The Four Temperaments: a Theme in Classical Music since the 18th Century


  • Werner Friedrich Kümmel Institute for the History, Theory and Ethics of Medicine, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz


Temperaments, classical music


  The concept of the four human “temperaments” originating within the sphere of Ancient Greek medicine, also provided an inspiration for artistic activity : in the 15th century, this theme was expressed in the visual arts and in the 18th century also entered the realm of music. Initially, it was only the sanguine and the melancholic which were represented in music (Handel, C. Ph. E. Bach), but from around 1780, all four temperaments were present (Weber, Johann Strauss I). Within symphonic dimensions (Nielsen 1902), formal problems occurred  (monotony of individual movements and lack of unity in the entire composition). For this reason, Hindemith (1948) selected the form of a theme with four variations for his contribution. Numerous subsequent compositions, however, primarily adhered to the traditional four-movement form. Although Simon Sechter’s early setting of the four temperaments for string quartet (around 1825) in which the four temperaments were allotted to the four instruments –thereby sounding simultaneously – was described as a “musical joke“, it can however also be interpreted as an objection to the rigid divisions in the doctrine of the temperaments.