“On the Sublime” is a treatise from early in the Common Era by an unknown author, conventionally styled Longinus. Some scholars suspect that Longinus was a Hellenized Jew because he or she paraphrased Genesis, praising Moses for telling of Divinity’s power “in the opening words of his ‘Laws’: ‘God said’ — what? — ‘let there be light, and there was light: let there be land, and there was.’”
One of the great instances of the sublime in music centers on the very verses echoed by Longinus: the prelude and opening number of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” (1796–98). With dreary dissonances, uneasy wind figures and hollow, long-delayed cadences, the composer depicts the void and darkness of chaos. The archangel Raphael and a whispering chorus quietly narrate the creation of heavens and earth.
But at the moment when light shines forth, the music explodes in C major splendor. Brass fanfares sound, strings throw off their mutes and unveil their full glory, and the chorus roars in joy. As wrought by Haydn, the birth of light takes about 15 seconds, but its impact is shattering. (Bewilderment, Longinus wrote, is a mark of the sublime.) At The Creation’s Vienna premiere, stunned listeners interrupted the performance for several long moments after this passage.