“The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport.” – Longinus, On the Sublime (1st century CE)
Longinius intended to describe how good writing and persuasive rhetoric can affect us, but its message might also apply to music. Great music does not “persuade” us, it transports us, providing us with moments of elevation.
Roger Ebert described moments of elevation as a “welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift.” All of us have experienced uplifting moments in books and movies that move us and fill our hearts. Even great athletic feats in a sporting event or stories of heroism in a local news report can bring us a moment of uplift.
For me, nothing provides more moments of elevation than music. Something that touches me emotionally while I’m reading a book or watching a movie might catch me off guard, but moments of elevation in music almost never catch me off guard. I expect them.
I also don’t know how to describe why those moments happen in music.
In most cases I can describe the reason something touches me emotionally in a film. I know, for example, why I am moved by the young chess player named Josh in Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh is a good and ethical soul. He makes unselfish choices and cares how others feel. I am touched by his goodness.
I can also describe the reasons I experience moments of elevation during sporting events. I once watched an NFL playoff game between the Dolphins and Chargers that went into overtime. The Charger tight end Kellen Winslow (#80) played a heroic game, catching 13 passes, even though he was treated during the game for a pinched nerve in his shoulder, dehydration, severe cramps, and a cut on his lower lip that received three stitches. Teammates had to help him off the field after the game. Such grit and resolve is inspirational.
But why does music affect me so much? Why does the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony provide me with a moment of elevation?
I have no idea.
All I know is that the beginning of the fourth movement touches me at a visceral level, sometimes making me smile, sometimes moistening my eyes.
Roger Ebert wrote that he was most moved by “generosity, empathy, courage, and by the human capacity to hope.” That explanation works well for what I might read in a work of literature or see in a film. It might even work well in describing something that moves me in a sporting event or news report.
No words, however, can describe what I feel when listening to the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Here's how I might describe that transition in technical terms.
The transition begins with an ostinato in the kettledrum and the reduction of the dynamic level to triple pianissimo. This section is then followed by a crescendo that leads to a phrase played forcefully in C major, completing the attacca between the third and fourth movements.
I wouldn't be surprised if that description leaves you cold. Quite simply, words are inadequate for describing moments of elevation in music.
What do they say? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.
The transition from the third to fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is embedded below. The ostinato in the kettledrum begins at 22:45. The moment of elevation comes at the beginning of the fourth movement, which begins at 23:23.
Turn up the volume and enjoy!
© 2013 James L. Smith