Musically Sublime: Indeterminacy, Infinity, Irresolvability

Musically Sublime: Indeterminacy, Infinity, Irresolvability

Musically Sublime: Indeterminacy, Infinity, Irresolvability

Musically Sublime: Indeterminacy, Infinity, Irresolvability


Musically Sublime rewrites musically the history and philosophy of the sublime. Music enables us to reconsider the traditional course of sublime feeling on a track from pain to pleasure. Resisting the notion that there is a single format for sublime feeling, Wurth shows how, from the mid eighteenth century onward, sublime feeling is, instead, constantly rearticulated in a complex interaction with musicality.

Wurth takes as her point of departure Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment and Jean-Francois Lyotard's aesthetic writings of the 1980s and 1990s. Kant framed the sublime narratively as an epic of self-transcendence. By contrast, Lyotard sought to substitute open immanence for Kantian transcendence, yet he failed to deconstruct the Kantian epic. The book performs this deconstruction by juxtaposing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions of the infinite, Sehnsucht, the divided self, and unconscious drives with contemporary readings of instrumental music.

Critically assessing Edmund Burke, James Usher, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Novalis, Friedrich Holderlin, Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, this book re-presents the sublime as a feeling that defers resolution and hangs suspended between pain and pleasure. Musically Sublime rewrites the mathematical sublime as differance, while it redresses the dynamical sublime as trauma: unending, undetermined, unresolved.

Whereas most musicological studies in this area have focused on traces of the Kantian sublime in Handel, Haydn, and Beethoven, this book calls on the nineteenth-century theorist Arthur Seidl to analyze the sublime of, rather than in, music. It does so by invoking Seidl's concept of formwidrigkeit ("form-contrariness") in juxtaposition with Romantic piano music, (post)modernist musical minimalisms, and Lyotard's postmodern sublime. It presents a sublime of matter, rather than form-performative rather than representational. In doing so, Musically Sublime shows that the binary distinction Lyotard posits between the postmodern and romantic sublime is finally untenable.


Imagine the wide lawn of the Champs de Mars during the Reign of Terror in late eighteenth-century France. Thousands of people are packed together to participate “universally” in one of the many festivals celebrating the cause of freedom. They sing, they shout, they merge into a massive voice. the sound of this voice alone is staggering and uncannily irresistible. It grows louder as more join in, caught by the thrill of the moment or scared to openly disengage from an agitation that seems to enforce the participation of all. This voice then takes on a life of its own. It is no longer a multifarious whole, louder here, dissonant there, but rather extracts itself from its parts, rising higher and higher until it becomes a voice hovering above the crowd—bodiless, de-composed, singular.

In the ears of the Jacobin rulers, this rising voice encapsulates the emergence of a single will—not a will of parts, but a will that rises above its sum total, no longer divisible. Its individual voices only serve the larger totality, thus constituting a body of uniform power and a body of subjection at the same time: a subjection of the many to the one, of difference to an uncompromising harmony. Consider, in this respect, the ambitious project of the composer Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: to have a crowd of thousands, divided into four sections, sing a major chord together at one of the many festivals organized during the Terror. “In these times,” James Johnson has remarked, “all were performers.”

Though typically “revolutionary” in its sacrifice of the individual to the common will, this idea(l) of unanimous participation was, perhaps, not an exclusively French invention. Ironically, before the French revolution, its future critic Edmund Burke had already pointed to the overpowering effects of the singing and “shouting of multitudes” in his Enquiry Into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. “The sole strength of the sound” produced by a multitude of voices, Burke remarked, “so amazes and confounds . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.