Waart, Edo de. 56 Wachmann, Eduard 56

Worde, Wynkyn de. See Wynkyn de Worde. Word-painting

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Worde, Wynkyn de.

See Wynkyn de Worde.


(Ger. Wortmalerei).

The use of musical gesture(s) in a work with an actual or implied text to reflect, often pictorially, the literal or figurative meaning of a word or phrase. A common example is a falling line for ‘descendit de caelis’ (‘He came down from heaven’). The term is more usually applied to vocal music, although a programmatic instrumental piece might in some sense exploit the technique. Word-painting is often distinguished from mood- or tone-painting (the German Tonmalerei), which is concerned with the musical representation of a work's broader emotional or other worlds, although the categories are not always clear: a Bach aria or a Schubert song, for example, can take a melodic or accompanimental motif generated by word-painting and base the entire musical material on it so as to express the dominant affection or image of the text (grief, joy, stream, spinning-wheel). It is one class of figures (Hypotyposis) in musical rhetoric (see Rhetoric and music, §I, 3) – the falling line for ‘descendit’ is an example of Catabasis – and also concerns musical expression (see Expression, §I). Word-painting is associated in particular with music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, although in any period music that seeks somehow to represent rather than just present a text will probably include it to some degree, if not always in ways we may now appreciate (Machaut is an intriguing case in point).

Word-painting presumes the possibility of a meaningful relationship between word and music. Thus it developed as a characteristic feature of the Renaissance, when this relationship was carefully (re)constructed by musical humanists on the precedent of classical antiquity. Given the emerging sensitivity to music's responsibilities towards the content and delivery of the text, increasingly subtle forms of word-painting contributed to musical expression: Josquin, for example, was able to give musical life to his texts by a wide range of melodic, harmonic or textural word-painting devices that could themselves take the music in new directions.

Word-painting was discussed by numerous Renaissance theorists in their search for a new poetics (rather than science) of music. Thus musical art might be considered to imitate nature and also enter the Trivium alongside rhetoric. Nicola Vicentino (L'antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica, 1555) argued in a chapter devoted to ‘the manner of pronouncing the long and short syllables beneath the notes, and how one should imitate the nature of the words’ (book iv, chap. 29) that ‘music is written for words for no other purpose than to express the idea [concetto], the passions [passioni] and the affections [effetti] of these words by means of harmony’. German theorists in particular sought to determine a taxonomy of musical poetics: according to Joachim Thuringus (Opusculum bipartitum, 1624) there are three categories of words that may be ‘expressed and painted’ by means of music, including ‘words of affection’ (‘weep’, ‘laugh’, ‘pity’), ‘words of motion and places’ (‘leap’, ‘cast down’) and ‘words of time and number’ (‘quickly’, ‘twice’).

The technique was standard, even conventional, in the 16th-century chanson and madrigal, often for witty effect – it became closely associated with the term ‘madrigalism’ – but sacred music was not excluded. Word-painting devices range from onomatopoeia (for example, the imitation of the sounds of battle, birdsong or chattering washerwomen by Janequin) through figurative or pictorial melodic or contrapuntal gestures (Catabasis or its ascending opposite, Anabasis; Circulatio; Fuga etc.) and scoring (a single voice for ‘all alone’; three for the Trinity) to more abstruse effects associated with musica reservata (see Musica reservata (i)). Not all can be perceived aurally: some are visual, such as the so-called Eye music found in the 16th-century madrigal and later (black notes for ‘night’; two semibreves for ‘eyes’), or musical symbols depending on some technical pun, as with Bach's use of notes marked with a sharp sign (Kreuz) in works whose text refers to the Cross.

The more obvious techniques of word-painting have often been decried as childish and naive by theorists seeking a deeper relationship between text and music: Vincenzo Galilei was one of the first to pour scorn on such devices (Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna, 1581) and it is generally (if wrongly) assumed that the seconda pratica madrigal of Monteverdi and his contemporaries avoided such literalism in favour of a more holistic and oratorical approach to text-setting. It is true that in the Baroque period the relationship of signifier to signified extended beyond pictorial figures based on resemblance to more iconic notions of representation, as with the descending (chromatic) tetrachord as an ‘emblem of lament’. Yet Handel was not averse to ‘painting’ musical images (see, for example, ‘Ev'ry valley’ from Messiah at the words ‘exalted’, ‘crooked’ and ‘plain’), and the stock association of a musical gesture with a given word or concept was one way in which instrumental music of the Baroque period and later could generate its own semiotic. Similarly, opera composers almost always resort to pictorialism – witness Donizetti's birdsong or Berg's snoring – while Wagner's leitmotifs usually have their origin in some kind of word-painting.

Word-painting is often a matter of musical play, to be enjoyed by one or more of the composer, performer and listener. It is also a question of tradition, as countless settings of ‘descendit de caelis’ from the Credo of the Mass reveal. And given the strikingly consistent association of specific types of gesture with specific meanings across very different styles and periods, it may reflect something culturally embedded within the language of Western music (or if we believe J.-J. Rousseau, in the origins of language itself), and how that musical language is constructed in semantic and spatial terms. There are also more fundamental aesthetic issues at stake concerning music's ability and power both to represent something outside itself and to communicate that something to others.



Grove6 (C. Warren)

C. van den Borren: ‘Le madrigalisme avant le madrigal’, Studien zur Musikgeschichte: Festschrift für Guido Adler (Vienna, 1930), 78–83

D. Cooke: The Language of Music (London, 1959)

E. Rosand: ‘The Descending Tetrachord: an Emblem of Lament’, MQ, lv (1979), 346–59

D. Harrán: Word-Tone Relations in Musical Thought from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century, MSD, xl (Rome, 1986)


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