In 1870, Richard Wagner wrote an essay commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, in which he suggested that Beethoven’s music was fundamentally different from what had come before. It was as if the medium itself had found in Beethoven a new set of resources:

Surveying the historical advance which the art of Music made through Beethoven, we may define it as the winning of a faculty withheld from her before: in virtue of that acquisition she mounted far beyond the region of the aesthetically Beautiful, into the sphere of the Sublime.

Fifty years earlier E. T. A. Hoffmann, the author and music critic, had used the same word, "sublime," to convey similar sentiments. Beethoven, Hoffmann wrote, is the "sublimest" of composers: his music "induces terror, fright, horror and pain." It "awakens that endless longing which is the essence of romanticism," "opens the realm of the colossal and immeasurable," and "leads the listener away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite."

It is still possible to understand what Hoffmann and Wagner were talking about. Beethoven’s music is remarkable: in its extreme length, insistent dissonances, and willfully angular juxtapositions; with its obsessive repetitions and overwhelming fortissimos, the music moves us in ways that the more genteel music of Mozart and Haydn does not. And though we have, to some extent, become accustomed to many features of Beethoven’s style, the music can still make us catch our breath. Beethoven is to Haydn as the roller coaster is to the Ferris wheel: his music shocks as well as pleases, and pleases, in part, because it shocks. We need a name for this special quality, and could do worse than to adopt the term "sublimity," already old by Hoffmann’s time, for that purpose.

But what, exactly, is sublimity? Is it that we are simply overwhelmed by Beethoven’s musicianship, the way that we are dazzled by Michael Jordan’s athleticism? Or is it the music’s passionate emotional content, the way it seems to access our darkest or most powerful feelings? (One might compare the singing/screaming of punk rock singers, who also are after something that is not simply pleasing.) Is it the way Beethoven crosses boundaries, daring to do things–repeating a single melodic figure a dozen or more times, for example, or writing twenty-minute sonata movements–that, we imagined, no right-minded composer would ever think of doing? Or is it more a matter of content: the way the audacity seems to be spiritually motivated, so that we can interpret Beethoven’s occasional departures from good taste as manifestations of a heroic, almost messianic impulse? Beethoven, remember, was the man who composed despite his deafness, and who had a habit of keeping princes waiting while he worked.

As a catch-all term for Beethoven’s ferocity, "sublimity" can refer to all of these things, of course. As used by Wagner and Hoffmann, however, the term has a more specific meaning. Or rather, it has two meanings. On the one hand, "sublimity" refers to specific musical features of Beethoven’s works–the length, the angularity, the dissonance, and so on. At the same time, however, it refers to the spiritual effect that the music is supposed to produce in listeners. Thus to describe Beethoven’s music as "sublime" is to make a philosophical claim about the power of music, namely that at its Beethovenian extremes it can transport audiences into a kind of metaphysical ecstasy. In Hoffmann’s words, it "leads the listener away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite." This conjunction of meanings was a fateful one, for it suggests that composers ought to concentrate on metaphysical enlightenment rather than "mere" entertainment. And that suggestion, in turn, is responsible for some of the excesses of nineteenth-century Romanticism. (As the critic Richard Taruskin has written: "the history of music in the nineteenth century could be written in terms of the encroachment of the sublime upon the domain of the beautiful.") But most of all, Wagner and Hoffmann’s view also represents a substantial simplification of the concept of "sublimity," both as it was used by the eighteenth-century philosophers who popularized the notion, and, more importantly, as we might want to use it. Beyond it lies a more complex and interesting concept, better suited to Beethoven’s music–and to our needs as well.

"When danger or pain press too nearly," wrote Edmund Burke in his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, "they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience." Beauty, according to Burke, is a matter of straightforward pleasure: the uncomplicated enjoyment we take in listening to Pachelbel’s Canon, or looking at a neo-classical painting. Sublimity, on the other hand, involves a more ambivalent sort of appreciation, in which the route of our pleasure passes through fear. Safe at home, we look out the window at a violent storm. Sensing the danger, adrenaline starts to rush through our bodies; yet we still enjoy the experience because at some level we know that we are safe. Too much danger, and we begin to feel genuine terror; too little danger, and we enter the realm of the (merely) beautiful.

Burke’s aim is to explain how we can take pleasure in experiences that, intrinsically, seem like they should be unpleasant. Burke mentions the sound of a hurricane, when appreciated from the proper distance, and great heights; we might add horror movies and haunted houses, roller coasters and punk rock. As a piece of psychology, his suggestion seems plausible.1 And it certainly captures part of what we might mean by saying that Beethoven’s music is "sublime." Beethoven’s music is tumultuous and hurricane-like, and not just in those pieces, such as the "Storm" movement of the Sixth Symphony, that have been associated with the violence of nature. But there is nothing in Burke’s account to suggest why the sublime should be associated with anything religious or "infinite." It is a purely psychological quality that we might just as well find in the cries of a wild animal (to choose another of Burke’s examples) as in the soaring climaxes of a great symphony.

Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, written about 35 years after Burke’s Enquiry, proposes a more spiritual interpretation of the concept. Analyzing beauty as a kind of "perfect fit" between an object and a human subject, he labels as "sublime" the feeling of awe and reverence that certain unlimited, immense, threatening, or incomprehensible phenomena seem to provoke in us–for example, a hurricane, or St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. As Kant remarks, the size of St. Peter’s defeats our perception: by the time our eyes move from the floor to the ceiling, we lose our memory of the starting point. Our apprehension exceeds ourcomprehension. And this incomprehension–rather than terror, as in Burke’s account–provokes a certain "reverence" in us. This reverence combines both pleasure and displeasure, a "momentary check to the vital forces, followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful."2

Kant argues that the pleasurable "discharge" is caused by the unconscious realization that we are in possession of "ideas" that can never be satisfied in human experience. These non-empirical ideas–which include our ideas of God, the Soul, and the World–are evidence of our status as non-material, transcendent beings: although we cannot comprehend the whole of a large cathedral, we can recognize, in our very failure, a human need for total comprehension, a need (and here Kant makes a suspicious logical leap) that suggests that we are more than merely empirical creatures. Failure, in other words, leads us to recognize the goals that we are failing to achieve, and this, in turn, leads us to reflect–unconsciously–on our own, "higher" capacities. Though we cannot resist the awesome might of a hurricane, we recognize in our weakness a need to tame even the most powerful forces of the world of experience.

Our incapacity to achieve this transcendent aim only increases our respect for that part of ourselves which requires the attempt:

our imagination, even when taxing itself to the uttermost on the score of this required comprehension of a given object … betrays its limits and its inadequacy, but still, at the same time, its proper vocation of making itself adequate to the same as a law.

Thus, the pleasure we take from the sublime is really a pleasure in ourselves, unconsciously projected onto the objects in nature. And if that is so,

… the feeling of the sublime in nature is respect for our own vocation, which we attribute to an Object of nature by a certain subreption(substitution of a respect for the Object in place of [respect] for the idea of humanity in our own self–the subject); and this feeling renders intuitable the supremacy of our cognitive faculties on the rational side over the greatest faculty of sensibility.

That which is truly awesome–the "absolutely great"–is, for Kant, our own "vocation," which is to conform to a law that originates outside of empirical nature. In our sublime failure to comprehend, we recognize the "supremacy" of our rational cognitive faculties, our spiritual half, over our sensible, material nature.

As a piece of aesthetic psychology–a purported explanation of why we sometimes take pleasure in threatening or incomprehensible experiences–Kant’s account falls flat. In place of Burke’s neatly physiological account, he provides an implausible metaphysical explanation that leans heavily on the discredited features of his philosophical system. (Kant’s account depends on the details of his picture of the mind as divided into separate "faculties" of reason, understanding, and sensibility; moreover, his picture of human beings as essentially "outside of nature" does not sit well with evolutionary or naturalist ideas about our place in the world. These days we tend to believe, with Burke, that pleasure is something that originates in contingent features of our physiology.) But as an aesthetic position–an account of what art should be–Kant’s account is extremely important, for it led him to endorse a kind of artistic self-abnegation that seems strikingly modern in conception.

For instance, Kant presents the following example of sublimity:

Perhaps there has never been a more sublime utterance, or a thought more sublimely expressed, than the well-known inscription upon the Temple ofIsis (Mother Nature): ‘I am all that is, and that was, and that shall be, and no mortal hath raised the veil from before my face.’ Segner made use of this idea in a suggestive vignette on the frontispiece of his Natural Philosophy, in order to inspire his pupil at the threshold of that temple into which he was about to lead him, with such a holy awe as would dispose his mind to serious attention.

He used similar language in praising Jewish prohibitions on representations of the divine:

Perhaps there is no more sublime passage in the Jewish Law than the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth, &c. This commandment can alone explain the enthusiasm which the Jewish people, in their moral period [sic!], felt for their religion when comparing themselves with others, or the pride inspired by Mohammedianism.

Notice that neither the inscription on the Temple of Isis nor the Jewish prohibition itself involves a failure of comprehension. They are statements, not cathedrals or hurricanes, and they recognize explicitly what, on Kant’s account, we would otherwise experience only unconsciously. In sublime experience we gain a sense of our own transcendent nature, but wrongly project that awe onto objects in the external world. The Temple of Isis, like the Jewish Law, places the awe where it rightly belongs: onto Ideas (God, the Soul, and the World) that we can never directly experience.

Kant thus suggests that the arts might present the sublime negatively, by expressing their own inadequacy (with the arts here distinguished from the objects of nature, or from artworks which imitate those objects, which cause us to have a misleading experience of the inadequacy of all sensation). The Temple of Isis is, in the most general sense, a work of art. Yet because of its inscription, it seems to deny or cancel itself–honoring Isis while calling into question every human effort to understand her. The implication seems to be that other arts might use the Temple as a model, imitating its double gesture of celebrating-while-undermining. By portraying human limitations, and suggesting that there is something beyond them, these works inspire a kind of religious awe.

He explains:

We have no reason to fear that the feeling of the sublime will suffer from an abstract mode of presentation like this, which is altogether negative as to what is sensuous. Though the imagination, no doubt, finds nothing beyond the sensible world to which it can lay hold, this thrusting aside of the sensible barriers gives it a feeling of being unbounded; and that removal is thus a presentation of the infinite. As such it can never be anything more than a negative presentation–but still it can expand the soul.

In this sense, true sublimity would not involve artistic excess–not giant, hour-long symphonies that seem to compete with nature itself–but a rejection of that very excess. For what is truly sublime is not anything in nature, but the thought that we stand partially outside of nature. By extension, any art object that exists in the empirical world must be inherently insufficient. Only by denying its own adequacy–by rejecting its own status as material object–could art approach the kind of self-conscious sublimity that Kant describes.

There are a number of curious passages where Beethoven’s music seems to question itself, as if challenging the demands placed upon it. These moments are invariably brief and marginal, seemingly outside the main course of the music’s development. It is as if the music leaves off its primary business of expressing powerful emotions to reflect, albeit briefly, on its own limitations.

Take, for example, the recapitulation of the first movement of the Tempest Sonata, op. 31, number 2. The second theme, originally in the dominant minor, reappears in the tonic key, a fourth higher than its original pitch level.3 Within a few measures this register becomes impossible: Beethoven’s piano, which extended to a high G, could not reach the B-flat required in m. 179.4 He deftly shifts down an octave, slightly altering the phrase in the process. A few measures later, however, he returns to the higher register (m. 185), where the problem recurs. The melody, which originally reached a high F (m. 62), demands a high B-flat (m. 192, first beat), well beyond the compass of Beethoven’s five-octave piano. This time, however, instead of shifting registers, Beethoven dramatically emphasizes the limitation, fixing a note in place as the rest of the music moves. The result is a jarringly beautiful sequence of dissonant seventh chords (mm. 189-191) that did not appear in the earlier statement of the theme (see Figure 1).

Figure 1


Music theorists would describe the passage as an "inverted pedal point." (As the name suggests, pedal points are fixed notes that occur in the lowest register, underneath changes of harmony in the upper voices; in the classical style, they are rarely found in the soprano voice.) And though the passage sounds beautiful, it is extremely unconventional by the standards of Beethoven’s time.

One might say that Beethoven’s musical "idea"–that is, the thematic material, as originally presented in the Sonata’s exposition–is in conflict with the limitations of his instrument, as represented by the high D in the soprano voice. The music "wants" to reach a high B-flat, but it gets "stuck" on the lower note. Such conflicts between musical "ideas" and the exigencies of actual performance are typical of Beethoven’s music. Especially in his late pieces, Beethoven frequently wrote music that was difficult, if not impossible, to play: for example, the very high vocal passages in the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, or certain near-impossible leaps in the Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106. In these passages, the musical score seems to be in conflict with the human beings who are trying to perform it. What is unusual, even unique, about the Tempest is the way the musicseems to portray its own limitations. Instead of a conflict between the music and its performers, or between the desire of the composer and the abilities of the players, the Tempest is a piece of music that is in conflict with itself. While we can at least imagine a flawless performance of the Ninth Symphony or theHammerklavier, the Tempest intrinsically contains a symbol of its own unrealized goals.

Or does it? Our pianos are larger than Beethoven’s, and can now reach the high B-flat that seems to be required by the music of the exposition. Performers thus have the option of adding the missing octaves to mm. 189-191. (Indeed, within a year of writing the Tempest, Beethoven received a five-and-a-half-octave Erard piano that could play the "missing" notes, so he, too, would presumably have considered adding the notes to later editions of the score.) We seem to be caught in a dilemma here: for if we acknowledge that mm. 189-191 reflect the limitations of Beethoven’s piano, then we will naturally be tempted to add the missing octaves–much as conductors often "touch up" the brass parts in Beethoven’s orchestra scores. If, on the other hand, we find the passage beautiful as is, then we will naturally want to deny that it reflects the limits of Beethoven’s piano.5 For how can something as contingent as the limits of a musical instrument give rise to what sounds like a musical masterstroke?

I suggest that this dichotomy is ill-founded. For the drama of the passage is the way it symbolizes both desire–in the form of the chromatically ascending chords–and limitation, as represented by the fixed upper note. It is as if Beethoven were suggesting that, while no amount of effort on his part would enable him to leap beyond the limits of his piano, his music demands that he try–as if the world of sticks and wires, the ordinary physical realm in which pianos exist, cannot be reconciled with the world of Beethoven’s aspiration. Needless to say, this coupling of an exhortation to transcendence (here heard as an inexorable chromatic chordal ascent) with a warning about the impossibility of success (the stubborn pedal point at the top of the piano) recalls Kant’s conception of sublimity. Like the Temple of Isis, the music seems to question its own adequacy, giving with one hand what it takes away with the other.

A similar moment occurs in the middle of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where the issue is not the registral, but rather the conceptual limitations of the musical language. In mm. 215-220, as the music comes to a stop on an F-sharp minor chord, Beethoven seems to ask the impossible of his musicians: that they mark in their performance an orthographical distinction that is without aural significance in an equal-tempered system (see Figure 2).

Figure 2


The chord that appears in the winds here is in fact not an F-sharp minor chord, but what looks like nonsense, a musical spelling mistake: F-sharp, A, D-flat. (The chord in the strings, on the other hand, is spelled correctly.) If we are to take the notation as seriously meant, it indicates that the seeming consonance, the F-sharp minor, is actually a dissonance, a passing chord connecting the D-flat major chord that came before it with some other chord (for instance, a diminished triad on G which prepares a D-flat six-four chord) that never appears. Instead, the music derails, stopping on the passing chord and reinterpreting it as a consonance. The eerie oscillation between the two notations is the center of gravity of the entire movement: it is the exact middle of the piece, the one place where the frantic rhythmic drive relents; tonally speaking, it is as far away from the tonic key as possible. In context, the cryptic chords seem loaded with uncanny significance.6

Beethoven’s orthography is extremely unconventional. Reviewing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in 1810, E. T .A. Hoffmann singled out the spelling of the chords, noting that they were "a practice for which the reviewer can find no reason." Again, the music confronts performers with a dilemma. Is Beethoven asking for two acoustically different chords? Should a conductor distinguish the D-flat from the C-sharp, for instance by instructing the string players to play their note a few fractions of a semitone sharper than the winds’ D-flat? Surely not: such bending would just sound like bad intonation. Instead, the Fifth Symphony, like the Tempest, seems to mark an incompatibility between a musical idea and its realization. In the Tempest, the differences between exposition and recapitulation alert us to the conflict. In the deformed seventh-chords of the recapitulation, we can actually hear the musical idea (an abstract, mental thing) being compromised by the exigencies of actual physical performance. In the Fifth, there is a similar incompatibility between what is conceived (two very different chords, with different functional meanings) and what is played (a single sound). But only if we know the score do we see that Beethoven is taking issue with the world of good sense, proper spelling, and comprehensible sound.

We do not, of course, know what Beethoven was thinking about when he wrote these passages. Nor can we say definitively what concerns, instincts, or passions led him to compose them. But the association with Kant is not as farfetched as it might initially seem. Beethoven mentioned Kant in one of his conversation books, writing, "the moral law within us and the starry skies above us–Kant!!!" These are the two things that, as Kant claimed in the conclusion to the Critique of Practical Reason, "fill the mind with an ever new and increasing sense of the sublime." More generally, Beethoven shared with Kant a general set of perceptions about the limitations of artistic expression. Beethoven had periodic doubts about his own expressive capabilities, and, like Kant, felt that art should not be used to portray the divine.7 Finally, there is a suggestive fact: under the glass on Beethoven’s writing table was the inscription on the Temple of Isis–the very words which Kant described as expressing the "most sublime" of human thoughts. Taken together, these facts suggest that, whether he knew it or not, Beethoven had something like a Kantian sense of art’s ultimate inadequacy. No doubt this was only one of his moods. Nevertheless, it has as good a claim to the label "sublime" as do the more familiar, triumphant ones.

Indeed, what is most remarkable about Beethoven’s music is that, although it does embrace heroic passions on an unprecedented scale, it still retains some distance from those passions–some sense of humor, or self-consciousness, that ameliorates their weight. There are places in which foreign notes appear, for no particular reason (in the Vivace of the F-major quartet, op. 135, or in the last movement of the Eighth Symphony); moments of "bad" counterpoint (the famous "false horn entry" in the Eroica); moments where the music skips like a record (the opening of the Pastorale, the repeated A in the Adagio ma non troppo of op. 110); failures of seriousness (the parodic "Turkish March" in the last movement of the Ninth); false starts (C-sharp minor quartet, no. 3); pieces that threaten to go on forever (no. 5 from the same quartet); and so forth. We may take these paradoxical moments, where the music seems to reach beyond itself, as a reminder that Beethoven was more complicated than his more fanatical admirers realized. He may have been an unstoppable hurricane of a man, but he also seemed to recognize, as Kant would have put it, that it is men, and not hurricanes, that are truly sublime.

Musicians of the nineteenth century had a tendency to forget this lesson. Wagner and Hoffmann rejected, or misunderstood, Kant’s metaphysics, suggesting that Beethoven’s music was powerful because it expressed truths that mere words could not express.8 Thus Wagner wrote that Beethoven’s symphonies have the power to shape "the unfathomable, the never-seen, the never-experienced" into "a most immediate experience." And Nietzsche, in his Wagnerian period, suggested that listeners are compelled by Beethoven’s orchestral music "to use figurative speech in describing it," because the music reveals to them a realm beyond the power of phenomenal language. Beethoven’s music, in other words, was thought to express the inexpressible. Rather than failure, sublimity became a kind of fantastic, otherworldly success.

It would be wrong to absolve Beethoven of all responsibility for this situation. His modesty was at best intermittent, and he could occasionally succumb to artistic hubris–witness his plans for a grandiose symphony "in ancient modes" reconciling Greek and Christian mythology. Similarly, we can excuse Wagnerians for at least some of their hyperbole. Much of the metaphysical talk about "expressing the inexpressible" is surely just a fancy, nineteenth-century way of saying that Beethoven’s music is unbelievably wonderful. Which it is. But the fact remains that some composers, believing that music had a special metaphysical significance, wrote music reflecting this belief. Both Mahler and Schoenberg, for example, explicitly endorsed Wagnerian metaphysics; and if their music occasionally seems more didactic than fun, this is no doubt part of the reason why. Even John Cage, who was perhaps the most uncompromisingly anti-Beethovenian composer of the century, was reacting against the caricature Beethoven of the 19th century tradition; and his own (occasionally unfun, occasionally didactic) music reflects, by inversion, the caricature he opposed.9 It is tempting to think that much of this excess derives from a set of misinterpretations: of Beethoven, of Kant, and of the notion of sublimity that they may both have shared.

In the end, though, questions of history and interpretation are secondary. For what the conjunction of Beethoven and Kant suggests is that we can have tremendous, Beethovenian passions without losing all sense of our own limitation. (As one can have powerful political convictions while still recognizing that reasonable people may disagree.) Beethoven himself may not have achieved the perfect synthesis of these two, complementary qualities. But the evidence of both his music and his life suggests that he tried. Passionate maturity, neither resignation nor moderation nor fanaticism: that, perhaps, is what is truly sublime.



1 Empirical investigations may reveal physiological mechanisms parallel to those in Burke’s account. Recent studies of people with post-traumatic stress disorder indicate that the condition involves deficiencies in neural circuits that dampen the fear response. This implies that there may be a distinct neural region involved in initially responding to, and in later evaluating, fearful stimuli. See Hamner, Lorberbaum, and George, "Potential Role of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex in PTSD: Review and Hypothesis," Depression and Anxiety 9 (1999): 1-14.

2 Kant distinguishes the "mathematical" sublime, which involves vast distances and quantities, from the "dynamical" sublime, which involves large degrees of power.

3 Textbook sonata form requires that the recapitulation feature the secondary theme, which first appears in a foreign key, transposed to the tonic. This presents the composer with an opportunity to decide in which register it should appear: if, for example, the secondary theme is in the dominant, then it can be transposed either downwards by fifth or upwards by fourth. Often, composers play with these two possibilities, shifting between registers to avoid some musical awkwardness, or simply for the sake of variety. In the first movement of Mozart’s D-Major piano sonata, KV. 284, for example, an extra measure (m. 97, second half, to m. 98, first half) extends an upwards run, shifting the music from the lower register to the higher one.

4 Donald Tovey, in the preface to his edition of the Sonatas, gives F to F as the compass of Beethoven’s early pianos, while Derek Melville asserts that it extended a tone higher, to the third G above middle C. See "Beethoven’s Pianos," in The Beethoven Reader, edited by Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune (New York: Norton, 1971).

5 Proponents of this view might cite the second movement of the Second Symphony, mm. 138-140, as evidence. But they would be hard pressed to explain why the exposition of the Tempest contains the "missing octaves," while the recapitulation does not. The passage in question occurs in the middle of almost 50 measures which are exactly parallel to the sonata’s exposition; it occurs, moreover, following a dramatically new section of music (a recitative-like passage which anticipates both the oboe solo in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony and the recitative in the fourth movement of the Ninth) that would satisfy any composerly need for variation.

6 There is a similar passage in the Adagio of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, where the first violins and second bassoon are notated in B major, while the rest of the orchestra plays in C-flat. The passage is slightly less remarkable, however, because the music is continuous throughout.

7 When music portrays the divine, Beethoven wrote, it has a "soporific effect" on both "feeling and reason." After one particularly inspiring walk, he wrote in his journals: "every tree in the countryside said to me: ‘Holy, Holy’: who could express it all?" And the artist’s goal, he declared in 1797, is forever "inaccessible." Fifteen years later, he wrote, "I see unfortunately that art has no boundaries, yet I feel dimly how remote I am from my goal." See Maynard Soloman, Beethoven’s Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 24, 219-221.

8 Wagner was following Schopenhauer here, for whom music was not simply a phenomenon in the world, but something entirely separate from it.

9 Ironically, Cage’s own music, which comes close to being "altogether negative as to what is sensuous" comes very close to exemplifying Kantian ideas about the insufficiency of (traditionally expressive) art.