In several essays from the first half of the nineteenth century, Robert Schumann and other music critics used the rhetoric of the sublime when describing select, unconventionally intense virtuosic showpieces and performances, evoking this category’s associations with overpowering, even fearsome experiences and heroic human qualities. These writings formed one strand of a larger discourse in which musicians and critics attempted to describe and identify instances of virtuosity that supposedly rejected superficiality and aimed at serious aesthetic values: in the nineteenth-century imagination, the sublime abnegated mere sensuous pleasure; inspired a mixture of attraction, admiration, and trepidation; and implied both masculinity and intellectual cultivation. It offered a framework for self-consciously elevating virtuosity rooted in the sheer intensity and, in some cases, perceived inaccessibility of particular works and performances. Schumann extended the mantle of sublimity to Liszt during the virtuoso’s 1840 Leipzig and Dresden concerts. Critics described three of Schumann’s own 1830s piano showpieces using the rhetoric of the sublime, comparing the finale of the Concert sans orchestre, Op. 14, to violent forces of nature to illustrate the way its virtuosic passagework disrupts and engulfs lyrical themes within an anomalous formal structure. They also linked the Toccata, Op. 7, and Etudes symphoniques, Op. 13, to Beethoven, hinting at the ways in which Schumann alluded to or modeled these showpieces on Beethoven symphonies. These episodes in Schumann’s career broaden our understanding of the contexts in which nineteenth-century writers on music evoked the sublime, showing how they described this quality not only in symphonies and large choral works but also in solo performances and showpieces. They illuminate the politics of the sublime, revealing its significance for nineteenth-century thinking about the cultural prestige that particular musical works and performances could attain.
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