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GORDON RUMSON airs his issues
on the art-form as part
of a book-length study


Among many other things, the nineteenth century was a time of elocution. The practice of reciting texts, by a single speaker in front of an audience, was extremely widespread. Elocution was a field of its own not directly associated with rhetoric, or even public political speaking, but was intended for artistic effect. By the addition of some elements of theatrical speech, and physical gesture the elocutionist delivered his lines for the moral improvement of his hearers. Not merely entertainment, elocution was an art-form.

Primarily practised professionally by men, the form was also suitable for demonstrating a young woman's 'accomplishments' providing her with an appropriate method of self-display. Numerous books were published and schools of elocution -- sometimes attached to universities -- were established.

There is a relationship between nineteenth century elocution, poetry, theatre, and political speechmaking, and what is significant is that this range of public speaking included very similar methods and techniques.

But, Elocution is not merely the same as public speaking. There, the element of confidence is uppermost: 'How one stands up in front of a thousand people and speaks cogently.' Thus, today the organisation Toastmasters assists people in overcoming their fear of public speaking.

Elocution was also not merely Rhetoric, where that is considered as a philosophical subject (the nature of discourse) or in a more restricted sense, the study of parts of speech, terms of argument structure and the like.

Nineteenth century Elocution is not acting, though it includes many elements of the nineteenth century actors tools. Gesture and some physicality were always used and encouraged in Elocution.

Elocution draws on all these fields and focusses heavily on the art of verbal delivery: how the words are said to illustrate the meaning of the text and transmit the poetical (sic) meaning to the listener.

However, and this is very important, the ideals of Elocution in the nineteenth century have not continued to the present. From a modern acting website one finds this excellent comment:

'Good acting is never elocution, which is making pictures with sound.'


But that is exactly what was sought by Elocution: the making of pictures (in the hearer's imagination) with sound.

There were many manuals written for the elocutionist, usually containing poetical or literary selections for use. As well, the manuals were prefaced with detailed instructions on delivery, vocal culture, sound production, stylistic issues, and techniques of physical gesture. Sadly, the texts are silent and since elocution is a performing art intent upon conjuring images with sound, the silence is a loss.

The ancient art of Rhetoric always considered these issues deeply, but the absence of audio recordings prevents full understanding of the comments of ancient manuals of Rhetoric. Thankfully, though, we also have recordings of speakers, including famous authors, great actors and politicians from the era when Elocution was at its peak: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It's this last group that offers the most interesting examples. Because, this was not artistic speaking, it was political, real-life, and relevant speaking intended to convey a distinct and purposeful message. Not mere art. But, it is amazing to hear how the speaking was delivered. A careful attention to the sounds they make reveals a very song-like character. The pitch of the voice changes -- most obviously in the 'dying fall' at the end of phrases. Generally, the voices move in melodic contours.

Here are some examples, with a few comments.

The US Library of Congress placed numerous early twentieth century political speeches online (RealPlayer required). Presidents, senators, cabinet members and military officers deliver speeches on a wide variety of matters:


Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) gave a speech against the League of Nations, interesting from a political history point of view. Notice the frequent falling off of the voice at the end of each phrase. He is a quite restrained speaker, but notice the increase in pitch at the most eloquent conclusion:


Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945) had a tenor voice and an interesting tendency for emphasis on certain words (ie 'shall not die'). Notice how he pronounces the word 'issue' and also the curve of his melodic lines.


The other groups of speakers who delivered words in this fashion were poets and actors.

Here is an example of the great poet, William Butler Yeats reading one of his greatest poems. Born in 1865 Yeats prefaces his poem with some interesting and wry observations.



I don't think I need to point out how remarkable this is. Yeats' delivery has a singing manner to it and his pronunciation of words, with elongation (to modern ears) of vowels (as on the word 'grey') and articulations of consonants, results in a vastly un-modern style. But also notice that his introductory remarks are spoken in a different manner.

(I am grateful to Richard Carrington and the Poetry Archive for permission to link to their site and this fascinating recording. Please visit this main site and investigate its many other treasures.)

Now, consider Sir Henry Irving, a great actor of the nineteenth century, reciting Shakespeare. There are two examples posted here.


Scroll down on the left side to find:
The Voice of Henry Irving

The first example is from King Richard III and is one of Shakespeare's most malevolent speeches. Irving, especially after the first few lines, makes very clear crescendos and accelerations to define the text. For example, notice the crescendo on 'Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths'. Some changes in voice quality might be due to the recording itself (such as on the words 'buried' and 'meetings' which change to a whisper).

In the speech from King Henry VIII (the authenticity of which is sometimes doubted), the very first word ('Cromwell') tells us we are in a different world. The melodic contours of each line are extremely clear and forceful.

(I am an grateful to Michael Kilgarriff, Honorary Secretary of The Irving Society for permission to link to their site. Henry Irving was a very important force in late nineteenth century culture and his recordings are crucial documents. This excellent site gives his achievement due and justified honour.)

And now, for the pièce de résistance: The famed Sarah Berhardt (1844-1923).

Anyone who does not gag at her style, does not live in the year 2009. She is legendary for her 'overacting' and while her reputation has dimmed, it is important to note how early she was born, that during her life she was highly esteemed and that the change of taste that occurred at the 1914-1919 catastrophic fault line, rendered her sadly old-fashioned. (For interesting comments from the new style, see Charlie Chaplin's autobiography for his observations on Bernhardt).

The Cylinder Preservation and Digitisation Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara has posted four of her recordings:


Click on the numbers to take you to a second page with link to the sounding files.


Notice in her recitation the singsong delivery, the tremble in her voice, and the speed and vigour of her timing. The result is frantic.


Perhaps most striking are the moanings of the back-up vocalists! But the anguished middle vocalisations are very impressive.


I find this remarkable because it is a text from Jean Racine, the great 'classical' poet of France. The swoops are delicious!


The duet with the male speaker in the middle is almost a chant ... Notice that vocal trembles do not appear constantly (like modern singing vibrato) but in a few places. This tends to indicate it was intentional and for specific reason.

(Thanks to the University of California, Santa Barbara for permission to link to these recordings. This is another treasure trove of history.)

We've had to use audio examples of politicians, poets, actors because elocutionists are somewhat rare in recorded history as it is available on-line. Here is a sample of a true elocutionist from the US Library of Congress website:


Scroll down to:
Lasca (written by Frank Deprez), performed by Harry E Humphrey Edison 50575-L, recorded 1919.

Words fail me.

Having written at such length about elocution, I want to segue to music performance.

To clarify the connection: Speakers in the past used words in a melodic fashion. May we suggest that pianists in the nineteenth century played notes as if those notes were associated with words? Thus phrases were textured, given hesitations, accelerations and emphases in the same way an elocutionist would give these things to words.

This may be the real essence of the endlessly (and tediously) repeated dictum that the pianist must 'sing'. The pianist must play as if he were inflecting the pitches as a poet/speaker/elocutionist were inflecting the words in order to create images.

A shocking, but a defensible idea. Even more shocking would be to follow these ideas where they actually lead in sound. The result would be almost unbearable to modern ears, but would fit right in next to the recording evidence that we do posses from early pianists. And one thing that needs to be stressed is that because we do not like the style we reject the implications of the evidence.

A musician once wrote to me saying that he always had a good laugh when he listened to Paderewski's recording of a Chopin Nocturne. Personally, I find early films with their melodramatic acting style almost unbearable to watch. The stylistic vintage is similar. Some listeners may be similarly repulsed by the politicians, actors and elocutionists linked in this article. But, our preferences can not be imposed upon the past, and in what might be called an archaeological approach, we should only try to determine what they in the past actually did do and prefer. We may not like Paderewski's playing style, any more than Sarah Bernhardt's (and there are very distinct relationships between those artists), but that is our preference, and fixating upon it has only a damaging effect upon our understanding of the past.

Having offered these notions for consideration, we should turn to the musicians of the era.

Let us hear Paderewski perform Chopin's Nocturne in E flat, Op 9 No 2. Sadly, there is no visual, but the audio is free.


(The performance is from a Victor disc, recorded 16 October 1930. I am grateful to Donald Manildi, Curator of the International Piano Archives, for providing this information.)

Notice that he designs the phrases in very specific ways. They have a large scale shape to them -- one must listen further back, please! The method is to combine time changes (accelerations, delays) and minute emphases on individual notes. Further -- and remember the dying fall of the politicians -- each phrase is strongly separated from its neighbours. These are the methods Paderewski uses to shape the phrases. Yes, it ignores the bar lines, yes it ignores the metre, but it gives direction on a larger scale to the phrase and does so as if it were a line of poetry read aloud.

(Footnote: Laugh at Paderewski if you will and call his technical and musical competence into question. Many have done so. But then listen to Serge Rachmaninoff play the same Nocturne, compare their use of these devices and then call Rachmaninoff's skill into question -- if you dare. There are also superb recordings of this Nocturne by Vladimir De Pachmann, Moriz Rosenthal and Emil von Sauer. Paderewski, De Pachmann and Rachmaninoff show strong stylistic affinities, while Rosenthal and Sauer might be heard as more modern. However, close consideration will reveal similarities that are less obvious because their tempos are brisker. For a modern pianist playing in the older style consider Horszowski. All these performances can be found at

Today, we play the piano as if a reader were to make sure we recognised every spondee, dactyl and trochee. They would call that 'speaking in time'. For a modern pianist to not play in time is a fault. But imagine what this sounds like in the recitation of poetry ...

Because people listen 'too close up' to the sound, one factor of nineteenth century style is given far too much negative attention. That is that most chords are not played together, but are strummed. This is considered a mannerism. But in some speech people roll consonants and in the recordings above the emphasis on consonants is clearly evident. If we can consider consonants and rolling of chords as similar, then why would every chord be struck together?

When one learns that most early pianists did exactly this and that only pianists born after about 1880 reduced the rolling of chords should we become aware of an issue of style and cultural preference. The pianists played that way, not because they were fools -- too many recordings by too many different pianists mitigate against that conclusion -- but because that is the way they heard the piano. Interestingly, as the piano became referred to as a percussive instrument in the twentieth century, the striking together of chords became the norm.

For indeed, the rolling of chords enhances the effect of the legato in the melodic line and places the emphasis on the ringing of the sound after the percussive attack (which has been reduced by the rolling of the chord). Therefore, it enhances the effect of the singing nature of the piano. And it is very important that in the nineteenth century the piano was considered a singing instrument. Why? Because they listened to the ring of the sound and not the attack. In the twentieth century we came to listen to the attack and the piano was relabelled a percussive instrument.

Now, if we go back to those recordings of speakers, we can also hear that they sang out the vowels in a way that is not usual today. In fact, they stretched the vowels to produce an enhanced singing effect. That was part of the melodic delivery I mentioned above. Pianists rolled chords (which reduces the percussive attack and thus rendered the subsequent sound louder to the perception) and elongated pitches once sounded (the vowels) to produce an enhanced singing style.

Returning to Paderewski, we must remember that he was a significant pianist, famous and very rich. He even parleyed his fame into genuine political power. We may laugh at his pianistic manner, but the audiences of his time did not. Further, he was not alone in his methods. A careful consideration of other musicians at the time reveals very clearly that Paderewski was not a one-off, or a renegade. He was the leading figure of a very obvious style of performance. He was no laughing matter for most people of the day.

It is interesting that Paderewski worked for many years promoting the cause of his nation, Poland. He did so in many speeches given around the world. In fact, he was credited with being a great speaker, a great orator. I would like to suggest that this fact may be connected back to his pianism.

He was a great orator, because his pianistic manner too was based on oratory, or as I prefer, elocution.

Is this a new idea? Not at all. Consider this line: Pianists must play as if they knew the words.

They did indeed. Think of them as elocutionists.

Copyright © 18 January 2009 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada


Composer, pianist and storyteller Gordon Rumson is currently working on a book-length study of these issues, entitled, not surprisingly, The Pianist as Elocutionist. Virtually every sentence in this essay deserves a footnote and/or an elaboration. He will inflict these upon the unwary reader at a later date ...

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