Application of Johnson’s image schemata in merging poetic imagery and principles of violin technique (V3)


I will here return to Mark Johnson’s embodied gestalt schemata to discuss the processes of embodied reading of the implied poetic imagery in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There are two kinds of kinaesthetic implications in the Seasons. The first comprises the human actions falling into the category of mimetic gestures and dance (these will resonate with the findings in the studies of Telemann and Rebel above), like the hindered body movements in the summer heat, the wild dance of shepherds and nymphs, the stumbling of a drunkard, or falling onto the ice of a frozen lake. The other category relates more to the sonic qualities of natural phenomena, like thunder, birdsong, the barking of a dog, rustling of leaves, etc. While the physical actions of the first category are easily grasped through embodied experiences, the natural phenomena are external to the human experience, and can be embodied only metaphorically.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of Johnson’s enquiry encompasses also the metaphorical elaboration of the embodied experiences into more abstract domains, i.e. language structure and abstract thinking. In this respect, we understand the phenomena of the outside world by projecting patterns from our embodied experiential world onto the perceived phenomena. The creative function of imagination does not pertain only to music and arts in general. Johnson understands the power of imagination as central to meaning and rationality. The ‘[…] Aristotelian tradition sees the imagination as an indispensable and pervasive operation by which sense perceptions are recalled as images and are made available to discursive thought as the contents of our knowledge of the physical world’ (Johnson, 1987, p. 144).

I will revisit some of the gestural actions occurring in Vivaldi’s Seasons in a comparison with related gestalt image schemata.

In the introduction to Section V3 'Poetic Imagery' I point out how similar musical structures, in this case the eighth note patterns, can be treated differently depending on the underlying poetic content. Three of the concertos begin with forward moving eighth notes that are hindered. In the first movement of the Spring concerto, the merry approach of spring 'hesitates' on the third beat.


Ex. 1 and Vid. 1 The markings in the music illustrate the 'hesitant' gesture on the third beat in the first two bars of the Spring concerto (Vivaldi, 1725).


In the Summer concerto, the hindrance, happening on the silences of the prolonged downbeats, is caused by an unbearable heat.


Ex. 2 and Vid. 2 The 'V' markings represent a hindrance that stops the forward motion represented by arrows, in the opening bars of the Summer concerto (Vivaldi, 1725).

Autumn gets stuck on some odd eighth notes due to an extra heavy step in a vigorous village dance, or maybe just by the stumbling of a drunkard.


Ex. 3 and Vid. 3 The opening bar of the Autumn concerto, where the B-flat eighth note halftone step clashes dissonantly against the bass, creating the sensation of a drunken dance (Vivaldi, 1725).


The kinaesthetic action, implied in the gesture triggered by encountering a hindrance, relates to the image schema of BLOCKAGE. Belonging to the group of gestalts for forceful interactions, this schema represents our experience of encountering ‘obstacles that block or resist our force. The relevant gestalt can be represented as a force vector encountering a barrier and then taking any number of possible directions’ (Johnson, 1987, p. 45).



Ex. 4 The gestalt image schema of BLOCKAGE (Johnson, 1987, p. 45) compared with my annotation in the score.


The 'frosty' eighth notes in the beginning of the Winter concerto seem to arise from within the players, creating the impression of shivering, ‘frozen amid icy snows’ (Everett, 1996, p. 75).


Ex. 5 Vid 4 The opening bars of the Winter concerto (Vivaldi, 1725).


The obstinate drive of the eighth notes is derived from the embodied experience of gaining momentum while walking down a slope, or having the wind at one's back. The intriguing aspect of this movement is that it is initiated by an external force – nature, and the icy advancement of winter – rather than by human action. People feel how the chill penetrates their bodies and bones. The kinaesthetic quality of motion is in this case just an experiential projection of a possibility, ability, or presence of an external moving force.

An applicable gestalt image schema for such an unhindered motion is Johnson’s image schema of ENABLEMENT, which he defines as

[…] a felt sense of power (or lack of power) to perform some action. […] While there is no actualized force vector here, it is legitimate to include this structure of possibility in our common gestalts for force, since there are potential force vectors present, and there is a definite 'directedness' (or potential path of motion) present. That is, you feel able to move the chair over to the comer, or to lift the comb up to your hair. The gestalt is represented, then, only by a potential force vector and an absence of barriers or blocking counterforces. (Johnson, 1987, p. 47)



Ex. 6 The image schema of ENABLEMENT (Johnson, 1987, p. 47) and markings extracted from the music, associated with the sensation in the body when playing the opening of the Winter concerto.


In the section that follows the 'frosty' introduction in the Winter concerto, we find two extremely contrasting patterns, comprising a sequence in bb. 22-26. A half bar of fast repeated notes alternates with sixteenth note octave jumps.


Ex. 7 The phrase combining contrasting patterns of repeated notes and octave jumps, bb. 22-23 in Vivaldi’s Winter concerto (Vivaldi, 1725).


The pattern might recall the sword fighting motif in Telemann’s Don Quichotte. The musical structure seems to imply similar gestural activity, although in the Telemann the contrasting jumps and reiterations merge into one coherent pattern.


Ex. 8 Dramatic sixteenth note passages in Telemann’s Don Quichotte, ‘Son attaque des moulins à vent’, bb. 5-6, (17??).


Like the Telemann, where the specific action implied in the musical structure is revealed in the narrative of Don Quichotte, Vivaldi advises the freezing villagers in the Sonnet that in order to survive the ‘icy snows’ one should ‘stamp one’s feet at every moment’ (Everett, 1996, p. 75).

In order to construct the gesture that assimilates the musical structure, I conceive of the repeated notes as a contained build up that culminates in a sudden explosion of the octave jumps. The culmination is intensified by the contradiction of the bow action and the body movements. On the repeated notes, the bow action pushes forward while the body resists movement, until the last moment before the explosion. It is a tension activated by the timing, not by dynamics. One analogy is that the repeated notes are like hearing water boiling, and the octave jumps finally exploding is like the lid being snatched off the pot.


Ex 9 Vid. 5 I embody the repeated notes and octave jumps as a contained culmination leading to a sudden stamping of one’s feet, bb. 22-23 in Vivaldi’s Winter concerto (Vivaldi, 1725).


The kinaesthetic energy of the gestural shape in the contained culmination leading towards the stamping feet action connects to the combined gestalt image schemata of CONTAINMENT and OUT.

If we look for common structure in our many experiences of being in something, or for locating something within another thing, we find recurring organization of structures: the experiential basis for in-out orientation is that of spatial boundedness. (Johnson, 1987, p. 21)



Ex. 10 Gestalt image schemata of CONTAINMENT and OUT (Johnson, 1987, pp. 23 and 32).


The in-out trajectory in the action of 'getting out' of the repeated notes’ (containment) into the 'freedom' of the octave jumps is translated into the gestural structure of body movements in performance.



Ex. 11 The culmination in the repeated notes (the first three pictures) 'explodes' in the stamping action. This sequence is shown in Vid. 5 above.


If some dance forms, like the Sarabande, appear to challenge a dancer’s balance (V2d), some of Vivaldi’s poetic images go intentionally beyond control. The most obvious passages where the soloist is dared to enact being off balance are the scenes with drunkards in Autumn, and walking on ice in the Winter concerto.

Where I discuss Johnson’s image schema of BALANCE (Johnson, 1987, p. 86) in V2 'Dance' above, it becomes obvious that balance in dance, and in musical performance does not imply a static form, but an interplay of forces in a moving structure. The exertion of force causing a distortion of balance must be compensated by a reciprocal amount of force as a response.


 Ex. 12 Image schema of TWIN-PAN BALANCE (Johnson, 1987, p. 86).

In the following video examples, I apply the image schema of BALANCE in various circumstances of distortion. In the context of the implied poetic imagery, manifested both in musical structure and in the gestures of the performers, I reshape Johnson’s balance schema to correspond with the redistribution of forces in a given action. In Ex. 13, the drunkard misses the step and falls off balance.


Ex. 13 & Vid. 5 The drunkard is losing his balance in the first movement of the Autumn concerto bb. 32-34 (Vivaldi, 1725).



In Ex. 14, the balance is hanging on a hair. The steps are shaky and the body movements are tense.



Ex. 14 & Vid. 6 A shaky walk on the ice in the opening bars of the last movement of the Winter concerto (Vivaldi, 1725).


And then it happens. The ice cracks and the body thuds down with a couple of bounces on the way.


Ex. 15 & Vid. 6 Breaking of the ice and a devastating fall in the last movement of the Winter concerto, bb. 94-99 (Vivaldi, 1725).


Johnson’s gestalt image schemata are very helpful in the analysis of the relationship between the body movements of a violinist and the real physical actions implied by a narrative, and further, between body movement in performance and the step-units of a dancer. But here, an understanding of the role of embodiment in the interpretation of even more subtle and more abstract images and gestures pertaining to poetry are made possible through Johnson’s theory. The assumed dichotomy between the Gesturist and Soundist approaches can now be questioned, when considering the very detail of how an embodied reading of a virtuoso violin concerto can enhance the technical rendering of the music. Although I started this study with the ambition to explore a Soundist approach, it was only when I managed to embody the imagery in the music that a convincing version of the music emerged in performance.

Further conclusions can be drawn from the three studies (V1-V3). I will elaborate more on these materials in the Conclusions.



Analytical approach V3



Back to 'Poetic imagery' V3



Analytical approach V3



Back to 'Poetic imagery' V3