Skip to main content


Hector Berlioz’s Neurophysiological Imagination

Thursday Lecture Series

dateOctober 22, 2015 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • Image Credit/Caption: Hector Berlioz Conducting Orchestra by Grandville , 1846
Drawing of Hector Berlioz conducting a raucous orchestra with several listeners covering their ears

In his famous essay De la musique en général (1837), Hector Berlioz asserts that certain kinds of music induce “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.” Berlioz’s detailed self-report lends this account the veneer of a medical case study. Indeed, as the son of a well-known physician and himself an erstwhile medical student, Berlioz avidly followed many of the medical and scientific debates of his day. Examining the system of neurophysiological affect emerging from his critical writing, Raz will focus on the composer’s documented engagement with contemporaneous neurophysiology, and in particular the pioneering ideas of Marie-François-Xavier Bichat. Challenging traditional conceptions of Berlioz’s musical writings as journalistic hackwork, she argues that the remarkable medical literacy presented in his arguments reveals a hitherto neglected dimension of nineteenth-century engagement with the embodied effects of music.

Bichat posits a comprehensive division of the body into two systems, la vie organique and la vie animale. The former is controlled by the passions, and comprises internal organs dealing primarily with nourishment and excretion. The latter, which corresponds to behaviors governed by the will and understanding, includes the higher functions of the brain. Both “lives” communicate with each other through a spiraling system of sympathetic interactions. Explicating Bichat’s theory of the interaction between la vie organique and la vie animale, Raz revisits a number of Berlioz’s critical writings on the nature of music. She argues that we can understand the biological and neurophysiological discourses underlying De la musique en général as interrogating an aesthetically generated state of transcendence. Raz will end by considering a number of Berlioz’s compositional innovations, ranging from spatializing the orchestra to its expansion to massive proportions, as steps toward an aesthetics of overpowering neurophysiological experience.