Descartes, Kircher, Mattheson and Heinichen
Music of all the arts has the most influence on the passions and the legislator should give it the greatest encouragement.
R. W. Marpurg, 1749:
All musical expression has an affect or emotion for its foundation.
After the long attempts by the Church to discourage the subject of the emotions in all its forms, during the Renaissance Period we begin to see the entire subject of feelings in Music begin to appear. The late 16th century Italian madrigals and canzoni were a dramatic departure from the past and based on the evidence of their extensive publication in Venice there was a wide acceptance of this new style.
Following the lead of the composers and no doubt the enthusiasm of the listeners, the more philosophically inclined writers began to attempt to explain and classify the kinds of emotion. An early example is the Italian philosopher, Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576).
The first rule of artistic music: there is nothing more efficacious for pleasure than proper imitation. It has three parts: manner [modus], sense [sensus], and sound [sonus]. These three do not always coincide. For example, if one imitates the song of small birds, it is not necessary to imitate the sense, for their chirping has no meaning, but only their sound and manner …
We imitate by sense when there is great emotion, such as in the four moods of sorrow, joy, tranquility, and excitement …
A mood of commiseration proceeds in music in slow and serious notes by dropping downward suddenly from a high range. This imitates the manner of those who weep, for at first they wail in a very high and clear voice and then they end by dropping into a very low and rather muffled groan.Cardanus, “Writings on Music.” American Institute of Musicology, 1973, 142ff
Another route of explanation was offered by the German philosopher, Henry Agrippa (1486–1536), a relationship with the co-called “Music of the Spheres.”
Moreover, they that followed the number of the elements, did affirm, that the four kinds of music do agree to them, and also to the four humors, and did think the Dorian music to be consonant to the Water and phlegm, the Phrygian to choler and Fire, the Lydian to blood and Air, the mixed-Lydian to melancholy and Earth: others respecting the number and virtue of the heavens, have attributed the Dorian to the Sun, the Phrygian to Mars, the Lydian to Jupiter, the mixed-Lydian to Saturn, the hypo-Phrygian to Mercury, the hypo-Lydian to Venus, the hypo-Dorian to the Moon, the hypomixed-Lydian to the fixed stars.”Agrippa, “De occult Philosophia,” II, xxv
Some of the early writers, especially those we associate withs the German philosophy known as “The Doctrine of the Affections,” tried to explain the new style on the basis of ancient physical theories. It might be helpful to review these for the reader as they are still not part of main stream medicine.
Hippocrates (fifth century BC), of the Greek island of Cos, the traditional “Father of Medicine,” believed that man’s health was influenced by four fluids, known as the ‘Humors,’ blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile) and melancholy (black bile). It was his idea that good health resulted from a balance of these four fluids. If there was an imbalance, then he treated the patient with broth of lizard, goat eye or whatever he deemed necessary to bring the fluids into balance.
The Roman doctor, Galen (130–201 AD), often cited as the father of modern medicine, extended the idea of the four fluids by concluding they also influenced the man’s personality. Thus he equates ‘blood’ with a sanguine personality, amorous, happy, one who enjoys laughter, music and has a passionate and generous disposition; phlegm (phlegmatic), one who is sluggish, dull, pale and cowardly; choler, or choleric, a violent person quick to anger and melancholy, a melancholic or depressed, gluttonous, lazy and sentimental personality. Now the concept became known as the Four Temperaments, instead of the Humors. It was the doctor’s job, if he found an imbalance, to treat through the use of emetics, cathartics, purgatives or by bloodletting. These views were held for centuries. George Washington was subjected to bloodletting and was killed by the procedure because his doctor mistakenly thought the human body held twelve instead of six quarts.
During the next fifteen centuries there were numerous new “sciences” which branched off from the Temperaments. One of the evolutions of this theory in the eighteenth century was the psudo-science of phrenology, founded by Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828). Through this “science” the practitioner concluded that dominant personality traits were reflected in the shape of the skull. The practice of this study resulted in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven being buried without their heads!
Another evolution of the Temperaments was to combine them with astrology, with three zodiac symbols assigned to each temperament.
Another great French philosopher who wrote on the Affections was René Descartes (1596–1650). Although his analytical style induces the reader to hope for interesting insights, unfortunately most of his conclusions on this subject are rather strange. After presenting the definition of human passions as something which moves the soul to want the things for which they prepare the body, [“The Passions of the Soul,” xl li] Descartes concludes there are only six principal (‘primitive’) passions: wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy and sadness. All others are contained in these, or composed of them. [Ibid., lxixff]
“Wonder, is a “sudden surprise of the soul” which causes it to devote unusual attention to objects that “seem to it unusual and extraordinary.” Since this passion is concerned primarily with knowledge, it is not accompanied by changes in the heart or blood. A stronger form of Wonder, astonishment, has an added element of surprise which “causes the spirits in the cavities of the brain to make their way to the place where the impression of the object of wonder is located.” Descartes adds, “Although it is only the dull and stupid who are not naturally disposed to wonder, this does not mean that those with the best minds are always the most inclined to it.”
Excessive Wonder may become a habit, he notes, when we fail to correct it.
Regarding Love and Hatred, he writes,
Love is an emotion of the soul caused by a movement of the [animal spirits], which impels the soul to join itself willingly to objects that appear to be agreeable to it. And hatred is an emotion caused by the spirits, which impels the soul to want to be separated from objects which are presented to it as harmful.Ibid., lxxixff
Descartes distinguishes between benevolent love (a wish for the well-being of the object) and concupiscent love (to desire the object) and notes that there is an abundance of passions which are also associated with love: the desire of the ambitious for glory, the miser for money, the drunkard for wine, etc. He also associates affection, friendship and devotion with whether we esteem the object as less, equal or more than ourselves.
Desire is a passion in which an agitation of the soul caused by the animal spirits disposes the soul to wish, in the future, for something agreeable. [Ibid., lxxxviff] Descartes finds there is no single opposite for Desire, but that there are many kinds: curiosity for knowledge, desire for glory, desire for vengeance, etc.
Joy and Sadness, he defines as follows:
Joy is a pleasant emotion which the soul has when it enjoys a good, which impression in the brain represent to it as its own…. Sadness is an unpleasant listlessness which affects the soul when it suffers discomfort from an evil or deficiency which impressions in the brain represent to it as its own.”Ibid., xcif
Next Descartes explains the physical manifestation associated with these basic passions, [Ibid., xcviff] excepting Wonder which is located only in the brain. In the case of Love,
the pulse has a regular beat, but is much fuller and stronger than normal; we feel a gentle heat in the chest; and the digestion of food takes place very quickly in the stomach. In this way this passion is conducive to good health.
the pulse is irregular, weaker and often quicker; we feel chills mingled with a sort of sharp, piercing heat in the chest; and the stomach ceases to perform its function, being inclined to regurgitate and reject the food we have eaten, or at any rate to spoil it and turn it into bad humors.
the pulse is regular and faster than normal, but not so strong or full as in the case of love; we feel a pleasant heat not only in the chest but also spreading into all the external parts of the body along with the blood which is seen to flow copiously to these parts; and yet we sometimes lose our appetite because our digestion is less active than usual.
the pulse is weak and slow, and we feel as if our heart had tight bonds around it, and were frozen by icicles which transmit their cold to the rest of the body. But sometimes we still have a good appetite and feel our stomach continuing to do its duty, provided there is no hatred mixed with the sadness.
agitates the heart more violently than any other passion, and supplies more spirits to the brain. Passing from there into the muscles, these spirits render all the senses more acute, and all the parts of the body more mobile.
Descartes now elaborates on the physical manifestations associated with the passions. [Ibid., ciiff] We will cite, as an example, only those associated with Love.
These observations, and many others that would take too long to report, have led me to conclude that when the understanding thinks of some object of love, this thought forms an impression in the brain which directs the animal spirits through the nerves of the sixth pair to the muscles surrounding the intestines and stomach, where they act in such a way that the alimentary juices (which are changing into new blood) flow rapidly to the heart without stopping in the liver. Driven there with greater force than the blood from other parts of the body, these juices enter the heart in greater abundance and produce a stronger heat there because they are coarser than the blood which has already been rarefied many times as it passes again and again through the heart. As a result the spirits sent by the heart to the brain have parts which are coarser and more agitated than usual; and as they strengthen the impression formed by the first thought of the loved object, these spirits compel the soul to dwell upon this thought. This is what the passion of love consists in.
In a letter to Pierre Chanut, [Letter to Chanut, Feb., 1, 1647] French ambassador to Sweden, Descartes acknowledges the genetic nature of the emotions, but contends that the prenatal fetus has only four “passions,” joy, love, sadness and hatred. It was the unconscious retention of the confused prenatal emotions which complicated our judgments of the passions in later life, Descartes suggested.
Those four passions, I think, were the first we felt, and the only ones we felt before our birth. I think they were then only sensations or very confused thoughts, because the soul was so attached to matter that it could not do anything except receive impressions from the body … Before birth love was caused only by suitable nourishment, which entered in abundance into the liver, heart, and lungs and produced an increase of heat: this is the reason why similar heat still always accompanies love, even though it comes from other very different causes … The other bodily conditions which at the beginning of our life occurred with these four passions still accompany them. It is because of these confused sensations of our childhood, which continue connected to the rational thoughts by which we love what we judge worthy of love, that the nature of love is difficult for us to understand.
In his treatise, The Passions of the Soul, [ii] Descartes contends that every passion of the soul is usually accompanied by an action in the body. In his Compendium of Music, he appears to have this in mind when he offers some observations on the physical manifestations of musicians while performing.
Few are aware how in music with diminution [musica valde diminuta], employing many voices, this time division is brought to the listener’s attention without the use of a beat [battuta]; this, I say, is accomplished in vocal music by stronger breathing and on instruments by stronger pressure, so that at the beginning of each measure the sound is produced more distinctly; singers and instrumentalists observe this instinctively, especially in connection with tunes to which we are accustomed to dance and sway. Here we accompany each beat of the music by a corresponding motion of our body; we are quite naturally impelled to do this by the music. For it is undoubtedly true that sound strikes all bodies on all sides, as one can observe in the case of bells and thunder … Since this is so, and since, as we have said, the sound is emitted more strongly and clearly at the beginning of each measure, we must conclude that it has greater impact on our spirits, and that we are thus roused to motion. It follows that even animals can dance to rhythm if they are taught and trained, for it takes only a physical stimulus to achieve this reaction.“Compendium of Music,” trans. Robert, American Institute of Musicology, 1961, 14ff
Descartes here adds only a few more observations on the relationship of music and the communication of emotions. Slower tempi, he suggests, arouses in us quieter feelings such as languor, sadness, fear and pride. Faster tempi arouses faster emotions, such as joy.
We are disappointed that Descartes elected not to speculate more, in his music treatise, on the role of emotions. This disappointment is increased by curiosity when he mentions in passing that he would like to “discuss the various powers which the consonances possess of evoking emotions,” but that the topic exceeds the scope of his treatise.
We find relative little pertaining to the Doctrine of the Affections by English writers of the Baroque. Robert Burton, in his famous The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) offers the following definitions of the “Humors”:
A humor is a liquid or fluent part of the body, comprehended in it, for the preservation of it; and is either innate or born with us, or adventitious and acquisite …
Blood is a hot, sweet, temperate, red humor, prepared in the meseraick veins, and made of the most temperate parts of the chylus in the liver, whose office is to nourish the whole body, to give it strength and color, being dispersed by the veins through every part of it. And from it spirits are first begotten in the heart, which afterwards by the arteries are communicated to the other parts.
Pituita, or phlegm, is a cold and moist humor, begotten of the colder parts of the chylus (or white juice coming out of the meat digested in the stomack) in the liver; his office is to nourish and moisten the members of the body, which, as the tongue, are moved, that they be not over dry.
Choler is hot and dry, bitter, begotten of the hotter parts of the chylus, and gathered to the gall: it helps the natural heat and senses, and serves to the expelling of excrements.
Melancholy, cold and dry, thick, black, and sour, begotten of the more faeculent part of nourishment, and purged from the spleen, is a bridle to the other two hot humors, blood and choler, preserving them in the blood, and nourishing the bones. These four humors have some analogy with the four elements, and to the four ages in man.
We might also mention here that John Donne (1573–1631) makes a rare association between the color of clothes and the “Affections,”
For we, when we are melancholy, wear black; when lusty, green; when forsaken, tawny; pleasing our own inward affections.“Paradoxes and Problems”
With the work of William Harvey, in his Lectures on the Whole of Anatomy (1616), we finally begin to see the curtains of truth rise and the beginning of the end of the long period of pseudo-science with respect to the operation of the body. He acknowledges the past beliefs of his profession, “Medical Schools admit three kinds of spirits; the natural spirits flowing through the veins, the vital spirits through the arteries, and the animal spirits through the nerves. [“Works of Harvey,” ed., Willis, Johnson Reprint Corp., 116ff] but he acknowledges that in his personal clinical studies he “has been unable to find these animal spirits.” We have found none of all these spirits by dissection, neither in the veins, nerves, arteries, nor other parts of living animals”.
One of the earliest of the Baroque Germans to write about the Doctrine of the Affections was Athanasius Kircher (1601–1680), who spent most of his life in Rome. His greatest accomplishment was his Musurgia Universalis (Rome, 1650), a massive encyclopedia of music. Of the ten books which make up this work, Book Seven, “Diacritical,” is devoted to an attempt to classify musical styles. First he discusses “individual styles,” which presumes one’s preference in music is based on the “Humors.” After turning to “national styles,” Kircher attempts a third type of classification based on function. Here one finds eight headings of which the last one is,
Stylus dramaticus or Stylus recitativus, recitative style for the representation of any of the so-called affections, or for abrupt changes of affection through sudden alternations in tonality, the so-called Stylus metabolicus.
Kircher introduced his belief that the Humors indigenous to a person explained his preferences in music as follows,
Melancholy people like grave, solid, and sad harmony; sanguine person prefer the hyporchematic style (dance music) because it agitates the blood; choleric people like agitated harmonies because of the vehemence of their swollen gall; martially inclined men are partial to trumpets and drums and reject all delicate and pure music; phlegmatic persons lean toward women’s voices because their high pitched voice has a benevolent effect on phlegmatic humor.Quoted in Lang, “Musical Thought of the Baroque”
Kircher began by determining that there are eight basic emotions which music can affect: love, grief or pain, joy, exultancy, rage or indignation, compassion or tears, fear or distress, presumption or audacity and admiration or astonishment. [Musurgia Universalis, Book 1, iii, 6] Kircher attempted to identify the power of music at work through descriptive, and even subjective, language. For the first emotion, love [paradigma affectus amoris] he finds in a madrigal by Gesualdo intervals which languish and syncopations which express “the syncope of the languishing heart.” The second emotion, grief or pain [paradigma affectus dolorosi] he illustrates by describing the lament of Jephtha’s daughter in an oratorio by Carissimi,
Giacomo Carissimi, a very excellent and famous composer … through his genius and the felicity of his compositions, surpasses all others in moving the minds of listeners to whatever affection he wishes. His compositions are truly imbued with the essence and life of the spirit. Among numerous works of great worth, he has composed the dialogue of Jephte … After the recitative with which he ingeniously and subtly expresses the jubilant welcome accorded Jephtha by his daughter (who celebrates the victories and triumphs of her father in a joyous dance, accompanied by all sorts of musical instruments), Carissimi depicts, by means of a sudden change of mode, the dismay into which Jephtha has been plunged by this unexpected meeting with his only begotten daughter, against whom he has taken an irrevocable vow, and whom he despairs of being able to save. Joy thus gives way to the opposing affections of sorrow and grief. This is followed by the six-voice lament of the daughter’s virgin companions, which Carissimi composes with such skill that you would swear you could hear their sobbings and lamentations.
The German who wrote most extensively on the doctrine of the affections was Johann Mattheson (1681–1764). There is no doubt that Mattheson believed the central purpose of music, after praising God, was the communication of feeling. The whole question of the passions, Mattheson suggests, is perhaps more the province of the philosopher than the Kapellmeister, but on a practical level it is fundamental to composer and performer if they are to communicate with the listener. [Der vollkommene Capellmeister, 1739, trans. Harriss, I, iii, 52ff] He discusses the doctrine of affections under the caption, “Concerning Sound and the Natural Sciences of Music,” and as is typical for him it is an highly organized and thoughtful exposition. [Ibid., here trans. Lenneberg, Journal of Music Theory, April, 1958]
Since joy is an expansion of our vital spirits, it follows sensibly and naturally that this affect is best expressed by large and expanded intervals. Sadness is a contraction of those same subtle parts of our bodies. It is, therefore, easy to see that the narrowest intervals are the most suitable. Love is a diffusion of the spirits. Thus, to express this passion in composing, it is best to use intervals of that nature. Hope is an elevation of the spirit; despair, on the other hand, a casting down of the same.
Here Mattheson discusses love at more length, “since love is so prevalent in music.” He points out that desire cannot be separated from love, nor can yearning, wishing and wanting. He concludes by saying the composer must use his own experience here, or “if he has no experiences or strong feelings of his own in this noble passion, he had best leave the subject alone.”
66. Sadness is a quite important emotion. In sacred works, where this emotion is most moving and beneficial, it rules all these: penance, remorse, sorrow, dejection, complaint, and the recognition of our misery. Most people prefer to hear sad rather than happy music because almost everybody is unhappy.
68. Like love, sadness must be felt and experienced more than any other emotion if one wishes to represent it musically.
Pride, haughtiness, arrogance, etc., all have their respective proper musical color as well. Here the composer relies primarily on boldness and pompousness. He thus has the opportunity to write all sorts of fine-sounding musical figures that demand special seriousness and bombastic movement. They must never be too quick or falling, but always ascending.
The opposite of this sentiment lies in humility, patience, etc., treated in music by abject [“erniedrigenden”] sounding passages without anything that might be elevating. The latter passions, however, agree with the former in that none of them allow for humor and playfulness.
Stubbornness is an emotion that is entitled to its own place in musical speech. It can be represented by means of so-called capricci or strange inventions. These may be written by introducing certain dogged passages in one or the other part and resolving not to change them, cost what it may. The Italians know a kind of counterpoint they call perfidia which, in a sense, belongs here.
As far as anger, heat, revenge, rage, fury, and all other such violent emotions are concerned, they are far more suitable to all sorts of musical inventions that the gentle and agreeable passions, which must be treated with more refinement. It is not enough, however, to rumble along, to make a lot of noise, and to go at a fast clip; notes with many tails will not suffice, contrary to the opinion of many peoples. Each of these harsh characteristics demands its own particular treatment and, despite strong expression, must have a proper singing quality. This is our general rule that should never be forgotten.
Music, like poetry, occupies itself a great deal with jealousy. Since this state of emotion is a combination of seven passions, namely, mistrust, desire, revenge, sadness, fear, and shame, which go along with the main emotion, burning love, one can easily see why it gives rise to many kinds of musical invention. All of these, in accordance with nature, must aim at restlessness, vexation, anger, and mournfulness.
Hope is an agreeable and pleasing thing. It consists of joyous wishing which, along with some courage, occupies the spirit. As a result, this affect demands the loveliest conduct of melody and the sweetest combination of sounds in the world. These, as it were, are spurred on by resolute wishes in such a way that, even though happiness is only moderate, courage nevertheless enlivens and cheers up everything. This results in the best joining and uniting of sounds in all of music.
80. Despair, which is the extreme to which cruel fear can drive us, requires, as one can readily imagine, the strangest extremes of sound for its natural expression. It can thus lead to very unusual passages and to the strangest, wildly disordered sequences of notes.
Mattheson now discusses a long list of musical forms with respect to their characteristic emotions. One of the more interesting of these is his characterization of the new church concerto, familiar to us today in the works of Gabrieli. He mentions the large orchestral forces used in this form and which, in fact,
often carried to such excess that it resembles a table laid for show rather than to satisfy hunger. Everyone can easily guess that contests, as in all concertos—from which, in fact, they derive their name— are not lacking. Thus jealousy and revenge, envy and hatred, and other such passions are represented in the concerto.
Mattheson also discusses the use of rhythm here, suggestions for creativity when a composer can’t think what to write or how to begin and finally attempts to make correspondence between rhetoric and music. Here is an example,
“Locus exemplorum” is presumably to be interpreted as imitation of other composers. One must, however, choose only the best examples and change them so that they will not just be copied or stolen. When all has been said, it must be admitted that this source is used most frequently. As long as it is done modestly, it need not be condemned. Borrowing is permissible; the loan, however, must be returned with interest; ie., one must work out and dispose the borrowed material in such ways that it will gain a better and more beautiful appearance than it had in the composition from which it came.
The one musician during the Baroque who voiced doubt about the entire significance of the Doctrine of the Affections was Johann David Heinichen (1683–1729). He was particularly concerned about preserving the artistic choice in the composer, not leaving it in the hand of the theorists. He even goes so far as to suggest that there might be circumstances, in the case of music for the theater, where the composer might elect to compose music reflecting a different emotion than that called for in the text.
I would never suggest to anyone to fill up the theatrical style with too many serious inventions … For pathetic, melancholic, and phlegmatic music (in so far as it is based on tenderness and good taste) is effective in the church and chamber styles; but it is not well suited to the theatrical style, and one uses serious pieces simply for judicious [variety]. And if their lordships, the poets, overload us with pathetic and sorrowful arias, we [the composers] must try to sweeten these either with mixed inventions or effective accompaniments; or in those arias containing a double emotion, one turns the invention more gradually to the lively element rather than the serious one. Thus, for example, with the melancholy of love, one should rather express the pleasantness of love and not the blackness of melancholy … In summary, the theatrical style for the most part requires something moving or adroit, though I should not call it simply merry. For merry music in itself can easily degenerate into barbarism and is unpleasant to sensitive ears.Quoted in Buelow, “Thorough-Bas Accompaniment according to Heinishen,” UMI Research Press, 1986, 282
Heinichen also questions whether there can be any meaningful association between emotions and tonality. This relationship, one of the most fundamental questions in early philosophy, had long been assumed to be an important key to how emotions affect the listener. The long history of this idea in literature left Heinichen somewhat ambivalent. He appears to want to believe that keys have certain emotional qualities, but he immediately casts doubt on the general idea by pointing out that the real emotional meaning is found in the actual music the composer writes.
The aria begins in Eb; for this reason, however, the invention need not be sad, serious, or plaintive, for brilliant concerti as well as joyous arias in certain cases can be composed with the greatest effect in this beautiful key. Furthermore, the previous examples … clearly show that one can express the same words and emotions in various and, according to the old theory, opposing keys. For that reason, what previous theorists have written and rewritten about the properties of the modes are nothing but trifles, as if one mode could be merry, another sad, a third pious, heroic, war-like, etc.
He continues by noting that even if this were true, it would be rendered void by the conflicting tuning systems and lack of agreement on a standardized pitch. Following this, he concludes,
In my opinion, the ancient theorists erred in their research of modal characteristics, in the same way as we continue to err today in judging a musical work. If we, for example, find for this or that key … one or more beautifully tender, plaintive, or serious arias, we prefer to attribute the fine impression of the aria to the key itself and not to the excellent ideas of the composer; and we immediately establish a proprietas modi, as if contrary words and emotions could not be expressed in this key. This, however, is worse than wrong, as can be proved to the contrary by a thousand beautiful examples. In general, one can say that one key is more suitable than another for expressing emotions. Thus in the practice today using well-tempered scales, the keys indicated with two and three sharps or flats are particularly beautiful and expressive in the theatrical style … Yet, to specify this or that key especially for the emotion of love, sadness, joy, etc., is not good. Should someone object at this point and say that D, A, Bb major are much more suited to raging music than the calmer scales of A minor, E minor, and similar ones, then this actually does not prove the proprietas modorum even if it were so, but it depends on the inclination of the composer. For we have heard famous composers write the saddest and tenderest music in D, A, and Bb major, etc., whereas in A minor, E minor, C minor; and in similar scales we have heard the most powerful and brilliant music.Ibid., 283
Regarding the Doctrine of the Affections, to the extent that one means developing specific formulas or rules for expressing specific emotions through composition, Heinichen says, forget it. He reports that no one has any interest in that idea at all, not “even the slightest introduction” to the subject.
What a bottomless ocean we still have before us merely in the expression of words and the affections in music. And how delighted is the ear, if we perceive in a refined church composition or other music how a skilled virtuoso has attempted here and there to move the feelings of an audience through his galanterie and other devices that express the text, and in this way to find successfully the true purpose of music. Nevertheless, no one wants to search deeper into this beautiful musical Rhetorica and to invent good rules. What could one not write about musical taste, invention, accompaniment, and their nature, differences, and effects? But no one wants to investigate the matters aiming at this lofty practice or to give even the slightest introduction to it.”Ibid., 326. In a footnote, Heinichen observes that some attempts at expressing emotions in music sound mannered and make people laugh. Thus, he says, ‘a mighty chasm stretches between knowledge and ability.”
In retrospect, it is clear that Heinichen was correct. Some philosophers were excited about theories of the Doctrine of the Affections, but they do not appear to have influenced actual composition. Composers during the Baroque were certainly interested in communicating strong emotions through their music, but they arrived at this result through the heart and not by following someone’s rules. Of course, generally speaking, it was always the case that composers composed music and the theorists and philosophers came along later and issued their contentions. It has rarely worked the other way around. In addition, as we know from clinical brain research today, if not from common observation, theorists and philosophers use rational left-hemisphere language, something which is not particularly conversant with the right hemisphere realm of the experience of music and the emotions.
It is for these reasons that one finds little more than a passing reference to the Doctrine of the Affections in standard music history texts which deal with Renaissance or Baroque music. One might as well conclude the whole subject is one without merit. However, that being said, one is left with some unsettling perceptions. Modern clinical research has proven that a certain affinity with particular melodic patterns seems to be genetic. If that is the case, perhaps there is indeed some ancient connection between melodic patterns and specific emotions. One recent writer whom we believe has very successfully explored this idea is Deryck Cooke and we highly recommend his book. [Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music, Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks, 1959, see pp. 113ff.]
In addition we are not yet comfortable with writing off the idea that tonality may be related to emotion. Certainly, from a rational perspective, when one considers the absence among all countries before the twentieth century of agreed common pitch (such as A = 440), the idea that a particular key should communicate a specific emotion to everyone in every country makes no sense. Nevertheless, common experience suggests that perhaps once again rational explanation (left-hemisphere) may not quite explain musical experience. For example, modern theorists explain that the distinction between major keys is merely a different starting point, followed by identical organizations of half and whole-steps. That is true, as a rational fact. But is there a musician anywhere who would not confess that the key of F Major sounds somehow different from the key of G major? Does the key of A Major communicate the same feeling as Ab Major? Can one imagine Beethoven’s A Major Symphony transposed and performed in Ab Major? Would the feeling, even of the opening bars, be changed?
Perhaps we may yet have more to learn.