In Deepest Beethoven

Article excerpt

"The Sublime Beethoven" by Dmitri Tymoczko, in Boston Review (Dec. 1999-Jan. 2000), E53-407, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) moved music far beyond the beautiful, into "the sphere of the Sublime," declared composer Richard Wagner on the 100th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. But what precisely makes his music sublime? asks Tymoczko, a doctoral student in music composition at the University of California, Berkeley.

"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? [ldots] Is it the way Beethoven crosses boundaries, daring to do things--repeating a single melodic figure a dozen or more times, or writing 20-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[ldots]?"

As "a catch-all term for Beethoven's ferocity," sublimity can refer to all of the above, Tymoczko says. However, Wagner and, a half-century before him, music critic E. T. A. Hoffmann had in mind something much more specific when they described Beethoven's music as sublime: namely, both certain musical features (e. …