Mesmerising Sounds: The Role of Music in Animal Magnetism

JamesKJames Kennaway, PhD, is a Historian of Medicine at Newcastle University. His book Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease is a study of the notion that music can cause illness, from eighteenth-century fears of over-stimulated nerves to the Nazi concept of ‘degenerate music’, concluding with a discussion of the use of music in the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and acoustic weapons of the ‘War on Terror’, as well as the current debate on music and the brain. He has published widely on music and medicine and related topics. Before starting at Newcastle, he held positions at Oxford, Stanford, Vienna and Durham. Email: Follow James on Twitter.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), the ‘discoverer’ of Animal Magnetism, pioneer of what would later be called hypnotism and occult charlatan, has long been acknowledged as a fascinatingly ambiguous figure, someone who is hard to fit into histories of respectable scientific progress. The keen interest in the medical powers that he and his followers showed in music reflects his ambiguous status. The view of music that Mesmerists put forward varied a great deal, but in general they mixed up mystical correspondences and the ancient tradition of the Harmony of the Spheres with strikingly up-to-date analogies with electricity. Mesmer himself regarded both animal magnetism and music as matters of ‘sympathetic vibration’, and as his 1779 Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal argued, animal magnetism could be communicated, propagated, and reinforced by sounds. He explicitly stated that music could improve health in the context of mesmeric treatment, and also that musicians who were gifted with strong magnetic powers could over-stimulate the nervous systems of listeners and cause illness.

Music also clearly played a remarkable role in the practice of Animal Magnetism.It is well documented that pianos, violins and harps, and especially the glass harmonica featured prominently in Mesmer’s treatments and those of his followers. Several contemporary commentators such as Augustin Durand in his 1819 Dissertation sur l’Influence que peut exercer sur l’homme la Musique consideree dans ses rapports avec la Medicine and Johann Peter Schneider in his Medizinischer Gebrauch der Musik of 1835 suspected that what looked like miraculous cures caused by Mesmerism were in fact due to the power of music.The image below depicts a typical Parisian scene, with Mesmerised patients singing and playing the harpsichord. This fashion for musical Mesmerism continued for decades. For instance, years later Franz Schubert seems to have played some of his piano music to aid mesmeric treatment in Vienna.

Franz Anton Mesmer. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Franz Anton Mesmer. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mesmer is perhaps best known to music history because of his friendship with the Mozart family in the late 1760s. Indeed, some sources claim that Wolfgang Mozart’s first opera Bastien und Bastienne was performed in Mesmer’s own garden in the Landstrasse district of Vienna. Later, Cosi fan tutte, the 1790 opera that Mozart wrote based on a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, would contain an elaborate satire on Animal Magnetism. In the final scene of Act One, the servant Despina, disguised as a quack doctor claiming to be able to produce a miracle cure for love-sickness using a magnet. Mesmer’s links to the Viennese music world went back to his treatment of the 18-year-old Maria Theresa Paradis, a musician talented enough to be patronised by Maria Theresa who had been blind since the age of three. He seems to have caused some improvement to her sight, but at the cost of her nerves and her piano techniques.

Much of the interest of Mesmerists in music related to the glass harmonica (or armonica). This instrument, which works on the same principle as wine glasses rubbed with a wet finger, was developed by Benjamin Franklin in the 1761, and remained in vogue until the early nineteenth century. An account of Mesmer’s own skills on the instrument comes to us for no less a source than a letter from Leopold Mozart to his son Wolfgang from 1773.

‘Herr von Mesmer, at whose house we lunched on Monday, played to us on Miss Davies’s harmonica or glass instrument and played very well. It cost him 50 ducats and it is very beautifully made… Wolfgang too has played upon it. How I should like to have one’.

Looking back many years later, the poet, physician and Mesmerist Justinus Kerner’s memoirs of Mesmer recounted hearing the ‘music of the spheres’ when Mesmer improvised on the instrument. In fact, the association of the instrument with Mesmerism was one reason why it quickly went out of fashion. Another was that it was widely believed to be seriously dangerous. The Miss Davies referred to in the letter is one of the two Welsh sisters who became famous for playing the instrument in the 1770s, whose retirement was blamed on the nervous strain of the music. When the famous Austrian harmonica player Marianne Kirchgessner, for whom Wolfgang Mozart wrote two pieces (K. 617), died in 1808, her death was laid at the door of instrument’s power.

The fears of music in the context of the glass harmonica and Mesmerism often had a clear sexual subtext. The Swiss Mesmerists Jacob Christoph Scherb and Johann H. Rahn’s published correspondence of 1787 on the topic of Animal Magnetism implicitly compares it to both sex and music. ‘Especially remarkable are the examples of music and love. Here one sees how instruments can set the nerves, the soul and the passions in motion: this is particularly true of the glass harmonica’. Already in 1784 the French Royal Commission implicitly compared mesmeric crisis to orgasm, noting that, ‘Women are always magnetized by men…the last stage, which terminates the sweetest emotions, is often a convulsion’. Decades of warnings and satires followed. The Scottish society physician James Makittrick Adair made a handwritten note in his copy of his own Essay on a Non-Descript, or Newly Invented Disease; Its Nature, Causes, and Means of Relief, with Some very Important Observations on the Powerful and most Surprizing Effects of Animal Magnetism that read, ‘Not many months ago a certain Baronet detected his Lady’s magnetizing Doctor in the act of administering to her Ladyship in a mode not strictly professional’. The magnetiseur ‘made his escape from the house, followed by the enraged Baronet, whom he outstripped in the race and left the cuckold to have recourse to legal vengeance’.

Mesmeric therapy. A group of mesmerised French patients Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mesmeric therapy. A group of mesmerised French patients
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Music continued to have an important role in the more self-consciously occult Mesmerism. This was in a sense a continuation of a long-standing Humanist debate about why the remarkable powers ascribed to music in Antiquity had apparently disappeared from the modern world. The solution to the mystery was, they argued, that miraculous effects could be found, if you looked hard enough and employed mesmeric powers. The Mesmerist journals and pamphlets of the early nineteenth century offer countless examples of musical hallucinations experienced by mesmerized patients, mesmeric cures achieved with the aid of music and tales of tone-deaf patients developing miraculous musical talents while in a magnetic sleep. For example, the Copenhagen Mesmerist Joachim Dietrich Brandis, Über psychische Heilmittel und Magnetismus from 1818 reported a case of a nun having fits when she heard music. In 1841 Friedrich Wieeck recorded strange mesmeric events in which an imaginative young girl simply called Wilhelmine Auguste K. suddenly became musically talented and able to play back melodies she had heard and harmonise when in a mesmeric trance. Similarly, George Baldwin, British Consul-general in Egypt, gave an account of a kitchen boy who improvised an Italian poem when magnetised by the sound of a harp.

Mesmeric therapy.Anton Mesmer holding a wand. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mesmeric therapy.Anton Mesmer holding a wand. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Further examples include Johann Ulrich Wirth’s 1836 Theorie des Somnabulismus oder des thierischen Magnetismus, which provides just one of many instances of magnetized people having musical hallucinations. The German Mesmerist journal Archiv für den thierischen Magnetismus published many accounts of bizarre interactions of music and mesmeric trances. In 1817 Dr Nick gave an account of hymns sung when a magnetic trance. The following year the Dutchman G.G. van Ghert described how music caused spasms in a Mesmerised clairvoyant boy. Dr Spiritus of Solingen described a mesmerised woman was miraculously able to play to the piano despite having no ear when awake. Dr Kretschmar mentioned a beneficial spasmodic sweating cure effected by piano and guitar. And Georg Kieser in his 1822 System des Tellurismus oder thierischen Magnetismus. Ein Handbuch fuer Naturforscher und Aerzte argued that minor chords, along with moonlight, garlic, incense and mirrors, were good for increasing the power of Animal Magnetism.

The idea of music as a mesmeric force proved highly influential well beyond Mesmerist circles. The historian Alison Winter has pointed to the profound similarities between depictions of the new star conductors of the nineteenth century and Mesmerists. The French composer and critic Hector Berlioz was very fond of metaphors relating to Animal Magnetism, and wrote appreciatively about its positive effects on his own health. A later cartoon went as far as to portray a mesmeric struggle between Berlioz and Richard Wagner. Animal Magnetism was also a common theme in the music criticism of the German poet Heinrich Heine. For instance, he described the music of Franz Liszt as a matter of ‘magnetism’ to be explained by ‘pathology’.

7760.dd.4 (3), Pl.XX

It is striking that music became much less significant part of discussions of trance states after people like James Braid attempted to create a modern science of hypnosis by ditching much of the perceived occult aspects in the 1840s. In this striving for scientific and social respectability, the use of music was too associated with the harmony of the spheres and Naturphilosophie metaphors about unseen harmonic fluids. Nevertheless, fears that music had powers to cause pathological trance states and hypnotise listeners continued to be a recurring theme in discussions on the topic. For example, in the experiments conducted at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s, Jean-Martin Charcot and his colleagues banged gongs and sang lullabies in the belief that music could trigger catatonic states among their female hysterical patients. In the Cold War century, the idea that music could ‘brainwash’ listeners became widespread. Likewise, during the 1980s’ ‘Satanic Panic’ the theory was common that backward message hidden in Heavy Metal songs could hypnotise fans and lead to murder or suicide. Contemporary media reports, like those relating to so-called i-dosing, continue to raise such fears. It seems in fact that our own day, more than the era of Mesmer, is the Golden Age of mesmeric music.

© James Kennaway

About Sommer_HPS

Dr. Andreas Sommer, historian of the human sciences at Cambridge University, UK. View all posts by Sommer_HPS

4 responses to “Mesmerising Sounds: The Role of Music in Animal Magnetism

  • Peter Mulacz

    The article says “For instance, years later Franz Schubert seems to have played some of his piano music to aid mesmeric treatment in Vienna.” Mesmeric cures in Vienna ended shortly after Mesmer left for Paris (1778) as his wife (who remained in Vienna) continued treating the patients in his clinic. Then Mesmerism came to a still stand in Vienna. During the later years, Mesmer paid two visits to Vienna, the second one following his wife’s death (1790) yet nothing is known about contacts to any mesmeric colleagues there.

    So—as there was no continuity of Mesmerism at the turn of the century—the question arises: WHO carried out mesmeric cures in Vienna during the first third of the 19th century where Schubert (1797-1828) is said to have played his piano music?

    Peter Mulacz, Vienna

  • James Kennaway

    Hello Peter,
    There’s an interesting article on that subject.
    Hope that helps.

    • Peter Mulacz

      Hi James,

      thank you so much for alerting me to that paper; very interesting indeed. However, from the description of the situation it becomes quite clear that it was not a proper “mesmeric treatment” but rather a setting in the style of Puységur.

      Remember, during his Viennese time Mesmer used only the passes whereas in Paris he used mainly the Bacquet (and in addition music, preferrably by his glass harmonica, for enhancement of the effects).

      Somnabulism, trance states, prediction of the future development of the illness, trance prescription for other patients of remedies and cures—all this was brought into the later course of events in Animal Magnetism by Puységur and is totally alien to Mesmer’s original method.


  • James Kennaway

    Dear Peter,
    I’m glad you liked that article. I was using ‘mesmeric’ rather loosely, it’s true.

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