Sonorous Sublimes: Music and Sound 1670-1850

Sonorous Sublimes: Music and Sound 1670-1850



‘[Music was] a latecomer to the feast of the sublime’, conference convenors Miranda Stanyon (University of Cambridge) and Sarah Hibberd (University of Nottingham) observe in their flyer for this imaginative, searching and deeply[DS1] interdisciplinary conference, ‘feeding off an established discourse concerned with the verbal and visual’. In terms of twentieth-century scholarship they are right, of course. Elsewhere in the humanities, the sublime was suffering exhaustion when it achieved belated currency in Anglophone musicology in the 1990s. Writing in 2011 ‘Against the Sublime’, the art historian James Elkins called for a ‘moratorium’ on a word that – in Costelloe’s paraphrase – had come to seem ‘anaemic, bourgeois, elitist, feeble, ideological, ineffective’ and so on (see Timothy M. Costelloe, ‘The Sublime: A Short Introduction to a Long History’ in The Sublime from Antiquity to the Present, ed. Costelloe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1). In this difficult context, ‘sonorous sublimes’ revivified the category, not by applying it to music so much by applying it to music as by dispersing music and the musical across other media, animating the literary and the visual with sound, music, voice, performance and – taking the pluralization to heart -- variety.

The conference began paradoxically with music ‘itself’ set outside the order of the sublime by Sophie Hache (Université de Lille 3). Delving Having delved into late seventeenth-century French sermons, Hache reported that the sublime was not assigned to the sacred music of the church, nor the sounds of nature, but solely to the divine music of angels and, more abstractly, the heavenly sphere. Mortal music, even sung with faith[DS2], and seeking union with God, was too lowly to warrant the epithet. The issue warranted more development and contextualization than time allowed. Arguably, what we learn from sermons is how theologians and clergy regulated access to the sublime. It is no surprise – given the context of the absolutism of Louis XIV -that clergy, preaching according to their social interests, accorded the arts of (other) men little purchase on the sublime qua divinity. Surely the musical is ‘inside’ sermons (as oratory) as well as a subject of them. Googling Bossuet[DS3], my first hit suggested he[DS4] was no stranger to the power of human sounds: ‘[Bossuet possessed] a voice that was deep and sonorous, an imposing personality, and an animated and graceful style of gesture. [Alphonse de] Lamartine [1790-1869] says he had “a voice which, like that of the thunder in the clouds, or the organ in the cathedral, had never been anything but the medium of power and divine persuasion to the soul”’. (Grenville Kleiser, ‘Bossuet’, in ‘The World’s Greatest Sermons’ < (30 June 2015)).

Responding to Hache, and to a fascinating though strictly art-historical paper by Lydia Hamlett (University of Cambridge, Department of Art History) on ceiling paintings and the sublime before Edmund Burke’s epochal treatise of 1757, Emma Gilby (University of Cambridge, Department of French) rescued the sonorous when it seemed to be slipping away in ingenious comments on silence and voice, awed muteness and address[DS5] in Longinus, Rembrandt and prayer. (‘Fiat Lux’, Gilby reminded us, is an utterance, a voice, not simply a trope of divine illumination). Thus the stock of the sonorous sublime deflated and then rebounded within the first session. Towards the end of the first day, Penelope Gouk (University of Manchester), in a response to my own paper and that of Stinj[MH6] Bussels (Universiteit Leiden), was courageous enough to ask some fundamental questions: isn’t the sublime a romantic aesthetic of music? Why is it being backed up into earlier periods? What are the sources for linking the sublime and music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – in what domains or disciplines are those links made? Is the sublime a necessary term, or could one be powerfully moved without referring the experience to the sublime?

Fuller answers are likely to emerge as authors reflect on and revise their papers for the projected book of essays, but some preliminary thoughts were mooted across the three days or can be floated here (to keep the conversation going). The romantic metaphysics of instrumental music, which might usefully be included in the book, represents a historically specific, if enduring, deployment of the sublime as a sign of music’s aesthetic autonomy – its transcendence of other media, of (certain kinds of) social function and of the worldly. Though not the subject of a paper as such, this topic was embodied for us in the form of Andrew Bowie (Royal Holloway, University of London) who also gave[MH7] an improvised talk emphasizing the ineffability of the sublime in post-Kantian philosophy and thus the wrong-headedness of trying to define it. That said, Wiebke Thormählen, responding to papers by Nils Holger Petersen (Københavns Universitet, Department of Theology) on Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Philip Shaw (University of Leicester, Department of History) on Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, noted that, as a practice (if not as a philosophical concept), the sublime around 1800 retained strong affiliations with the visual and theatrical. Even in romantic contexts, then, the sublime was neither monolithic nor stable, nor was it[DS8] ‘about’ autonomy. Roger Parker (King’s College London) mentioned a debate in London in the 1830s over what type of music could properly be styled sublime, a subject that would add much to the book of the conference.

As these brief summaries reveal, it is difficult to discern a historical shape to ‘music and the sublime’ in part because of the varied locations of sublime discourse and the slipperiness of the term. In so far as the musical sublime around 1800 was and wasn’t representational, was otherworldly and theatrical, was met[DS9] in unruly nature, in the human heart and in the world to come, was not self-evidently located in ‘works’ but might be attributed to them, it seems to be largely determined by (the contradictions of) Romanticism, rather than its own autonomous force. Similarly, theories of the sublime around 1700[DS10] – distinguished by their proximity to ideas about language and representation – hardly escape[DS11], but rather are structured by then-dominant ways of knowing. Perhaps the sublime walks hand in hand with histories that we already know, yielding (as it yielded across the three-days of ‘Sonorous Sublimes’) to chronological narration because of its historical contingency, not on account of any essential, transhistorical identity.

The question ‘Does the sublime have a history?’ is obviously paradoxical, given how often this category has spoken of something ‘beyond’ or outside time. The situation is made poignant for scholars of music, because their histories speak of music’s ‘emancipation’ from mimesis, of a movement from the fetters of representation towards the sublime as disembodied spirit (in the idealist formulation) or forms in motion (in the positivist retelling). A history of music and the sublime needs to come to terms with the history of music as the sublime. Enshrined, but also concealed, in the idea of ‘absolute’ or ‘pure’ music, the sublime was a foundational truth for musicology – intrinsic to the nature of the art of music. Musicology did not only ‘feed off’ the sublime, but it catered the banquet. [DS12]Ironically, musical scholarship started to write about the sublime when it stopped being of it – when it transcended the discourse of musical transcendence and recovered a fuller sense of music’s being in the world.

On the basis of ‘Sonorous Sublimes’, it appears that music before about 1780 was primarily linked to the sublime within the domain of literature, a point that Miranda Stanyon proposes in her important forthcoming monograph[MH13], and which clearly continued beyond 1800, as her evocative paper on opera in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater revealed. Thus the epithet ‘musical sublime’ often pointed not to music’s autonomy but to multimedia. As for the sublime ‘itself’, for most of the period 1680-1850 it offered not transcendence but various kinds of emotive and spiritual heightening (which music was well placed to enhance) such as rhetorical intensification, assent[DS14] through hierarchies of genre and style, or lofty association with the (often coterminous) figures of God and sovereign. For example, Stinj[MH15] Bussels showed how references to hellish noise and celestial harmony in laudatory poems for the New Town Hall of Amsterdam (1655) did more than musicalize architecture[DS16]: they also linked this monument to civic power, superhuman achievement and the triumph of divine order over the forces of evil. My own paper (Matthew Head, King’s College London), seeking to understand better the discourse of penetration and ravishment in the reception of pseudo-Longinus in Britain around 1700, suggested that the currency of the sublime was related, dialectically, to the then peculiarly prominent anxiety about sodomy – those subjects rubbing shoulders in the writings of the English critic of dramatic poetry and Italian opera John Dennis. Though the constellation of music, sodomy and the sublime approaches a conceptual scandal, the connections between these queerly affiliated terms are worth exploring, I believe, if the sublime is to transcend euphemistic engagement with human experience and desire.

The emergence of notions of genius and the God-artist ideology in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – familiar to musicologists from the reception of Handel, C. P. E. Bach and Haydn – seems to represent a mediating step between the ‘early modern’ and romantic phases of music and the sublime. During this phase a set of readily intelligible musical signifiers for sublimity was developed as part of the bourgeois public sphere that could be deployed as part of a relatively accessible communicative process. Suzanne Aspden (University of Oxford), taking a fresh look at the English-born followers of Handel, argued against such period witnesses as John Potter and Charles Burney, that native composers ‘cited’ rather than copied Handel[DS17], and did so productively, to elevate themselves, the art of music and an emerging national identity. Keith Chapin (Cardiff University), concerned with sublimity as a component of compositional technique, explored the tension between simplicity and complexity, or nature and artifice, in the music of C. P. E. Bach and in its reception. Rightly refusing to resolve this tension, Chapin suggested it involved a discrepancy between the ‘neo-Classical’ literary sublime, promulgated by Nicolas Boileau, and musicians’ more rhetorical, Longinean mind-set. (Whether complexity or simplicity is the route to the sublime was later addressed by Stanyon, who explored how that evasive[DS18] term ‘harmony’ could point up sublime transcendence, a state of Concordia discours in De Quincey’s Confessions[DS19], a text that culminates in a scene of the narrator’s infinite repose, in the face of death, by a tranquil sea.) Finally, in a richly illustrated and warmly received keynote address, Elaine Sisman (Columbia University) extended her recent work on Haydn’s solar poetics into a nuanced reading of ocular metaphors and word-setting in The Seasons. Linking breath and light, quotation and memorialization, ear and eye, Sisman problematized the clear boundaries surrounding the musical sublime when it is reduced to a Ratnerian topic, revealing that just as the sublime has no clear beginning, so ambiguity surrounds its end.

With the sublime a buzzword in the nineteenth century, scholars face a different kind of challenge than those seeking to discover it in earlier periods. In an incisive paper on Cherubini’s Médée, Hibberd provided the necessary new angle: performance. Against a backdrop in which the French Revolution and its orators were figured as sublime, and given an opera whose lead character has often been linked to the Terror, contemporary reviewers discovered the sublime above all in the performance of Mlle[DS20] Scio (Médée) – less so in the opera ‘itself’, even though its storms, fires and overwhelming orchestral effects amount to a lexicon of the sublime. Drawing on the notion of danger at a safe distance, Hibberd traced a double emphasis in reviews on revengeful and violent passions, on the one hand, and the performer’s physical fragility on the other, a duality that insulated the audience even as it offered them a cathartic experience of revolutionary barbarity. In a subtle and wide-ranging paper, David Trippett (University of Bristol) returned to Schopenhauer to understand the place of industrial and revolutionary noises in Wagner’s soundscapes, discovering in the orchestral mediation of ‘the real’ that quintessential tenant tenet of post-Kantian philosophy: the world in all its vastness exists for us only as perception and only in time. Expanding this beyond customary reference to Wagner’s endless melody and techniques of transition, Trippett distinguished[DS21] attempts by the likes of Christian Michaelis [DS22]to formulate the sublime as a musical style from that ‘mode of perception’ – serene in the face of pain – that echoes through works like Das Rheingold.[DS23]

Happily, papers did not observe the cut-off date of 1850, and in later sessions it became clear that music’s privileged, if contradictory, place in the order of the sublime is still with us. Tom McAuley [DS24]seemed to get at this in his responses to papers by Corinna Russell (University of Cambridge, Department of English) and Trippett, projecting clips of (Fiuza-Carrilho) Wagner[DS25] in the British talent show X Factor. Though offering this material under the heading of the ridiculous, McAuley’s comments suggested that the formal and performative techniques of sublimity enjoy currency in mass entertainment, not least because music – when not pulling on heart strings in a pathetic mode – typically seeks to uplift, electrify and (in the older parlance) transport. At the same time, this currency surely performs a critique of the high-art and high-bourgeois pretensions of the sublime by suggesting that the boundary between the neighbouring categories of the sublime and the ridiculous may be impossible to maintain across different times, media and interpretive communitiesy. Kiene Brillenburg-Wurth (Universiteit Utrecht) put postmodernism to work in her paper on ‘the posthuman sublime’, which explored the affinity of musical minimalism with ‘the database aesthetic’ – a kind of Kantian mathematical sublime robbed of wonder in which lists, lacking narrative shape, are infinitely searchable but not knowable in their entirety. Implicit in this argument about minimalism as (in Burke’s terms) an ‘artificial infinite’ are questions such as: is the sublime (sometimes) boring? Is the experience of the sublime an experience of transcendence or of being trapped? If we identified the elusive sublime, would we want it anymore? These and other questions thrown up by papers and responses focusing on sublimity today can help the topic to achieve that freshness and preciseness that James Elkins lamented and which ‘Sonorous Sublimes’ did so much to recover.

matthew head


[DS1]‘thoroughly”? “Deeply” a bit scary for me. MH: let’s just delete deeply

[DS2]this tripped me up a bit, though your meaning is clear. Maybe “even in the context of religious worship”, or is this too prosaic? MH: I like your alternative, my phrase is a bit eliptical

[DS3]we need extra info on who this was. MH: ‘Googling Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet – preacher and apologist to Louis XIVth – my first ...’

[DS4]I’d have a “that” after “suggested’ for the sake of rhythm, though no problem if you’d rather not. MH: fine to add ‘that’

[DS5]slightly obscure usage? MH: how about ‘speech’

[MH6]= Stijn

[MH7]the organisers suggest I change this; so can change the sentence beginning ‘Though ...’ to read ‘Though not the subject of a paper as such, the philosophical context was touched on by Andrew Bowie (Royal Holloway, University of London) in an improvised talk emphasizing the ineffability of the sublime in post-Kantian philosophy and thus the wrong-headedness of trying to define it.’

[DS8]should we have something like “necessarily”: here = “nor was it necessarily about autonomy”? MH: yes agreed

[DS9]think I’d prefer something like “found” here, just on the basis that I stumbled across “met” on my first read-through. MH: agreed, ‘found’ is much better

[DS10]Just to check you do mean this – looks like you do. MH: yes 1700

[DS11]unclear to me MH: delete ‘hardly scape, but rather’ leaving ‘representation – are structured ...’

[DS12]just a few twiddles here for rhetorical emphasis. MH: nice, you’re good at this!

[MH13]OK, so her manuscript isn’t now ‘forthcoming’ and she didn’t like ‘important’; nor does she feel she makes literature the place of music, so how about ‘explores but also complicates in a monograph in preparation’

[DS14]should be “ascent”, I guess? MH: yes, ascent

[MH15]= Stijn

[DS16]would it be too fuddy-duddy to have “make architecture musical”? MH: your suggestion is good

[DS17]I got lost here. Problem with agency. Is this thought about citing/copying from Potter and Burney or from Aspden? I presume the former, and that we could insert “to the effect “ or “who said” before “that native”. But still not sure if that will fix it. Can you take a look? We do need some sort of rewrite here. MH: how about ‘...followers of Handel, argued that native composers cited rather than copied Handel, in order to elevate themselves, the art of music and an emerging national identity’.