A genial plateau of near-religious, sublime music melding lightness with gravity. Sublime is the operative word ― I don’t generally go for Hegelian definitions of The Sublime, but if I was pressured to analogise the cool, abstracted air of Sublimity and had sufficient leeway of criteria, I’d tick the box marked Beethoven and lock in this Adagio (molto e cantabile).
I think it’s best to define the musical Sublime by what it is not: it isn’t a form utterly bereft of melody, harmony or counterpoint. It does not, ultimately, eschew rhythm. It is neither narcotic, necrotic nor sentimental. Neither is it abstractly becalmed to such a degree that all movement is negated; it doesn’t transfix the mind with its beguiling extremities and peaks. The Sublime does entail an air of rarefaction: of heights, unsullied skies and long horizons; of fragile inner smallness drawn against the widest vista and emptied spontaneously into harmony with it. It is high artistic humanity drawn to near-abstraction without spiritual dogma or overtones; an idealised humanity without suffering or the mud of cloying hearts; something that would suggest pure spirit like a ballet of the mind. [The Sublime is obviously incompatible with The African.]
Neither Platonically ideal nor some Rilkean domain of angels, Beethoven’s sublime Adagio is yet also absolutely humane, that beyond which it is humanly inadvisable to speculate; for there is nothing further besides the vacuum of space and/or the dread void looking back at you; just empty stars and dark. It’s sublime because rendered as though from felt experience, or by a seeming-experience on the fly of imaginative composition. You can’t tell if it’s art or deepest experience or some kind of magic unfolding in the aether; whether something perceived, or merely created.
The calm backing of winds and strings allow the lightest flights of melody; the backing draws in, builds and then launches into austere freedom. The score, the sublimely orchestrated movement, is like a delicate instrument designed to handle the finest filaments and textures; and yet it’s capable of drawing and channelling the heaviest support and foundation; a giant balanced on tip-toes. It is lightness anchored in the depths, a strong body singing the high life of the mind, that contains its own action and rest in a single movement; that is coolly sufficient, that is both air and experience and human and god-like. All the while progressing as a movement in time, seemingly natural-formed but spun high in the subjectosphere. A metaphorical tap into pure spirit as universal experience.
This isn’t about awe in the face of major mountains or heavy metaphysics and serious dread, all that heavy German blood ― this is the heart reaching for the highest light in the sky.
A notable touch of sublimity is the flight of the French horn at 9:00 (on the 1977 von Karajan/Deutsche Grammophon recording). It just ascends the heavens in a release of freedom.