French rhetoricians of the seventeenth century—among them François Fénelon, Bernard Lamy, René Bary, and René Rapin—brought about a profound shift in the landscape of their discipline. Their texts call into question the centrality of rhetorical figures (part of the elocutio), the dispositio, and other artful rhetorical precepts, while placing increased emphasis on delivery (pronuntiatio). In most cases, they realized this new emphasis via one of two novel approaches: the first relied upon a Cartesian taxonomy of the passions, whereas the second sought to abandon precepts altogether in the quest for transparent, or “Natural,” representation. Even while adopting contrasting methods, representatives of both approaches were unanimous in regarding rhetoric and music as sister disciplines. Furthermore, French musicians and rhetoricians alike rejected the prevailing idea that the relationship between these disciplines was hierarchical, with rhetoric the dominant sibling. This shift helps to explain why the notion that music “imitates” the structures and conventions of rhetoric, while popular in other regions, is to be found in no French source after ca. 1640. Yet, many recent studies continue to perpetuate such hierarchies, mapping onto musical works rhetorical concepts unknown or consciously avoided in France.
Relating a nuanced depiction of multiple French rhetorical practices to music-centered writings by Bacilly, La Croix, Lecerf, Grimarest, and others reveals that the very same aesthetic positions evident among rhetoric texts also shaped the era's discourse on music. More broadly, because no tradition existed in French musical discourse of articulating aesthetic matters until Lecerf's Comparaison de la musique italienne et de la musique française (1704–1706), the intersection of music and rhetoric offers a rare means of constructing an aesthetics of musical eloquence in seventeenth-century France.