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 psycholog
sts, 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.