Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Composed Composers: Subjectivity in E. T. A. Hoffmann's "Rat Krespel"

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Composed Composers: Subjectivity in E. T. A. Hoffmann's "Rat Krespel"

Article excerpt

1

A ROMANTIC IDEE FIXE THAT E. T. A. HOFFMANN AFFIRMS REPEATEDLY throughout his astute and often forward-looking music criticism is that music characteristically opens avenues into the sublime. This is especially the case when the music in question is that of an accomplished composer, one capable of commanding all the musical ideas, elements and forces at his disposal, say, the Mozart of Don Giovanni or the Beethoven of the Opus 70 trios and, crucially, the Fifth Symphony. Witness the fourth article of the first part of Hoffmann's famous collection of music related writings known as Kreisleriana, "Beethoven's Instrumental Music," which adapts Hoffmann's landmark review of Beethoven's Fifth. (1) There Hoffmann develops his claim that "Beethoven's music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism." (2) Hoffmann's diction--"awe," "fear," "terror," "pain," "infinite yearning"--immediately thrusts Beethoven's music into the topos of the sublime, a place that would have been commonplace to his early nineteenth-century readers. (3) Hoffmann goes on to argue that while in outward appearance Beethoven's music may seem uncontrolled, unorganized, however abounding in wealth of ideas and "vigour of imagination" [reichen, lebendigen Phantasie], that is only because one has not grasped the "inner coherence" [der innere tiefe Zusammenhang] that characterizes every Beethoven composition. For Hoffmann, Beethoven is pre-eminently the composer who displays the touchstone quality of Besonnenheit, which Charlton translates as "rational awareness" but which, of course, can also mean assurance or, with richer implications, self-possession. In his compositions, Beethoven separates his "controlling self" [sein Ich] from the "inner realm of sounds" and rules it in "absolute authority" (98). Beethoven's mastery induces in the hearer a state that Hoffmann describes, again, in terms customarily associated with the musical sublime: "... Beethoven's instrumental music unveils before us the realm of the mighty and the immeasurable. Here shining rays of light shoot through the darkness of night and we become aware of giant shadows swaying back and forth, moving ever closer around us and destroying us but not the pain of infinite yearning, in which every desire, leaping up in sounds of exultation, sinks back and disappears. Only in this pain, in which love, hope, and joy are consumed without being destroyed, which threatens to burst our hearts with a full-chorused cry of all the passions, do we live on as ecstatic visionaries" (97).

Especially crucial here are the notions that music can comprehend and even consume the listening subject and subjective emotions without destroying them--it can annihilate the subject but not the pain of infinite desire--and that the music transforms the listener into an "ecstatic" visionary, by definition one who sees himself or herself as part of the vision. The articulation and activation of the musical score's texture animates a spirit-realm that seizes and absorbs the listener, subsuming the listener's subjectivity in its transcendent play: "... within this artful edifice there is a restless alternation of the most marvelous images, in which joy and pain, melancholy and ecstasy, appear beside and within each other. Strange shapes begin a merry dance, now converging into a single point of light, now flying apart like glittering sparks, now chasing each other in infinitely varied clusters. And in the midst of this spirit realm that has been revealed, the enraptured soul perceives an unknown language and understands all the most mysterious presentiments that hold it in thrall" (102). The phenomenological signals of the onset of the synaesthetic musical sublime--musical sounds spur dancing shapes, converging lights, flying sparks--echo those marking the advent of transcendent or supernatural experience for the protagonists in Hoffmann's tales (e. …

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