The term unheimlich (uncanny) comes into usage in German music criticism in the nineteenth century and is often used to describe instrumental music, particularly sections of works featuring the ombra topic. While the idea that instrumental music can be uncanny regardless of text or program is not novel, this work differs from most existing scholarship on the musical uncanny in that it presents a possible precursor to the twentieth-century psychoanalytic uncanny. Instead, it examines Schelling's definition of the uncanny in the larger context of his ideas in order to form a basis for theorizing a version of this aesthetic category that is active in the nineteenth-century critical discourse about music.
In the early nineteenth century, music becomes uncanny because it discloses what should remain hidden from finite revelation. Critics understand passages of instrumental ombra music as uncanny moments when music calls attention to itself as the sensuous manifestation of the Absolute. They remark on these passages’ effacing of boundaries and sense of becoming, residues of eighteenth-century uses of the topic in operatic supernatural scenes and as part of a chaos-to-order narrative in symphonic music. The article concludes with the reception of the opening of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the finale of Schubert's Octet, D. 803, using critics’ comments as a basis for extrapolating, through new analyses, as to the features that might make the particular works remarkable as examples of music's uncanny power made manifest.