Month: December 2009

Four instances of the sublime in music

Possibly more than any other form of art, it is music that lends itself most often and most effectively to feelings of the sublime. This is perhaps because music, unlike visual art, and certainly unlike literature, is abstract in its very essence. If we accept the definition of ‘abstract’ as that which is ‘characterised by a lack of or freedom from representational qualities’[1] we can deduce that, despite one’s best efforts, it is potentially futile to ascribe a pure and absolute meaning to a piece of music, as no degree of description or representation can be attributed to the music without remaining external to the very music itself: no description can transcend the effect and essence of the music itself. As Nietzsche suggests in The Birth of Tragedy, ‘By no means is it possible for language adequately to render the cosmic symbolism of music,’[2] as it ‘symbolises a sphere which is above all appearance and before all phenomena…Language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, cannot at all disclose the innermost essence of music.’[3] Therefore, language is an impotent tool in providing a full understanding of music, and so the meaning of a musical work must lie within the musical work itself, separate and free from a fully linguistic and logical comprehension.

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