Jerrold Levinson (University of Maryland) on “Musical Sublimity”

November 2020, Monday 23rd, 5:00pm to 7:00pm

Venue: BigBlueButton room

Abstract: The aim of this talk is to identify and illustrate what music might specifically be categorized as sublime music–as opposed, among other things, to beautiful music, profound music, chill-inducing music, or intensely expressive music.

After recalling the influential views on the sublime of Kant and Schopenhauer I propose a characterization of the sublime in its original and primary sphere of application, namely that of nature, in terms of both describable properties of certain natural phenomena and distinctive experiences engendered by contemplation of such phenomena. I then consider how certain kinds of music and certain kinds of musical experience might be regarded as analogous to sublime phenomena and sublime experiences in nature, thus justifying the notion of musics and musical experiences that are specifically sublime. A parallel is also drawn with certain modes of abstract painting that may reasonably be judged sublime.

The claims about musical sublimity in the second part of my talk will be illustrated with examples of music that is arguably sublime in the sense defended, from the oeuvres of composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, Messaien, Barber, Glass, and Penderecki.

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