The Four Temperaments
George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
The Four Temperaments: Theme with Four Variations for String Orchestra and Piano
Photo © Paul Kolnik
Balanchine choreographed The Four Temperaments for the opening program of Ballet Society, the forerunner of New York City Ballet. It is one of his earliest experimental works, fusing classical steps with a lean and angular style. The ballet is inspired by the medieval belief that human beings are made up of four different humors that determine a person’s temperament. Each temperament was associated with one of the four classical elements (earth, air, water, and fire), which in turn were the basis of the four humors (black bile, blood, phlegm, and bile) that composed the body.
In a healthy body, the humors were in balance. But if one became predominant it determined an individual’s temperament. Thus a person dominated by black bile was melancholic (gloomily pensive), by blood was sanguinic (headstrong and passionate), by phlegm was phlegmatic (unemotional and passive), and by bile was choleric (bad-tempered and angry). The titles of the ballet’s four movements — “Melancholic,” “Sanguinic,” “Phlegmatic,” and “Choleric” — reflect these principles.
Hindemith’s music was commissioned by Balanchine, an accomplished pianist who wanted a short work he could play at home with friends during his evening musicales. It was completed in 1940 and had its first public performance at a 1944 concert with Lukas Foss as the pianist.
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), a key representative of the neo-classical school, is considered one of the greatest German composers of this century. He fled the Nazis (who banned his music) and was a professor of music at Yale from 1940-1953. A conductor, violinist, violist, pianist, and theorist, he wrote several books on music theory.