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Journal Article

Hector Berlioz’s neurophysiological imagination


Raz,  Carmel
Research Group Histories of Music, Mind, and Body, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;

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Raz, C. (2022). Hector Berlioz’s neurophysiological imagination. Journal of the American Musicological Society, 75(1), 1-37. doi:10.1525/jams.2022.75.1.1.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000A-7C0A-1
There is, Berlioz writes in his essay “De la musique en général” (1837), “a strange agitation in my blood circulation: my arteries beat violently … a trembling overtakes my limbs and a numbness my hands and feet, while the nerves of sight and hearing are partially paralyzed.” The composer here is not, as one might think, describing the symptoms of an opium overdose, but rather the powerful effect of “good music” on his own body. Challenging our tendency to dismiss Berlioz’s musical writings as merely overheated Romantic effusions, I argue that the remarkable medical detail presented in his arguments reveals a hitherto neglected dimension of nineteenth-century engagement with the embodied effects of music. Contextualizing Berlioz’s claims within the neurophysiology of his age, and in particular the physiological psychology of Cabanis, the anatomy of Bichat, and the acoustic theories of Lamarck, I recover the medical and scientific epistemes that motivated the composer’s assertions about the power of music to effect embodied and emotional transformation—a constellation of ideas that I term his “neurophysiological imagination.” An analysis in these terms of some of Berlioz’s major compositional innovations reveals how both his writings and his music explore an explicitly neurophysiological dimension of early Romantic listening. Specifically, I propose that Berlioz repeatedly attempted both to represent and to induce an experience that was of great interest to the artists and audiences of his day: an overpowering mental and physical response to music experienced as an embodied, neurophysiological form of the sublime.