The Four Temperaments

The Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865 – 1931) once noticed a panel of four amateurishly coloured pictures hanging on the wall of a village inn. “I laughed out loud and belittled these pictures”, he later recalled “but my mind constantly returned to them … these crude pictures contained some type of seed or idea”. His magnificent Second Symphony was the result. Entitled The Four Temperaments, it was first performed on 1 December 1902 and dedicated to his friend, the influential but neglected composer and legendary pianist, Ferruccio Busoni.

Nielsen is sometimes compared to that other giant of Scandinavian music, Jean Sibelius, also born in 1865.  They are both ranked among the 20th century’s finest symphonists, writing riveting and highly expressive music on a sweeping orchestral canvas. They were so esteemed in their lifetime that they both received a state pension to concentrate on their composing (although Sibelius, the more internationally acclaimed of the two, hardly wrote a jot in the last thirty years of his life).

A better comparison for Nielsen is perhaps the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. They both hailed from rural working class stock and grew up in a musical climate dominated by the late romanticism of Wagner and Liszt. They wrote confident and edgy music in an exploratory (but unpretentious) style which combines traditional and progressive stylistic devices in a wholly original way. Nielsen vividly described his own musical evolution as “a powerful root rising up through the manure, nourished by it, beaten by nettles in the breeze, minding itself from all the weeds around it but nevertheless suckling the same stuff from the earth”.  Like other conservatively minded composers, Nielsen saw himself building on the traditions of others; he had an especial reverence for Mozart and his early orchestral works display his careful study of the works of Dvořák and Brahms.

The Four Temperaments, Charles Lebrun (1619 – 1690)
The Four Temperaments, Charles Lebrun (1619 – 1690)

The title The Four Temperaments refers to the influential and protean theory first expounded by Hippocrates, the noted Ancient Greek physician, which states that there are four basic personality types or temperaments, each determined by the preponderance of one of four bodily fluids (called humours).  Galen, a physician active in the Roman empire,  later classified the four temperaments along with their corresponding dominant humour: sanguine or optimistic (blood), phlegmatic or sluggish (phlegm), choleric or irritable (yellow bile) and melancholic or introspective (black bile). The underlying theory of humours as an explanatory framework for every medical and psychological condition was an enduring and widely popular one as it gave plausible diagnoses and remedies, all based on the delicate balance of the “humours”.  The only problem was that the theory was complete claptrap, only finally being discarded in the nineteenth century with the advent of modern medicine.

It’s not difficult to see why Nielsen was drawn to the theme after seeing the crudely drawn images in the village inn.  With the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, the theories of Sigmund Freud were reaching a wider audience (interestingly, one of the humours finds its way into one of his earliest theories, a mechanical – nay hydraulic – theory of the mind). And, as his friends observed, Nielsen’s own moods veered from dark introspection to a sunny and engaging charm. He was moreover a philandering husband who fathered two illegitimate children and he channelled his frustrations into other works, including his first opera, Saul and David, which was premiered a few days before The Four Temperaments.

Nielsen marks each movement with the dominant temperament (Allegro collerico, Allegro commodo e flemmatico, Andante malincolico and Allegro sanguinoso) and it is clear that the humours are in a state of flux but with the dominant temperament prevailing. Following Schumann, his titles are meant to be suggestive and not programmatic  and he avoids following the traditional association of the temperaments with the seasons, the stages in life and other qualities (see table) nor with the later astrological associations.


Yellow bile
Old age
Black bile

The opening impetuous Allegro collerico positively bristles with youthful impatience and self-importance.  For the placid and muted Allegro commodo e flemmatico, Nielsen later wrote that he had in mind a lazy and self-absorbed youth in the countryside. The striking third movement, Andante malincolico, is a deeply-felt lament which oscillates between quiet introspection and outpourings of grief, finally closing in quiet resignation. The bouncy and cheerful final movement, Allegro sanguinoso, is in complete contrast; its opening swagger gives way to quiet moments of reflection before the boisterous optimism reasserts itself, ending the work in a blaze of colour.

Carl Nielsen, 1908
Carl Nielsen, 1908

An insight into Nielsen’s thoughts on composition can be found in his published essays Living Music (1925). Nielsen writes “If music were to assume human form and explain its essence, it may say something like this ‘I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it’”.  However, Nielsen disliked artifice, pretension and the superficial delight of seeking novelty for novelty’s sake or the following of fashions. “(The) instinct for display lies so deep in our nature”, he writes, “but it is exacting, and the smaller and slenderer the talent, the more careful must it be to abstain from seeking great originality. Nothing in all art is as painful as unsuccessful originality. It is like the twisted grimaces of vanity.”

This attitude is amply demonstrated in his piano compositions which span his musical career. He was not an accomplished pianist but here, musical expression is at the forefront rather than technical displays or a lazy challenging of the limits of the instrument – a well-trodden path taken by others. For instance, in his Chaconne (1916),  inspired by the famous final movement of Bach’s second partita for solo violin, Nielsen avoids aping Busoni’s magisterial and fearsomely difficult piano style and instead produces a strikingly original and sonorous work.  Not for Nielsen were the ever so slight salon pieces churned out by Sibelius (presumably for the money) to the consternation of his otherwise salivating critics – did Sibelius really write that naff Romance in D-flat? (Hint: he did).

Given the cultural significance of the theory of humours, it’s quite surprising that it has received scant musical attention from other composers (although Paul Hindemith did follow Nielsen in 1940 with splendid music for a ballet commissioned by George Ballanchine).  All is not lost however. The four temperaments still exert their influence in popular psychology – such as the cheerfully irrelevant Myers-Briggs indicators, beloved by shamans of corporate culture. So while we wait for the next composer to step up to plate to write music on Jungian categories of “sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking”, it’s a good time sit back and listen to Nielsen’s own masterly account. At the same time, why not discover for yourself your own temperament (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic or melancholic) with this handy on-line quiz.  You might be surprised at the result!

Kevin Painting


Published 29 July 2015 on primephonic

Photographs of Nielsen via
Title image via