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Musical Imagination

Musical imagination deserves a separate monograph. As the task requires,
in addition to psychological capacity, a profound knowledge of musical
history and technique, it cannot be undertaken here. I purpose only one
thing, namely, to show that it has its own individual mark--that it is
the type of affective imagination.

I have elsewhere attempted to prove that, contrary to the general
opinion of psychologists, there exists, in many men at least, an
affective memory; that is, a memory of emotions strictly so called, and
not merely of the intellectual conditions that caused and accompanied
them. I hold that there exists also a form of the creative imagination
that is purely emotional--the contents of which are wholly made up of
states of mind, dispositions, wants, aspirations, feelings, and emotions
of all kinds, and that it is the characteristic of the composer of
genius, of the born musician.

The musician sees in the world what concerns him. "He carries in his
head a coherent system of tone-images, in which every element has its
place and value; he perceives delicate differences of sound, of
timbre; he succeeds, through exercise, in penetrating into their most
varied combinations, and the knowledge of harmonious relations is for
him what design and the knowledge of color are for the painter:
intervals and harmony, rhythm and tone-qualities are, as it were,
standards to which he relates his present perceptions and which he
causes to enter into the marvelous constructions of his fancy."

These sound-elements and their combinations are the words of a special
language that is very clear for some, impenetrable for others. People
have spoken to a tiresome extent of the vagueness of musical expression;
some have been pleased to hold that every one may interpret it in his
own way. We must surely recognize that emotional language does not
possess the precision of intellectual language; but in music it is the
same as in any other idiom: there are those who do not understand at
all; those who half understand and consequently always give wrong
renderings; and those who understand well--and in this last category
there are grades as varying as the aptitude for perceiving the delicate
and subtle shades of speech.

The materials necessary for this form of imaginative construction are
gathered slowly. Many centuries passed between the early ages when man's
voice and the simple instruments imitating it translated simple
emotions, to the period when the efforts of antiquity and of the middle
ages finally furnished the musical imagination with the means of
expressing itself completely, and allowed complex and difficult
constructions in sound. The development of music--slow and belated as
compared to the other arts--has perhaps been due, in part at least, to
the fact that the affective imagination, its chief province (imitative,
descriptive, picturesque music being only an episode and accessory),
being made up, contrary to sensorial imagination, of tenuous, subtle,
fugitive states, has been long in seeking its methods of analysis and of
expression. However it be, Bach and the contrapuntists, by their
treatment in an independent manner of the different voices constituting
harmony, have opened a new path. Henceforth melody will be able to
develop and give rise to the richest combinations. We shall be able to
associate various melodies, sing them at the same time, or in
alternation, assign them to various instruments, vary indefinitely the
pitch of singing and concerted voices. The boundless realm of musical
combinations is open; it has been worth while to take the trouble to
invent. Modern polyphony with its power of expressing at the same time
different, even opposing, feelings is a marvelous instrument for a form
of imagination which, alien to the forms clear-cut in space, moves only
in time.

What furnishes us the best entrance into the psychology of this form of
imagination is the natural transposition operative in musicians. It
consists in this: An external or internal impression, any occurrence
whatever, even a metaphysical idea, undergoes change of a certain kind,
which the following examples will make better understood than any amount
of commentary.

Beethoven said of Klopstock's Messiah, "always maestoso, written in
D flat major." In his fourth symphony he expressed musically the
destiny of Napoleon; in the ninth symphony he tries to give a proof of
the existence of God. By the side of a dead friend, in a room draped in
black, he improvises the adagio of the sonata in C sharp minor. The
biographers of Mendelssohn relate analogous instances of transposition
under musical form. During a storm that almost engulfed George Sand,
Chopin, alone in the house, under the influence of his agony, and half
unconsciously, composed one of his Preludes. The case of Schumann is
perhaps the most curious of all: "From the age of eight, he would amuse
himself with sketching what might be called musical portraits, drawing
by means of various turns of song and varied rhythms the shades of
character, and even the physical peculiarities, of his young comrades.
He sometimes succeeded in making such striking resemblances that all
would recognize, with no further designation, the figure indicated by
the skillful fingers that genius was already guiding." He said later: "I
feel myself affected by all that goes on in the world--men, politics,
literature; I reflect on all that in my own way and it issues outwards
in the form of music. That is why many of my compositions are so hard to
understand: they relate to events of distant interest, though important;
but everything remarkable that is furnished me by the period I must
express musically." Let us recall again that Weber interpreted in one of
the finest scenes of his Freyschuetz (the bullet-casting scene) "a
landscape that he had seen near the falls of Geroldsau, at the hour when
the moon's rays cause the basin in which the water rushes and boils to
glisten like silver." In short, the events go into the composer's
brain, mix there, and come out changed into a musical structure.

The plastic imagination furnishes us a counter-proof: it transposes
inversely. The musical impression traverses the brain, sets it in
turmoil, but comes out transformed into visual images. We have already
cited examples from Victor Hugo (ch. I); Goethe, we know, had poor
musical gifts. After having the young Mendelssohn render an overture
from Bach, he exclaimed, "How pompous and grand that is! It seems to me
like a procession of grand personages, in gala attire, descending the
steps of a gigantic staircase."

We might generalize the question and ask whether or no there exists a
natural antagonism between true musical imagination and plastic
imagination. An answer in the affirmative seems scarcely liable to be
challenged. I had undertaken an investigation which, at the outset, made
for a different goal. It happens that it answered clearly enough the
question propounded above: the conclusion has arisen of itself,
unsought; which fact saves me from any charge of a preconceived opinion.

The question asked orally of a large number of people was this: "Does
hearing or even remembering a bit of symphonic music excite visual
images in you and of what kind are they?" For self evident reasons
dramatic music was expressly excluded: the appearance of the theater,
stage, and scenery impose on the observer visual perceptions that have a
tendency to be repeated later in the form of memories.

The result of observation and of the collected answers are summed up as

Those who possess great musical culture and--this is by far more
important--taste or passion for music, generally have no visual images.
If these arise, it is only momentarily, and by chance. I give a few of
the answers: "I see absolutely nothing; I am occupied altogether with
the pleasure of the music: I live entirely in a world of sound. In
accordance with my knowledge of harmony, I analyze the harmonies but
not for long. I follow the development of the phrasing." "I see nothing:
I am given up wholly to my impressions. I believe that the chief effect
of music is to heighten in everyone the predominating feelings."

Those who possess little musical culture, and especially those having
little taste for music, have very clear visual representations. It must
nevertheless be admitted that it is very hard to investigate these
people. Because of their anti-musical natures, they avoid concerts, or
at the most, resign themselves to sit through an opera. However, since
the nature and quality of the music does not matter here, we may quote:
"Hearing a Barbary organ in the street, I picture the instrument to
myself. I see the man turning the crank. If military music sounds from
afar, I see a regiment marching." An excellent pianist plays for a
friend Beethoven's sonata in C sharp minor, putting into its execution
all the pathos of which he is capable. The other sees in it "the tumult
and excitement of a fair." Here the musical rendering is misinterpreted
through misapprehension. I have several times noted this--in people
familiar with design or painting, music calls up pictures and various
scenes; one of these persons says that he is "besieged by visual
images." Here the hearing of music evidently acts as excitant.

In a word, insofar as it is permissible in psychology to make use of
general formulas--and with the proviso that they apply to most, not to
all cases--we may say that during the working of the musical imagination
the appearance of visual images is the exception; that when this form of
imagination is weak, the appearance of images is the rule.

Furthermore, this result of observation is altogether in accord with
logic. There is an irreducible antithesis between affective imagination,
the characteristic of which is interiority, and visual imagination,
basically objective. Intellectual language--speech--is an arrangement
of words that stand for objects, qualities, relations, extracts of
things: in order to be understood they must call up in consciousness the
corresponding images. Emotional language--music--is an appropriate
ordering of successive or simultaneous sounds, of melodies and harmonies
that are signs of affective states: in order to be understood, they must
call up in consciousness the corresponding affective modifications. But,
in the non-musically inclined, the evocative power is small--sonorous
combinations excite only superficial and unstable internal states. The
exterior excitation, that of the sounds, follows the line of least
resistance, and acting according to the psychic nature of the
individual, tends to arouse objective images, pictures, visual
representations, well or ill adapted.

To sum up: In contrast to sensorial imagination, which has its origin
without, affective imagination begins within. The stuff of its
creation is found in the mental states enumerated above, and in their
innumerable combinations, which it expresses and fixes in language
peculiar to itself, of which it has been able to make wonderful use.
Taking it altogether, the only great division possible between the
different types of imagination is perhaps reducible to this: To speak
more exactly, there are exterior and interior imaginations. These two
chapters have given a sketch of them. There now remains for us to study
the less general forms of the creative power.

Next: The Mystic Imagination

Previous: Numerical Imagination

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