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.