The Doctrine of Affections (also known as Affektenlehre) was part of the aesthetic basis of Baroque music. The doctrine originates from theories of oratory and rhetoric formulated by classical writers, in particular Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. These writers believed that the mind's responses to stimuli could be categtorized into discrete, objective states1, and the orator's goal was to employ rhetorical figures to move the audience to these states. Baroque theorists placed musicians in the role of classical orators: they held that the principal objective of music was to arouse emotional states of being, or affections.

The Affections

Sixteenth century poetic critic Lorenzo Giacomini defined an affection as "a spiritual movement or operation of the mind in which it is attracted or repelled by an object it has come to know." He described affections as the result of an imbalance in the animal spirits and vapors that flow through the body: external and internal sensations stimulate the body to alter the state of the spirits, and the resulting activity is felt as a movement of the affections. When the arousal was described from the body's point of view, these states were called affections; when described from the mind's perspective they were called passions.

Joachim Burmeister's treatise Musica poetica (1606) was a key text in formalizing the parallel between music and oratory. Burmeister used rhetoric as a taxonomic model for identifying musical figures.

French philosopher René Descartes addressed the affections in Les passions de l'âme ("The Passions of the Soul"; 1649)2. His treatise employed systematic and experimental methods to replace the traditional view of affections deriving from the humours (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy). Descartes identified six principal affections: admiration, love, hate, joy, sadness, and desire. His ostensibly rational, objective explanation for the passions was highly influential on the Baroque conception of affections.

By the end of the Baroque era, the goal of inspiring idealized affections in music was abandoned in favor of Enlightenment philosophies of personal sentiment and inspiration: rhetorical formalism gave way to dynamic flux of sentiment.

Affections and Baroque Music

The Doctrine of Affections arose from the theories of the Camerata Fiorentina (also known as the Florentine Camerata or Camerata dei Bardi), a group of Florentine noblemen, scientists, poets and musicians who started meeting around 1576. Giovanni de Bardi hosted the gatherings, whose numbers included Girolamo Mei, Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo), Jacopo Peri, Ottavio Rinuccini, and Giulio Caccini. The group drew inspiration from Greek drama and philosophies, in particular Plato's Art of Music, and developed the stile rappresentativo (Caccini's Le nuove musiche). They favored monody over polyphony as a way to express affections in music with the power of classical rhetoric. The Camerata Fiorentina is best known today for the key role it played in the birth of opera.

Early Baroque composers developed new methods to expand their means of expressing affections: the ritornello, basso ostinato and strophic variation, and a surer sense of tonal relations. By 1640 in Italy, spontaneous and pragmatic evolution became more regulated and standardized; dissonance was treated uniformly, chords rather than melody lines determined harmonic motion, and rhythm was subject to metrical control. From 1690 to the end of the Baroque period, forms were embellished but retained their essential character. Expressive devices acquired symbolic value, and rendering of affections tended to be intellectual and calculated.

The constant underlying the diverse styles and periods of Baroque music was a faith in music's power to express and move the affections. Musical movements were unified around a single affection.

Origins of the term Affektenlehre

The term Affektenlehre ("Doctrine of Affections") was popularized by early twentieth century German theorists like Arnold Schering. These theorists incorrectly proposed that a rigid system of rules could be applied with equal effectiveness to the work of any Baroque composer. In fact, the term Affektenlehre appears to have been used first by eighteenth century musicologist and composer Johann Mattheson, who was at pains to point out the subjective nature of musical response: "We shall ... give willingly to everyone the freedom that they choose for this or that by the characteristics that best correspond to their own temperamental tendencies."3 For Mattheson, Affektenlehre was a general Cartesian theory that based affections on physical laws for the body, not a specifically musical term.

Mattheson believed the experience of music involved four steps: hearing music; hermeneutically interpreting various symbols that lead to a recognition of an affection; perceiving the affection; and through reflection of the experience, ideally achieving moral improvement. Mattheson gave general advice on how to express affections musically, and on the affective qualities of dance forms, instruments, and keys—for example, joy is best expressed by large and expanded intervals, the English gigue conveys ardent and fleeting zeal, and E major is the saddest key. However, as noted above, these were not intended to be rigid doctrines. Throughout the Baroque period, composers addressed affective considerations individually, and produced a diverse body of music compositions and theory.


1 See, for example, Aristotle's Rhetoric (online version available at <>). Chapters relevant to this w/u: Book II, chapters 1-11.
2 English translation available online at <>. The passions are enumerated in articles 52-69.
3 Buelow, p. 401, quoting Mattheson's Der Vollkommene capellmeister (1739).


Anderson, Nicholas. Baroque Music. London. Thames and Hudson. 1994.
Buelow, George J. "Johann Mattheson and the invention of the Affektenlehre," in New Mattheson Studies. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1983.
Palisca, Claude. Baroque Music. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall. 1991.

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