Richard Wagner: Good or bad?

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 1 April 2013 | 7:07:00 pm

An interesting 8000 word essay - and accompanying 80 minute audio lecture - from Nicholas Spice published in this months London Review of Books asks, "Is Wagner bad for us?". Made available free, both in written form and in audio. 

Is Wagner bad for us?

Nicholas Spice

In one of the European galleries at the British Museum, there’s a bronze medal of Erasmus made in Antwerp in 1519 by the artist Quentin Metsys. A portrait of Erasmus in profile is on the front of the medal. On the reverse, the smiling bust of Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries, and the words ‘concedo nulli’ – ‘I yield to no one.’ It’s said that Erasmus kept a figurine of the god Terminus on his desk. He wrote: ‘Out of a profane god I have made myself a symbol exhorting decency in life. For death is the real terminus that yields to no one.’

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Respecting boundaries was not Wagner’s thing. Transgression he took in his stride – stealing other men’s wives when he needed them, spending other people’s money without worrying too much about paying it back – while artistically his ambitions knew no bounds. There is something awe-inspiring about his productivity under hostile conditions, the way, though living on the breadline, he turned out masterpieces when there was no reasonable prospect of any of them being performed: gigantic works, pushing singers and musicians to the limits of their technique, and taking music itself to the edges of its known universe. Theft; the breaking of vows, promises and contracts; seduction, adultery, incest, disobedience, defiance of the gods, daring to ask the one forbidden question, the renunciation of love for power, genital self-mutilation as the price of magic: Wagner’s work is everywhere preoccupied with boundaries set and overstepped, limits reached and exceeded. ‘Wagnerian’ has passed into our language as a byword for the exorbitant, the over-scaled and the interminable.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time. As garlic is to vampires, so clocks are to insomniacs, not because they tell of how much sleep has been missed, but because they bring the next day nearer. As Philip Larkin, poet of limits, knew so well, sleep has the one big disadvantage that we wake up from it: ‘In time the curtain edges will grow light,’ he wrote in ‘Aubade’, bringing ‘Unresting death, a whole day nearer now’. For Tristan and Isolde, too, night must not give way to day, not for the trivial reason that day will end their love-making, but because dawn brings death one day nearer. They must stay awake, for to sleep is to allow the night to pass, to awake from the night is to live and to live is to die. And when, inevitably, day dawns, they have only one recourse. To Tristan and Isolde, in their delirium, it seems that by dying they will preserve their love for ever: by dying, they will defy death.
Tristan and Isolde’s need to stay awake is embodied in the opera’s famous Prelude, perhaps the most quoted and analysed piece in the history of Western music, and a gift to musical semiotics because of the way it withholds closure. The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.
I am interested in the way we take in Wagner’s music, or the way it takes us in. In tonal music a final cadence is an acceptance that things end and a release into process. The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, avoiding final cadences, refuses to sleep, holding the listener in a state of unrelieved alertness. For example, the opening 17 bars of the Prelude lead to an interrupted cadence that gently forbids us to leave the musical line. At the same time, beyond the expressive qualities of this opening passage, it’s striking how clearly Wagner enunciates his musical argument, and how easy the grammar is to follow, as he takes the material of the first three bars through a series of iterations, with changes of register, instrumental colour, phrase contour and harmonic position creating difference within similarity. This use of repetition with variation is one of the ways that Wagner focuses our minds on what he is saying without boring us.

To continue reading or to listen to the full audio presentation - with musical samples - please click here