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Bach and Rhetoric

“Musical execution may be compared to the delivery of an orator.  The orator and the musician have, at bottom, the same aim in regard to both the preparation and the final execution of their productions, namely to make themselves masters of the heart of their listeners, to arouse or still their passions, and to transport them now to this sentiment, now to that.  Thus it is advantageous to both, if each has some knowledge of the duties of the other.”

—J. J. Quantz, 1697-1773

“Bach knows so perfectly the analogies between the working-out of a musical piece and the art of rhetoric, that people not only listen to him with satisfaction and delight when he expounds lucidly upon the resemblances and correspondences between the two, but admire the skillful application of them in his work.”    

--Johann Birnbaum, 1702-1748


Joachim Burmeister, author of Musica Poetica (1606), was the first of many German writers to systematically and comprehensively categorize the various expressive musical devices adapted from the terminology of classical rhetoric. These devices, such as anabasis, anaphora, and assimilation (just to name a few at the top of the alphabet), were part and parcel of the vocabulary of all Renaissance and Baroque composers, but few mastered the art of musico-rhetorical expression as creatively as J. S. Bach.  In this presentation, we will examine Bach’s usage of rhetorical figures in the B-minor Mass and other works, and explore the use of dance music in Bach’s works as a means of rhetorical expression.


Dr. Larry Lipkis is Professor of Music and Composer-in-Residence at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Since 1980, he has been a member of the Baltimore Consort, an internationally acclaimed early music ensemble specializing in popular music of Shakespeare’s time.  The Consort has released fifteen recordings on the Dorian and Sono Luminus labels. A prolific composer, Lipkis has written several concertos based on characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, which have been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Houston Symphony. He is currently composing a chamber opera based on the life of the Renaissance Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli.

In 2012 and 2014, Dr. Lipkis lectured on the topics of Bach and Rhetoric and Bach and Baroque Dance at the NEH Summer Scholars Institute in Leipzig, Germany.  He is a member of the Board of Managers of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (PA) and the creator and director of the Bach Chaconne Project, a collaborative composition and performance workshop for talented high school students.