When we describe music as ‘sublime’, what do we mean? For the Romans, sublimis signified greatness beyond measure. In the 18th century, Englishmen looked to The Spectator for clarification. Joseph Addison, in his Essay No. 339 of 1712, suggests that the sublime often achieves greatness without stirring up ‘pathetick’ human passions. The example he gives is Milton’s description, in Paradise Lost, of the Messiah looking down on his new Creation, ‘when every Part of Nature seem’d to rejoice in its Existence; when the Morning-Stars sang together, and all the Sons of God shouted for joy’.
Whether a composition is sublime is essentially a matter of opinion. How odd, then, that — with 500 years of music for us to choose from — the adjective is commonly applied to relatively few pieces. Two immediately spring to mind: the unearthly Cavatina of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130; and the slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet, under whose plaintive song the composer nudges the harmony so deftly that, however often I hear it, I catch my breath.
Those are my examples, though. To find others, I Googled ‘sublime classical music’ — and two out of the first four suggestions were those same pieces. Interestingly, people don’t tend to regard music that simply shouts for joy as sublime: any triumph has to be hard won. The thrilling Dona Nobis Pacem of Bach’s B Minor Mass, for example, encompasses and resolves everything we’ve heard in the previous two hours (including an earlier version of the same music). To quote the Bach scholar John Butt, it’s one of those musical structures ‘that seem to live independently of their history, function and performance’.
In the 21st century we love to throw around the word ‘transcendent’: it’s part of the vocabulary of mushy, post-religious ‘spirituality’. Nonetheless, I don’t think we can flesh out the concept of the sublime without invoking it. What makes music sublime is that it goes beyond ‘pathetick’ passions. The Adagio finale of the Pathétique symphony can be heart-rending — but it depicts tragedy rather than transcending it. Tchaikovsky has dipped his pen in self-pity. (I always remember my disciplinarian father saying: ‘If Tchaikovsky had gone deaf he’d just have fallen apart.’) The same might be said about Mahler, who never ceases to be neurotic even when his inspiration is at its most radiant.
In contrast, you can hear bottomless pathos in the late masterpieces of Beethoven and Schubert, both desperately sick men. But the suffering has a sequel: a grand philosophical calm that is also found in passages of Bach and Haydn that transcend the human condition in general rather than any specific misery. How is this ‘sublime’ effect achieved? In part, by technique: an ability to create and resolve inner tensions that requires almost superhuman mastery of the relationship between keys.
Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert — five composers who touched the sublime — all possessed this skill, even if in the case of young Schubert it was hit and miss. Wagner had it too, though it’s hard to reconcile the concept of sublimity with his narcissism. Brahms? Here I’m the man in the Bateman cartoon: even in the acknowledged masterpieces, his drooping melodies drag me down with them.
Is it possible to write sublime music without belonging to the front rank of composers? My answer — and, again, this is all a matter of opinion — is that it’s possible to write the most transcendently beautiful and philosophically noble symphonies in the history of the medium, but still be relegated to secondary status by musical prejudice.
Anton Bruckner (1824–96) was 52 years old when he finally completed a symphony, his Fifth, in which everything — the exquisite fragments of melody, the ground plan of modulating keys, the use of fugue to drive forward argument — fitted together perfectly. I’ve just been listening to his underrated Sixth, following the score (with difficulty) and marvelling at the way, in the first-movement coda, he passes through the entire spectrum of tonality. In the words of the composer Robert Simpson, ‘the main theme rises and falls like some great ship, the water illuminated in superb hues as the sun rises, at last bursting clear in the sky’.
This sublime effect is possible only because Bruckner sweated away for 30 years, writing and rewriting one gigantic movement after another until he perfected his art. He was a saintly Catholic and we may interpret his later Adagios as prayer in musical form. On the other hand, as the Bruckner scholar Philip Barford argues, the mighty resolution of conflict in the final four symphonies reflects a selfless attempt to create order out of chaos that is as compatible with Buddhism as it is with Christianity. Bruckner ‘can free the mind from self-preoccupation in the struggle to wrest form from the gross matter of life’.
And that, surely, is what all sublime music has in common. Whether today’s composers are up to the challenge of writing it is another question.