Human Elements

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is ironic that the four composers on today’s program, whose work ranges from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, should be inspired by one of the most ancient theories of human nature. The concept of the four elements reaches back to the pre-Socratic philosophers. They believed all matter to be composed of fire, air, earth, and water. From that quartet, Hippocrates and Galen derived a theory of human psychology based on biology: fire corresponded to the preponderance of yellow bile in the human body, and produced a choleric temperament, passionate and energetic; air corresponded to blood, endowing a sanguine disposition of hope and cheerfulness; a connection to the earth through black bile meant a melancholy, depressed personality; and those who displayed a penchant for logic, serenity, and unemotional behavior could attribute their character to the dominance of phlegm and its association with the element of water. This theory held sway throughout the Middle Ages, and was a primary principle of alchemy.

But by the time the composers on today’s program were alive, the four temperaments had long ceased to be a scientific explanation of human nature. The onset of the scientific revolution based on empiricism and the Enlightenment had replaced that simple theory with more sophisticated hypotheses regarding the physical universe, biology, and the human mind. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the humors were well on their way to becoming folklore, more appropriate for the poetry of Alexander Pope than the experiments of William Harvey. Today’s four composers knew they were choosing an antiquated notion for their inspiration, and they were conscious that their audience knew that too. What possible attraction, then, could this model have for them?

A look at both the recurrently alluring nature of the theory and at the context in which these artists lived might yield some clues. Although the humors are obsolete, they reflect a persistent impulse in human civilization: the need to describe the way we all are, and to provide a more intuitively coherent picture of the external world. This is not so far from the objective of modern science. The humors provide an elegant explanation for the makeup of human character with the additional bonus that the theory is remarkably reductive and therefore simple. It is a primitive precursor of the contemporary engagement with the structure of DNA and the human genome. The pattern of four temperaments has a populist symmetry to the four points of the compass, the four seasons, and the four winds. It has a common-sense appearance that eludes the arcane findings of modern science. And the humors theory also suggests claims that are still cogent today, particularly the idea that temperament may derive largely from biology and is therefore subject to an almost alchemical intervention (Prozac neutralizes black bile, presumably). This may be why, despite its reductiveness, the theory has continued in modern popular psychology, as in the work of David Keirsey. Even though the theory of temperaments and elements long ago lost its prestige in science, it continued to thrive in poetry and painting, and in the popular imagination.

The social transformations that occurred in the world from the era of Johann Strauss Sr. to that of Frank Martin reflect the triumph of modernity with all its complications and continuous, rapid change. Strauss’s industrializing-nineteenth century Europe was consumed by a debate over the nature of music as a significant activity of the human mind. The debate concerning music as a distinctly human activity had been sparked by another more fundamental debate regarding language and expression in general. Since the Enlightenment, political philosophy has privileged the notion that human society was ideally a social contract. If humans were considered capable of negotiating their differences, compromising, and organizing social and political structures in which equal participation and membership were essential elements, it was because of a universal capacity for language, as opposed to superior strength or aggression. The utopian ideal of democratic reform and social contract theory rested on the premise that language, precisely because it was available to everyone, could supplant violence and subjugation and instead operate on principles of civil liberty, consensus, and the self-imposed discipline of citizenship.

Inevitably, this focus on language as a universal characteristic influenced a parallel belief regarding art as a basic form of human expression. Music was particularly interesting in this regard, because it seemed at once universal and at the same time profoundly individual. What was it that touched the emotions of everyone, but in a thousand individual ways? The activity of music can be understood as connecting all the people of the world, but yet no two individuals have identical tastes and reactions. Nineteenth-century thinkers pondered whether music revealed something about humans that language could not, and whether and how it transcended ordinary linguistic communication. From Heinrich Helmholtz and Ernst Mach to Oliver Sacks, the question of how music works on the brain and body have fascinated scientists, psychologists, and therapists.

Amid the social and philosophical debates, and in the midst of the thrilling and terrifying advent of modern society, these composers turned back (as so many others would and still do) to a persistently compelling and useful framework. As Noga Arikha chronicles in her recent book Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, the four temperaments continue to provide in their very obsolescence an effective and convenient metaphorical framework to understand human behavior. From a composer’s point of view their division of emotion into four discrete contrasts is as brilliant as it is convenient. The transformations that a composer creates with musical materials become audible through repetition, variation, and contrast. Unity and difference may be reconciled in a composition through a basic strategy that is capable of realizing seemingly limitless variety comparable to the human mind. And yet commonality remains. In the everyday world, we repeatedly reveal in the course of a single day all four temperaments, yet we sense (it is to be hoped) a continuity in our selves.

Musical variation and transformation work with similar flexibility and adaptability. The four movement structure of a symphony (particularly after Beethoven) for example, was understood to be an essay in both unity and contrast. It is fascinating, therefore, to borrow as a framework an eminently familiar and even comforting scheme of human nature, to insert it into our chaotic, unstable world, and use it to invoke the inexhaustible transformations of music.

In this context, the elder Johann Strauss takes full advantage of the venerable notion that music could profoundly impact the humors by manipulating moods and emotions. He was a pioneer in deepening musical response by pairing listening with physical motion through the waltz. The waltz represented a controversial arena of human interaction. On one hand it seemed provocative and obliquely sexual in the way the two partners interacted. On the other hand, the music displaced or sublimated the confrontation of the two individuals. It was an opportunity for subtle emotional communication within a context that tested but did not exceed notions of propriety. As the subject of a waltz, the four temperaments crystallize the psychological aspect of the physical conversation between the dancers.

Carl Nielsen uses the four temperaments to lend a self-conscious frame to symphonic form. Music, as all listeners know, transforms our perception of time. Just as the engrossed reader of a novel experiences imaginary chronologies that do not correspond to the actual time it takes to read the novel, so too listening to music expands and contracts our relationship with real time. A listener can become absorbed in an emotional or reflective state that is not contingent on an impression of the passing of time. That capacity for temporal transformation is partly located in the way we ascribe meaning to music. The four humors viewed as states of being therefore lend themselves well to musical characterization that seeks to concentrate our awareness of imagined time and our own personal states of mind, without the external influence of image or text.

Paul Hindemith’s connection to the subject is more akin to that of Strauss. It derives from a visual and choreographic impulse. Once again words are set aside and music becomes the medium of physical gesture in a manner that is appropriate not only to signaling emotion but expanding its experience so that the listeners, by the confrontation with music, deepen their sense of the character and quality of emotional states of being. Finally, with Frank Martin we return to the physical foundation of the theory of humors, the four elements of matter: earth, air, fire, and water. In a way, this work provides the best metaphor for the four elements and temperaments in music. As simple as the four elements seem, one of the triumphs of modern science has been the revelation of the dynamic atomic and sub-atomic structure they share. Beneath the deceptive surface that common sense shows us is a fantastic, multi-faceted reality. So it is with music: simple shared elements like pitch and rhythm are transformed by the human imagination into unique and differentiated works of art.

Johann Strauss Sr., Die vier Temperamente (The Four Temperaments Waltz), Op. 59 (1832)

By Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor, Bard College

Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

To the first Viennese Waltz King, Johann Strauss Sr., the four temperaments meant little more than an attractive way to allude to the contrasting musical characters animating this showpiece for the famous Strauss orchestra. The same year the waltz The Four Temperaments was written, a 19-year-old student from Leipzig, whose name happened to be Richard Wagner, visited Vienna for the first time in his life. Many years later, Wagner penned a vivid account of his impressions of Strauss:

“I shall never forget the extraordinary playing of Johann Strauss, who put equal enthusiasm into everything he played, and very often made the audience almost frantic with delight. At the beginning of a new waltz this demon of the Viennese musical spirit shook like a Pythian priestess on the tripod, and veritable groans of ecstasy which, without doubt, were more due to his music than to the drinks in which the audience had indulged, raised their worship for the magical violinist to almost bewildering heights of frenzy.”

In those days—just a few years after the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert—Strauss was probably the greatest musician working in Vienna. His talent is evident in the present waltz, which opens suspensefully, with some “dark” harmonies that are resolved when the first brilliant dance strain gets underway. A jaunty first melody, constantly mixing duple and triple rhythms, is followed by a more lyrical tune, followed by a return of the earlier material. Like its composer, this waltz is nothing if not—well, temperamental.

Carl Nielsen, Symphony No. 2, “De fire temperamenter” (The Four Temperaments)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

While listening to the American Symphony Orchestra this afternoon, take a moment to scan the second violin section. Somewhere in there may be the next great composer.

Carl Nielsen toiled away for years with the second fiddles of the Royal Danish Theatre Orchestra and found his limited time for composition often eaten away by rehearsals. Although Nielsen wrote six wonderful symphonies, as well as operas and concertos, he never became internationally renowned during his lifetime, partly due to the travails of Germanic publishing houses in the years surrounding the Great War. Although his work created a boomlet in America in the 1950s and ‘60s, he has since returned to the status of a footnote to the history of twentieth-century music.

A confirmed absolutist, Nielsen did construct one programmatic symphony on the subject of the four temperaments. His inspiration was quirky: a piece of kitsch that was mounted on the wall of a tavern in the Zealand district. He and his friends made sport of the painting, but its naïve symbology haunted the composer until he set himself the task of realizing that quartet of humors in music. The key to his success was his judicious use of contrasting sections in each of his character studies.

The first movement, the Choleric, was suggested by the visual image of a swordsman heatedly flailing at the air. Nielsen himself writes about his creation that the “material is worked, now wildly and impetuously, like one who nearly forgets himself, now in a softer mood, like one who regrets his irascibility.”

Filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni has demonstrated a manner of thinking about art that is both useful and instructive and may be labeled the “Antonioni problem.” Simply put, when attempting to create an opus designed to communicate the essential tedium of life, how does an artist prevent becoming boring himself? Of similar complexity is the depiction of the Phlegmatic. Nielsen’s solution is ingenious.

He envisions a young man, the apple of his mother’s eye. The boy is one of nature’s noblemen and needs no stimulation to feel perfectly happy. He lolls all day at the water’s edge. Only once is there a loud noise, but unlike the crash in Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony, nobody stirs. All is forgotten in a shimmering envelope of languid peace.

The Melancholic begins with a theme that Nielsen describes as “a strong outcry of pain.” Torturous passages follow, but are somewhat mitigated by a central section in E-flat major that offers some respite. The composer pulls all of the musical material together “like the threads of a net” and ends with a restatement of the horrifying first subject.

Finally, the Sanguine describes a man to whom “fried pigeons will fly into his mouth without work or bother.” There is one episode wherein syncopated rhythms disturb his equilibrium momentarily. He quickly rights himself, however, with a new appreciation of his lucky state. The Symphony ends on a note of triumph with a joyful and noble march. Art imitates art imitating life.

Paul Hindemith, Theme and Variations, “Die vier Temperamente” (The Four Temperaments)

By Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare magazine

Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Standard accounts of Hindemith’s Four Temperaments have the choreographer, Léonide Massine, calling the composer’s attention to Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s depictions of, so to speak, each man in his humor. This is often followed by a brief work-up of the Hippocratic doctrine of the humors—melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric. Ben trovato. The work’s genesis was less tidy and more interesting.

Among Brueghel’s paintings and engravings the humors, or temperaments, are not represented. Hindemith and Massine were both keen on art. Giotto’s frescoes, in the Florentine church of Santa Croce, had been the stimulus for Nobilissima Visione—“a dramatic and choreographic interpretation of the life of St. Francis,” as Massine described it—performed at Covent Garden July 21, 1938, with Hindemith in the pit and Massine dancing the role of St. Francis, to audience acclaim and large prestige.

The success of Nobilissima Visione was such that Massine wished to work again with Hindemith and suggested a ballet in the spirit of Brueghel’s paintings—The Land of Cockaigne is the first specifically mentioned (by Hindemith on March 12, 1939, in a letter to his wife). Despite some plain speaking to Massine about what he regarded as the latter’s mismanagement of his troupe, Hindemith signed a contract to supply both scenario and music for a new ballet—“something in the nature of a Flemish peasant Persephone”—which would occupy him fitfully over the next year as he found refuge from the erupting political situation in Europe in various teaching posts in the United States. By October he had conceived the plan of his most ambitious opera, Die Harmonie der Welt, and enthusiasm for the Massine project began to flag.

By January 9, 1940 a first draft of the scenario was complete, but in February—on a rough Atlantic crossing to New York—the concept took another turn: “…the Carnival and Lent pictures as starting point and pivot, and the main idea more the parable of the blind in which Griet [“Mad Meg”] in conjunction with an itinerant preacher will be the leader whose stupidity and blindness puts the villagers on the wrong track.”

On April 26, 1940 Hindemith wrote to Willy Strecker, of the Schott publishing house, “I have broken off relations with Massine on grounds of artistic differences, though I shall still deliver the Brueghel score according to contract.” By July 14, a letter to his wife shows his resolve waning: “If I need money and find no other source, I shall write the ballet for them. Otherwise only under pressure (which they evidently do not intend to apply, they appear rather to be glad not to have to honour their contract), for I want nothing more to do with Massine, who has gone completely to pot.”

While a connection between the Brueghel ballet and The Four Temperaments has yet to be definitively demonstrated, most writers assume that whatever music Hindemith composed for the former became part of the latter. The structural conceit of variations on the temperaments seems to have been Hindemith’s own and spur-of-the-moment, owing nothing whatever to Brueghel. To Strecker, on May 30, 1941, Hindemith mentioned, “The little ballet I wrote last autumn for Balanchine (Die vier Temperamente, for strings and piano) is to come out on the 29th in NY…” In fact, Balanchine did not present The Four Temperaments until November 20, 1946. Meanwhile, its premiere as a concert work was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on September 3, 1944, conducted by Richard Burgin, with Hindemith-pupil Lukas Foss taking the piano part.

Frank Martin, Les quatre éléments (The Four Elements)
by Byron Adams, University of California, Riverside

Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“Forgive me if I ask you an embarrassing question. I am making up my programs for the winter of 1963-64. Do you think that the piece that you intend to compose for me will be ready for my final concert of the season, April 6, 1964?” So wrote the conductor Ernest Ansermet to his Swiss compatriot, Frank Martin, concerning a projected orchestral score then tentatively entitled Les quatre éléments. Martin had offered to compose a major work to celebrate Ansermet’s eightieth birthday, but its gestation period was longer than expected, as was typical of Martin, who was a determined perfectionist. In a contrite letter sent on New Year’s Day 1964, Martin, after offering uncharacteristically effusive seasonal greetings, admits to Ansermet that the score would not be ready in time for the projected premiere: “Therefore, it will be necessary, unhappily, for you to find something else for your concert by the end of March, and postpone my Éléments until the opening of the following season.”

Les quatre éléments was deeply influenced by Ansermet’s personality and style as a conductor. Martin wrote that the suite was a “portrait of Ansermet as the master of the iridescent orchestra of Debussy or Ravel…I imagined a series of movements that evoked different landscapes, different phenomena, all under the title Les quatre éléments: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.” Martin further noted that “if my Petite symphonie concertante (1946) is, in a certain way, expanded chamber music, then Les quatre éléments is the essence of symphonic music, in the post-romantic sense of the term.” Despite invoking the names of the French impressionists, Martin was adamant that this work was neither “impressionistic” nor “symbolic,” for he sought to affect the emotions of the listener as concretely as possible. This score was a departure for Martin, who usually preferred to adapt classical forms; he testified that in Les quatre éléments the “musical ideas developed freely…[O]nly the third movement, Air, has the imprint of a traditional form, that of a Scherzo.”

This tribute to Ansermet was particularly fitting, as the conductor was one of the composer’s most loyal champions, and, furthermore, had exercised a decided influence over development of Martin’s style. Like Ansermet, Martin was originally drawn to mathematics, only beginning musical studies at the Geneva Conservatory in 1910; his teacher there, Joseph Lauber, was a conservative who had studied with Jules Massenet and Joseph Rheinberger. Ansermet introduced Martin to modern French music in 1919, urging him to spend time in Paris. Beginning in 1924, Martin lived for a year in the French capital, absorbing such disparate influences as Debussy, jazz, medieval music, and a variety of folk music, including that of the Far East. Out of these predilections, Martin fashioned a personal style that combined contrapuntal and orchestral mastery with a richly chromatic harmonic syntax. All of these aspects of Martin’s idiom pervade Les quatre éléments, a work that is less concerned with the physical elements themselves than with the myriad ways in which human beings perceive the world.