Martin Knust

Transferring Speech and Gesture into Music: Historical Examples

Long time before the onset of the recording era composers have preserved the inflexions of speech and the range and character of gestures in their music. In this paper, I will focus on examples of dramatic composers who started the creation of their music by declaiming their libretti and by musicalizing gestural processes. When exploring these kinds of creative strategies, a vast number of sources and consequently of research methods are relevant. First, the contemporary styles, characteristics and means of speech and gesture have to be evaluated as they are preserved in various written, recorded and iconographical sources like declamation textbooks, film soundtracks and etchings of actors and dancers, among many others. Gestures and speech change over time. Methods and scientific areas which are relevant in this context are those related to speech like phonetics and the history of spoken language, (music) iconography as well as theatre, dance and film studies.

Second a vast array of contemporary documents like diary entries, letters, newspaper essays both from the composer’s hand and his/her environment that originate from the time of the composition may give hints about their creative strategies that complement the preserved musical documents. The contextualization of these kinds of sources extends beyond the purely musical, for instance, into the realm of the social and political.

Third, notations of the first musical ideas like sketches and drafts are of prime interest because all the musical parameters become manifest here for the first time and changes that may occur can give hints about compositional decisions on a microlevel. Here, music analysis is of crucial importance when, for instance, comparing the sketches with the printed score or within different classes of sketches and musical notes. The linguist and theatrical research areas mentioned above have to be taken as a point of departure for this kind of music analysis, for instance phonetics or the iconography of gestures of the past.

Examples I would like to present are Jean Baptiste Lully’s and Richard Wagner’s operas. By taking a look at all the different classes of sources and methods mentioned above the degree of similarity of their vocal lines to spoken language and the closeness of their vocal- instrumental facture to the timing and range of gesture will become evident. Finally, the research value of this interdisciplinary approach for the non-musicological disciplines that are involved, will be outlined.


Linnæus University, Sweden

He studied musicology, theology and philosophy at the E.-M.-ArndtUniversity in Greifswald, the Humboldt- University in Berlin and the Technical University in Dresden, attained the grade of a Magister Artium (M.A.) in musicology 2000 in Dresden and the grade of a Dr. phil. 2006 in Greifswald. Doctoral scholarship of the German state Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Since 2007 lectureships at the E.-M.-ArndtUniversity in Greifswald, the Technical University in Berlin, and the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Stockholm. Since 2013 Senior lecturer in Musicology at the Linnæus University in Växjö, Sweden. Since 2015 member of the research center “Intermedial and Multimodal Studies” at Linnæus University.