Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 April 2020
Of all the things music might be heard as expressing, probably the least prepossessing would be silence. Yet, in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, a number of composers took on the unlikely task of conveying in tones a world without sound. Carl Maria von Weber’s Der erste Ton (1808) and Louis Spohr’s Fourth Symphony (Die Weihe der Töne, 1832) celebrate the arrival of sound in a formerly mute universe, building on the model of Haydn’s ‘Depiction of Chaos’ (The Creation, 1798). Such endeavours can best be understood through the category of the sublime, in an age in which music is increasingly held up by critics as the most powerful and unmediated expression of the sublime, whose effects may even transcend verbal language. Yet, as praise of music’s sublime power becomes mediated through Romantic verbal reception (epitomised here by the critic Friedrich Rochlitz), this same sense of sublime dispensation filters back into musical creation, with the possible loss of the immediacy and power of its expression, in other words, with the loss of the sublime itself.