theatres were trained in acting as well as music, and were skilled enough to provide a real challenge to the adult companies. Rhetoricians were advised to study actors and actors and singers were advised to study the mannerisms of everyday life in order to learn to convey affect most convincingly in their speech and their body language. In order to access this fluency of communication in our performance of lute songs, we are looking for a way of using these gestures that does not get pulled into a falsely stagey manner which is unsuitable for the repertoire, but which can employ overtly theatrical elements when necessary.

We may gain a clearer perspective on this by looking at an analogous rhetorical system of performance. Indian classical and semi-classical music is analogous to the music of the late Renaissance in some surprising ways. Artists place a similarly ancient emphasis on moving the passions of the audience, and on the idea that music may have a civilising or ennobling influence. There exists a comparable crossover between music, theatre, oratory and ordinary conversational arts. The task of the artist is to convey the ‘rasa’ of a work – literally translated as something like ‘juice’ – to the audience. The rasa is the essential emotion, mood or inner nature of a piece of music, art, poetry or any other art form. There are nine main rasas including ideas such as love, sorrow, anger etc, with an infinite variety of shadings. Rasa may be cultivated by a person in themselves, and may also be stimulated by a piece of art which puts the audience into a more refined state of mind. This concept corresponds precisely to the affections that Renaissance and Baroque theorists, patterning their hypothese after ancient Greek models, believed could be awakened, communicated and manipulated by music. At its most elevated the communication of rasa can invoke higher states of consciousness – at the least it should move, convince or entertain. In our research into the ideals and practices of Renaissance and Baroque musicians and theorists, we are attempting to re-imagine a re-imagining of classical culture. Indian music offers a more completely developed set of systems with which to compare our ideas. The similarity of rasa to the ‘affections’ of early modern art forms has already been noted by theatre director John Russell Brown, who in his article ‘Shakespeare, the Natyasastra and discovering rasa for performance’ (2005, New Theatre Quarterly) describes the process of working with actors trained in classical Indian theatre on a Shakespearian production.

The use of gesture in Indian dance and song comes largely from two ancient treatises, the Natyasastra and the Abhinayadarparnam. The Natyasastra is thought to be based on the even older Natya Veda, of which no fragments survive. It holds the same position in Indian dramatic arts as does Aristotle’s Poetics in Europe. It discusses every aspect of theatrical performance including song and dance, but does not name the coded gestures. The Abhinayadarpanam discusses ‘Abhinaya’ – literally the ‘taking towards’ the audience of the rasa, with specific hand gestures which are demonstrated and described in detail. It includes the gestures used in the dance form bharata natyam today. The hand gestures used in dance are very strictly coded, and have multiple meanings which depend on the context, including representing gods, animals, planets and narrative themes.

Rosemary Carlton-Willis demonstrated a gesture

This is ‘kartarimukha’. It is used in dance to represent the separation of men and women, death and unsatisfied longing.

In the classical form Khyal, gesture is used very differently. It is free and spontaneous, and expresses the overall feel of the music. In an interview with Martin Clayton, Khyal singer Vijay Kopar explains: ‘whenever we are performing, whatever the body language is, it is very natural, there is no artificial thing. Because whenever the sam [beat one] is coming we have some body language, whenever we are extending the sur [pitch] … there is some expression. It is different for everyone. It is not one and the same, [like] this one [gesture] is this one note. So that is a very natural process and it should be giving pleasure to the audience’.

The khyal singer also uses specific gestures to tell the instrumentalists what to play.  When the singer is singing a raag, and improvises on a certain part of it, their gestures tell the musicians what part of the rhythmic cycle they are at and where to come in.

Rosemary Carlton-Willis demonstrated gestures used by khyal singers to communicate with instrumentalists

So we can see that Indian music and dance also offers a spectrum of gesture in practice, from the strictly coded, to the totally free. But in order to find a useful form for comparison with the English lute sing, we need a middle ground. Popular and semi-classical Indian singers use gesture in a more comparable way. The ghazal may be reasonably compared to a lute song; it may be very refined or more popular in style. It may be about erotic and romantic love or may use romantic love as a metaphor for divine love.

Rosemary Carlton-Willis showed a video clip of singer Tassawar Khanum singing ‘Agar tum mil jao’.

This is Tassawar Khanum, and as you can see, her gestures sit perfectly in the middle ground we have described, She uses them with elegance, and with a clear communicative purpose, but they are not heavily stylised, and it is difficult to tell whether she has choreographed them beforehand, or if they follow from the impulse of the moment. Gestures are small, and in general use only one hand at a time. The passive hand rests in her lap. You saw her use this gesture: (demonstrates the index finger of right hand tapping the left index finger). She used this gesture on the line ‘If the mirror does not show me your face, I will break it’. This precise gesture occurs in Bulwer’s treatise. Bulwer describes it as ‘acrius argumentatur’ – a gesture for adding emphasis to an argument. As you can see, it is not only the same gesture, it is used by Tassawar Khanum for an identical rhetorical purpose to that specified by Bulwer.

The current attitude towards early music prioritises the reconstruction of discontinued practices based on historical sources. The innovative musicians of the Renaissance the Baroque periods in turn considered themselves to be engaging in an artistic reconstruction based on ancient classical sources. Indian classical and semi classical music currently involves a combination of a continuous tradition and a reconstruction based on ancient sources that have been recently rediscovered, many of which only survive in fragments. We cannot, by some archaeological sleight of hand, ever actually be certain how the singers of earlier centuries used their bodies in performance. What we can do is try to bridge the gaps in our knowledge by finding a response to the sources which is both creative and coherent. I would like to clarify that I am not suggesting that we attempt to thoughtlessly graft one tradition onto another, or to indulge in cultural appropriation, but to use a living tradition to help us develop a credible approach to reconstructing a lost one. This approach in in use in other artistic fields, such as research into of the oral poetry performance traditions of the Balkans in the study of Anglo Saxon poetry. Such an approach may invigorate the process of research, and help us place physical performance practice in European lute-song in a cross-cultural continuum of rhetorical performance still meaningful today.

Rosemary Carlton-Willis

Rosemary Carlton-Willis completed her BA in Music at the University of York, where she graduated with first class honours and received the prize for best undergraduate essay for her work on rhetoric in the medieval English conductus repertory. She continued her studies into rhetoric in early music during her MA with Professor Peter Seymour, studying voice with Yvonne Seymour. During her time at York she has participated in coaching and masterclasses with Emma Kirkby, Lynne Dawson, Barbara Schlick, Richard Jackson, Paul Wade and Jason Darnell. She has also received specialist coaching in the English lute song repertory from lutenists David Miller and Jacob Heringman. In 2009 Rosie presented her research into using gesture in lute-song performance at the NEMA conference ‘Singing Music from 1500 to 1900’. In May 2010 she presented a lecture-recital on this topic to the Lute Society, accompanied by David Miller.

With the University Chamber Choir, Rosie has sung many solo roles and has performed in the York and Beverley Early Music Festivals, working with Robert Hollingworth, Matthew Halls, Concordia and Elizabeth Kenny.  With innovative choirs The 24 and Yorvox she has toured Germany and China, has performed in the premieres of new works by Roger Marsh and Stef Conner and has worked with Estonian composer Veljo Tormis for a concert supported by the Estonian Embassy in Britain.

In opera Rosie recently sang Dorinda in Handel’s Orlando at the National Centre for Early Music, with Compagnia d’Istrumenti and Robin Blaze in the title role. In addition to early music Rosie has an interest in contemporary music and has performed the role of the False Boy in Weill’s The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken, a Narrator in the premiere of Stef Conner’s Dust in Space and Iole/chorus in the premiere of Richard Rowland’s new translation of Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis, with Jon Hughes/Mnemosyne Theatre. She has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Little Acorn Theatre, at The Gantry with Off the Cuff Theatre and worked as an actress at the York Dungeon!

Rosie has accepted a place at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam to study classical voice with Valerie Guillorit. In addition to her studies with Valerie she will be coached by Hein Meens and receive coaching in Baroque music from soprano Claron McFadden, lutenist Fred Jacobs, and in Baroque gesture from Jed Wentz.

  1. Plett, Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture, 381.