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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.

Difficulties and disasters dogged Tristan und Isolde from the start and in the Wagner circle it came to be thought of as in some way cursed. The attempt at a first production in Vienna in 1862 foundered: the demands the opera made on players and singers were too much for them and the production was abandoned after 77 rehearsals. The planned public premiere in Munich in 1865 had to be postponed for a month, when Malvina Schnorr, who was singing Isolde, lost her voice on the morning of the first performance after taking a ‘vapour bath’. Relations between the orchestra and the conductor, Hans von Bülow, grew strained: Franz Strauss, father of Richard and the brilliant first horn of the Munich orchestra, had a blazing row with von Bülow, stomped out of the pit and had to be coaxed back. Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, who sang Tristan to his wife’s Isolde, caught a chill on stage and subsequently died; on his deathbed he is said to have called out Wagner’s name. His wife abandoned her career after his death. ‘I drove you to the abyss,’ Wagner wrote in his diary; ‘I pushed him over.’ Four years later, during rehearsals for a revival of the first production, one of von Bülow’s young assistants had a mental breakdown, apparently brought on by the opera, and was institutionalised. In 1911, Felix Mottl collapsed and died while conducting Tristan and Joseph Keilberth met the same end in 1968.

We enjoy the stories about Tristan und Isolde because they indulge our wish to find in Wagner someone prodigious, to see him as a Faustian genius who gave two fingers to the god Terminus. We know, of course, that Ludwig Schnorr could just as well have caught a mortal chill while singing Meyerbeer or Rossini. Nonetheless, the power of this opera is such that great performances leave listeners stunned and disorientated, uncertain about the status of what they have just witnessed. Formidably intelligent people describe Tristan in terms of a conversion experience. Michael Tanner speaks of its ‘qualifications for religious status’; while for Roger Scruton, Tristan und Isolde offers nothing less than ‘a sacrificial consolation for the imperfect loves of those who witness it’.

In the early days, the expressionistic intensity of Tristan und Isolde produced violent reactions in its audiences. The young Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu fainted and had to be carried out of the theatre (he was to die of typhoid from eating a contaminated sorbet a day after his 24th birthday); Chabrier and Ravel both burst into tears while listening to the Prelude. But Berlioz, while reviewing the opera positively, privately admitted to being disgusted by the music, and Tristan became associated in some quarters with loss of self-control and moral atrophy. It acquired a reputation as degenerate, as what the Germans would later call, applying the term to a very different kind of music, ‘entartete Kunst’. Thomas Mann was to satirise this attitude in Buddenbrooks, where Edmund Pfühl, the local organist, refuses to play excerpts from Tristan because of the music’s immorality: ‘I cannot play that, my dear lady!’ he says to Gerda, ‘I am your most devoted servant but I cannot. That is not music – believe me! … this is chaos! This is demagogy, blasphemy, insanity, madness! It is a perfumed fog, shot through with lightning! It is the end of all honesty in art. I will not play it.’ In The Man without Qualities, Ulrich’s friend Walter, rebuffed by his wife Clarisse, who has wriggled out of his embrace and, munching a cheese sandwich, gone off into the garden to hunt for moths in the dark, seeks solace in music:

Walter’s tenderness collapsed like a soufflé taken too soon from the oven. He heaved a deep sigh. Then he hesitantly sat down at the piano again and struck a few keys. Willy-nilly his playing turned into improvisations on themes from Wagner’s operas, and in the splashings of this dissolutely tumescent substance he had refused in the days of his pride, his fingers cleared a path and gurgled through the fields of sound. Let them hear it far and wide! The narcotic effect of this music paralysed his spine and eased his fate.

It was the extreme and unrelenting expressive intensity of Tristan – what one might call its borderline aspect – that got people so worked up (as just one example, take the moment in Act II, when Tristan arrives for his secret night-time rendezvous with Isolde). And in the first decades after Wagner’s death, attacks on his music often reflected contemporary models of the psyche and their preoccupation with hysteria. Nietzsche, who set the ground rules for all future combat with Wagner’s work, in part constructs the music in terms of its effects on the nerves: ‘Wagner is a great corrupter of music’; ‘With it he found the means to stimulate tired nerves – and in this way he made music ill’; ‘Wagner increases exhaustion – therefore he attracts the weak and exhausted to him’; and, inevitably, for Nietzsche, it’s ‘Wagner’s … success with nerves’ that explains his success with women. This may all seem very much of its time, and it’s true that these days it tends to be men rather than women who get hysterical about Wagner, but the old tropes still surface. Published less than 18 months ago, Peter Conrad’s big book Verdi and/or Wagner happily revisits Nietzsche’s dichotomy between the fog-bound, mephitic, enervating music of the North (Wagner) and the life-giving vitality and pagan health of the music of the Mediterranean – with the difference only that he substitutes Verdi for Bizet. ‘I associate Wagner with periods of post-adolescent gloom,’ Conrad writes; ‘Wagner induced a delicious listlessness, but an excerpt from Verdi could be relied on to activate my sluggish body’; ‘If Wagner was a drug, then Verdi in my early experience was a tonic’; ‘I have a feeling Verdi’s music is good for us.’ Only last year, Thomas Adès described Wagner’s music as ‘fungal’, lamenting his influence on the composers who followed him: ‘his grubby fingerprints’ are ‘everywhere’. ‘Fungal’ is in one sense rather a good image for the modular patterning of Wagner’s music, but it also suggests infestation, decay, sickness and a tendency to spread uncontrollably, while the phrase ‘grubby fingerprints’ brings to mind something insalubrious, if not criminal.

It can sometimes seem that the history of reactions to Wagner has been self-sustaining: a ritual tradition of colourful hyperbole, unsupported for the most part by any explanation as to how exactly the music comes to have the power ascribed to it. This is perhaps scarcely surprising: our sense of the character of any music always closely involves its emotional tone, and in music emotional tone is largely determined by harmonic idiom, but we have no shared tools for analysing the expressive and semantic content of harmony. Any acquaintance with the literature of music aesthetics shows how far we still are from agreeing a theory of musical meaning or expression. So when Nietzsche declares the tone of Parsifal to be saturated with bogus religiosity but Debussy finds it sublime, and when Bernard Williams has serious qualms about the tone of Siegfried’s Funeral Music but Daniel Barenboim thinks it ‘noble’, on what grounds can we adjudicate the differences?

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

If there is a common denominator to the attacks on Wagner’s work as bad for us it is the idea that it causes a loss of self-control or volition in the listener: that, in representing emotional states beyond normal bounds, it lures us into these states, so that we lose what Auden called our ‘dream of safety’. ‘Wagner’s inspirations make us identify with feelings which we experience as bad, evil,’ Hans Keller wrote. As usual Keller didn’t go on to say what these evil feelings might be or what in Wagner’s music corresponds to them, but perhaps the really interesting question here concerns not the feelings but the being made to have them.

Music is capable of influencing our physical, mental and emotional state far more directly than any other art form. Our ears are open in a way that our eyes are not: we cannot ‘listen away’ as we can ‘look away’. With music the question of distance is, therefore, an essential question. Where are we and where is it? Where does it stop and where do we begin? Which feelings belong to the music and which to us? In his essay ‘The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner’, Thomas Mann speaks of Romanticism as being uninterested in what he calls ‘the pathos of distance’. (It was this essay that was the proximate cause of Mann’s hasty departure from Germany in 1933: he caused particular outrage among the Nazi establishment for saying that Wagner had elevated dilettantism to the level of genius.) In one respect, it is easy to see what Mann means. In the first decades of the 19th century, composers took an increasing interest in the sensational dimension of music, its capacity to have an impact: to make a big and splendid noise. As the century advanced, orchestras grew in size and power, to accommodate the imaginings of composers intent on exploring acoustic extremes. Distance is to an extent a function of scale, and while the pathos of distance is important in our relationship with the musical miniatures that represent one side of the Romantic achievement (nocturnes, songs without words and, pre-eminently, songs with words), the large-scale orchestral works that typify the other side amount to a concerted bid to break down the distance between music and audience. Wagner was quite open about wanting to change the consciousness of his listeners – and he knew better than anyone how to harness the power of the new forces of musical impact at his disposal. At work on Tristan und Isolde, he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck that he feared good performances of the work would drive people mad (and, as we have seen, he was spot on). To Hans von Bülow he said that he wanted the listener to give himself ‘unresistingly’ to his work, such that he ‘involuntarily assimilates even what is most alien to his nature’. Wagner had no interest in the pathos of distance.

The state in which he found the art of opera in the middle of the 19th century didn’t please him. He deplored its tired routines and swept them away. Where a traditional opera typically hauled itself along through a series of arias, duets and ensemble pieces, strung along a line of recitative, Wagner integrated words, drama and music into a discourse of continuous gesture. This did a lot to dismantle the structures which in traditional opera keep the audience at a distance from the action. In an opera by Rossini or Donizetti, we hop from one aria or duet or ensemble to another, negotiating an archipelago of self-sufficient pieces of music, and this acts as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, repeatedly ejecting us from the narrative, an effect the custom of applauding individual numbers as though they were concert items made even more pronounced. Wagner replaced this ‘singing of pieces of music’ with a free declamatory vocal style, embedding his singers in the fabric of the drama and rarely permitting them to sing at the same time as each other. In his mature operas, the ebb and flow of the action is controlled by music (Wagner partly characterised it as ‘endless melody’) which loosens the certainties of diatonic harmony and gives a wide berth to effects of unwanted closure in the musical syntax. As a result, the listener is given only rare opportunities to bail out of the musical and dramatic argument.

It is a central aspect of Wagner’s genius (Mann writes about it wonderfully) that he conceived a way to draw the literary and musical components of his operas towards each other. His understanding of the ideographic potential of music – the capacity of music to suggest things, characteristics and ideas – was something quite special to him, and it probably partly accounts for our sense of his work as in certain fundamental respects different from most other music in the classical canon.

The movement towards each other of the musical and the literary in Wagner’s art is most clearly to be read in the leitmotifs, the thematic cells and musical phrases used in his mature operas to characterise people, places, things and ideas. Debussy dubbed the leitmotifs ‘calling cards’ and most recently Adès has said of them that, while he can see that they are ‘obviously useful markers for someone in an opium haze’, he finds them ‘embarrassing’, a ‘kind of pantomime theatre’. ‘They’re absurd,’ he goes on, ‘stuck on like post-it notes to remind you what things are. But they aren’t part of the organic life of the music, the veins and the tissues of the music.’ On the other hand, for Pierre Boulez it is precisely the organic nature of Wagner’s development of the motifs in the Ring which is a source of admiration and respect. On this, I’m with Boulez. Rather than treating the leitmotifs as a handy glossary, where we can look up meanings and identifications as we travel through the Wagnerian landscape, we would do better to think of them as staking out a kind of semantic middle ground between music and drama (Wittgenstein called them ‘musical prose sentences’). As the works unfold, the listener moves continuously and fluidly between the music on the one hand and the drama on the other, holding them in a kind of dynamic equilibrium in the mind. The patterned integration of the leitmotifs into the musical fabric – like small marine fossils in certain kinds of sedimentary rock – symbolises the accumulation of experience over time (it was this aspect of Wagner that so excited Proust). And as a formal device, the leitmotifs helped Wagner give coherence and unity to immense spans of musical narrative. Wherever we surface in the onward stream of these operas, whether listening to them or reading them in score, we see a landscape of familiar forms, though always subtly evolving and combining in a kaleidoscope of shifting permutations.

The words often used to describe the effect of Wagner’s work – ‘seduction’, ‘irresistibility’, ‘enchantment’ – and the way Wagner is spoken of as a magician or sorcerer or trickster, suggest dark and inscrutable arts; and, given that the stories he tells and the music through which he tells them, are full of emotional drama, at times extreme, we might assume that his power derives from his passion, and that if we feel a loss of will in the face of his work, it is because we have been overwhelmed and swept away by a lava stream of expression or irradiated by a blast of psycho-spiritual energy, or – and this is perhaps the most common trope of all – drugged. Echoing an observation of Mann’s, Boulez has said of Wagner that ‘his genius was both hot-headed – even irrational – and extremely analytical.’ Brecht said that Wagner’s art ‘creates fog’ and Tolstoy thought you could achieve the same effect more quickly by getting drunk or smoking opium. But what has always struck me about Wagner’s work – certainly, the seven mature operas – is not that they enthral us through bewilderment or narcosis, but how unnervingly intelligible they are, and how, in being so intelligible, they hold our attention, and, in holding our attention, draw us ineluctably in.

We might think that he had to make things crystal clear to us because his imagination insisted on drawing everything out to such length – the danger of losing us would otherwise have been too great. But I am inclined to turn this on its head and say that it is the length of his operas that allows them to be so intelligible. In Wagner, size matters; of all the variables in his art it matters most. This is what Nietzsche meant when he said that Wagner hands us a magnifying glass. In his mature operas music and drama collaborate intuitively. Musical time and dramatic time do not naturally synchronise: we are better at taking in complex stories than complex music. So Wagner takes care to slow down the pace of his narratives, building them out of large, simply structured sections, which reduce foreground content and accentuate abstract underlay. Long passages of debate between characters about clearly etched issues, question and answer routines that recall fairy-tale storytelling, picture-book incidents and journeys: all help to create a roomy space within which the music can breathe.

Reciprocally, the music works to control the tempo of the action. In a play, there is a limit to how slowly (or indeed how fast) the dialogue can be delivered. Pauses and silences have to be used carefully. In Wagner, the music either speeds up the dialogue to increase emotional intensity (take Tristan’s arrival for his night of love with Isolde) or, more typically, the music pours into the mould of the opera flowing between the elements of the drama and pushing them apart, stretching them out. We could think of this process as resembling the inflation of a balloon with a picture on it: as the air inflates the balloon the marks that define the picture move outwards and away from one another. It’s as though Wagner were writing the story in very large letters, or reading it out very, very slowly. We follow the action in big temporal arcs, several times longer than those we would experience in a play using the same dialogue. For example, the dramatic action of the first scene of Die Walküre takes four times longer in Wagner’s opera than it would if you simply read it aloud. In scene two, the factor of augmentation is three, and the third scene takes only twice as long as it would if read aloud. I think this partly explains the sense of increasing pace as the act develops. It’s in the use of music to control the narrative flow that his operas may sometimes remind us of film, where it’s the camerawork that creates this plasticity.

The dialogue between Brünnhilde and Siegmund in Act Two of Die Walküre, where Brünnhilde tells Siegmund the game’s up, is a beautiful example of the way Wagner maps narrative structure onto musical argument: the simplicity of the question and answer routine creates utterly transparent musical paragraphs, while the music lends a profound abstract weight to the emotional essence of the scene. At 11 minutes, the musical treatment takes five times longer than the dialogue would if spoken. In passages such as this one, Wagner’s music has an effect on our sense of time that is the reverse of the effect most music in the classical canon has on us. Where most classical music expands our sense of temporal duration, Wagner’s contracts it. Most music, though short, seems long; Wagner, though long, seems short. Until Wagner very few compositions – that’s to say, self-contained pieces of music – lasted longer than 15 minutes; the majority much less than this. Music from the classical canon characteristically compresses its content into very short timespans, as you would see if you were to look at a stopwatch while listening to a motet by Thomas Tallis, or an aria from the St Matthew Passion or Don Giovanni, a movement from a Beethoven or Webern string quartet, or a Chopin mazurka or a Schubert or Schumann song.

Where in much classical music, the exposition of material (the presentation of musical data to the listener’s ear) stands in a very high ratio to passing time, in Wagner’s work this relationship is radically relaxed. He sets out the basic propositions of his musical argument with extraordinary parsimony, letting the line out inch by inch, making absolutely sure that we have understood each element in the music before he introduces another one. The norm in classical music is for dense vertically integrated hits of musical information that are cognitively impossible to grasp in their full detail at the time of listening. Wagner spreads out the musical variables horizontally, allowing us all the time we need to register them fully.

Asimple juxtaposition of the first minute or so of each of the operas of the Ring with the first minute of Carmen, Falstaff, Der Rosenkavalier and Wozzeck (operas written within the force field of Wagner’s immense influence and yet, in key respects, resisting it) throws into startling relief the distinctive character of Wagner’s compositional procedures. In a minute of Bizet, Verdi, Strauss or Berg, the rapid release of musical information and the compression of the material – the sheer amount of stuff we are asked to take in – creates a distance between us and the music, rebuffing us, as it were, with its complexity or, in a phrase of Adorno’s, its ‘simultaneous multiplicity’.

First: Carmen, the work Nietzsche used to beat Wagner over the head with. By the time the first minute is up we’ve had three full statements of the opening theme plus a contrasting second subject. In Verdi’s Falstaff, an exuberantly syncopated opening phrase propels us within 15 seconds into the thick of a bust-up between Dr Caius and Falstaff, and by the end of the minute we have a complete working picture of the protagonist of the opera: fat, drunken, havoc-raising, insouciant, splendid. In both these openings, the effect of a large orchestra in full spate is like a firework display, an explosion of energy, light and colour, but emphatically a spectacle, dazzlingly external to us. There’s so much going on and in such a small space that although all of the music registers somewhere in our brains, we would be hard pressed, if asked a moment later, to describe more than a few of its salient features.

In Der Rosenkavalier, once again, the density of the counterpoint and the speed of harmonic change exuberantly packs the first minute with musical material. But it’s the opening of Wozzeck that is the most compressed of all. Here, the intricacy of the musical construction is matched by an extraordinarily rapid exposition of dramatic and emotional content: by the end of the first minute, the structure of class oppression around which the whole work is built has been established. Wozzeck’s ‘Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann’ sums up the utter hopelessness of his Untertan position; while the captain, shrill and hysterical, finds space to elaborate a miniature paranoid disquisition on the nature of time.

These four openings leave us in no doubt about where we stand. In Falstaff and Wozzeck, we are sudden spectators of a drama in midstream, emphatically pushed onto the outside. Carmen and Der Rosenkavalier present us with pieces of music, fully formed and clearly separate. With the exception of Die Meistersinger, where Wagner reverted, to some extent, to older forms, Wagner’s later operas do not so much start as just appear, as if out of nowhere. Tristan und Isolde, the four Ring operas and Parsifal open with next to no discernible metre or pulse, so that where we stand in relation to this music becomes unclear. We just find ourselves in it. At the same time, Wagner feeds us only as much musical nutrient as we can comfortably metabolise, so that our absorption into the material is not in any way disturbed by feelings of incomprehension.

The most famous of these openings is, of course, the truly astonishing opening of Das Rheingold, where the idea of the origin of things is depicted through the elaboration of the chord of E flat major over 136 bars – that’s four minutes of one chord. In similar fashion, the first minutes of Die Walküre tax us with scarcely more than the note D – buzzing and surging around our heads like an angry swarm of giant bees. For the opening of Siegfried, Wagner planes down the leading edge of the opera to a bare slither: a scarcely audible timpani roll on a low F, setting up an almost imperceptible pedal on the dominant of B flat minor, which acts like a vacuum pulling us forward into the body of the work. Apart from this F we are given only three other musical items to take stock of: a sequence of falling sevenths played by bassoons in thirds, a simple stepwise rising figure played by the tuba, and a reinforcement of the F pedal played by the cellos and emphasised with an accented grace-note turn. Three shapes, each defined by instrumental colour: one falling, one creeping upwards, the third static. Finally, in the opening of Götterdämmerung we recognise a reprise of the music announcing Brünnhilde’s awakening, but here transposed down a semitone, and so darker, more disturbing. Again, all that we are required to grasp are two chord progressions – E flat minor followed by C flat major and then E flat minor followed by D flat minor – and two types of articulation: the E flat minor chords stark, single and bare, the two subsequent chords, rippling and emollient.

To play the first minute of a Wagner opera – like measuring the first foot of a redwood tree – is a kind of nonsense. But that’s part of the point, since what we learn from this exercise is that Wagner builds his music over the longer timespan through a gradual accumulation of discretely presented elements. The power and excitement of the orchestral prelude to Die Walküre, for example, is intrinsically dependent on the extreme simplicity of its ingredients. A mood of intense minatory agitation is created by the thrashing and surging melody in the cellos and basses, a relentless pacing up and down the harmonic minor scale of D, held like a force suppressed under the clamp or lid of the octave tremolando D in the violins and violas. Structurally all the music does is to take the ‘melody’ from the tonic up five notes to the dominant and back again. But a lot of play with the potential for harmonic clash between the notes of the diminished seventh chord on C sharp and the obsessive pedal on D, plus a gradual ratcheting up of the pulse – notably during a wonderfully effective stretto three-part canon in the strings at two beats’ distance – leads to an explosive climax on the dominant (a timpani thunder clap) letting loose a sequence of descending woodwind and brass fanfares (of the kind that Adorno was so snooty about) and a gradual subsidence back to where we started. The collapse of tension here is almost more extraordinary than its build-up, as Wagner creates the effect of a sudden drop in atmospheric pressure (it’s almost as if the strings are tuning themselves down as the line loses energy). The simplicity of the musical components allows us to feel that we are at the controls of this infernal machine, its drive our drive – and this is the authentic Wagnerian experience.

Most tonal music is structured by tensions moving towards a climax and away again, whether at the level of individual phrases, paragraphs or complete pieces. Wagner uses simple wave forms across particularly long stretches of music: he takes us up and then he takes us down again, or, in the case of the Prelude to Lohengrin, we start at the top, move through a progressive thickening of texture and deepening of register until we reach the climax, and then return to the thin high perch we started from – like a trapeze artist swooping down through a parabola from one high platform to another. Wagner said that composition was the art of transition and his transitions are indeed to be wondered at. One of the finest sees Siegfried ascend to Brünnhilde’s rock through the curtain of fire behind which she is locked in sleep. This is the most profound emotional transition in the whole Ring cycle – whatever we may think of Siegfried as a character – and Wagner achieves it through a passage of gorgeous, effulgently orchestrated music, that takes us up to a broad high peak and then escorts us down the other side into an entirely new landscape. This majestic descent brings us to a point of almost complete rest, out of which grows a single violin line that sinuously feels its way upwards, like the tendril of some climbing plant searching for a place to attach itself, up and up, until, arriving at its limit, it turns and snakes back down again. The musical line is tethered at either end of its ascent by two statements of the so-called destiny motif played first in D and then up a tone in E. The meandering violin line is nothing more, then, than a hugely attenuated ornament on the dominant seventh of D on the way up and, on the way down on the dominant seventh of E. So all we have to think about are two chords and a line that has gone for a walk. And when the gentle state of anticipation induced by the dominant sevenths is finally answered, it’s by a chord we have not been expecting, delicately expressive of Siegfried in his new, as yet uncertain psychological state. 

Arnold Schoenberg – frustrated and, we may think, naively puzzled by the fact that people found his music difficult to understand – declared that all music is difficult. There is a lot to this. When someone complains that they cannot understand atonal music, I am prompted to wonder what in tonal music they have understood. On the surface, where melody and harmony follow recognisable routines, we feel we know what is being said. But this familiarity is deceptive, if not a barrier to understanding. The compression of information characteristic of much great music, the speed at which it passes, the bewildering density and delicacy of its over-determination, makes it difficult in the way that poetry is difficult. Like poetry, music deflects our gaze. It is an elusive medium which we grasp only partially through an endless process of interpretation. Like Hans Sachs in the second act of Die Meistersinger, silenced by the enigmatic beauty of Walther’s prize song (‘Ich fühl’s und kann’s nicht verstehn’), we feel the beauty of music but we do not wholly understand it.

Wagnerian music drama – the music and the drama and the way they combine – is unusually permeable to our search for coherence. There’s a sense in which it gives up its meanings generously and that this is the result of Wagner’s quite exceptional feel for the way our brains take in musical and dramatic information. When we have been drawn deep into the Wagnerian zone, much as we love Bach and Haydn and Bartok and Berg, the thought of their music can seem a little bit too much like hard work.

Wagner’s astonishing musical charisma works not just by giving us a great time, not just by plying us with rich and varied expressive goodies, but by conferring intelligence on us: he makes us feel we understand. I wonder, though, whether this results in our not only getting too close to him for comfort (an experience which on its own would be enough to trigger the impulse to push him away), but feeling that we have somehow incorporated him into ourselves. The word I like best for my experience of Wagner’s work is ‘engross’, because it means to absorb totally and to write in large letters and, in Shakespearean usage, to make fat or pregnant. Who has engrossed whom is not clear to me. Have I swallowed Wagner or has Wagner swallowed me? Whichever it is, the consequences can seem quite bad: whether it is that, like a baby with a bottle with too big a hole in the teat, I have satisfied myself without a residue of want (always an unsettling condition), or that in gobbling everything down I have taken in things I find unpleasant along with those I find delicious.

Debussy said that it was ‘hard to imagine the state to which the strongest brain is reduced by listening for four nights to the Ring … It is worse than obsession. It is possession. You no longer belong to yourself.’ Returning from a Wagner performance in January 1917, Otto Klemperer said to his sister: ‘When I like Wagner, I do not like myself.’ I think one can go a step further and say that even disliking Wagner is not straightforward. There are many composers we may not particularly care for, but this poses no problem because we experience their music as separate from us, as other. They do not tamper with our sense of self. In possessing us, Wagner restricts our freedom to dislike him, since in disliking him, we can find that we end up disliking bits of ourselves. And this, after all is what he set out to achieve: he wanted his listener to abandon himself unresistingly to the work, so that he ‘involuntarily assimilates even what is most alien to his nature.’

InArt and Its Objects, Richard Wollheim suggests that it is ‘part of the spectator’s attitude to art that he should … make it the object of an ever-increasing or deepening attention’. Simone Weil defined true love as ‘a pure attention to the existence of the other’. Taken together, these formulations suggest that in learning to attend to music as other than ourselves, we model other forms of attention – attention above all to each other. Recalling how Erasmus found in the god Terminus ‘a symbol exhorting decency in life’, we might observe that much harm comes from failing to acknowledge boundaries and that a music that seeks to overrun boundaries in some sense models other invasions, other grabs for power.

For me, Tristan und Isolde is Wagner’s greatest single achievement, because it is the one work where his attention seems to be wholly turned away from us towards his subject. The overwhelming intensity of the music belongs to Tristan and to Isolde and, though we are made to experience it, not, in the end, to us. Like Brangäne, Kurwenal, King Marke and Melot and Wagner himself, we stand on the outside looking in. The visionary simplicity of Tristan und Isolde permits us to take it in at a glance, and what we see in this glance is an impossible object. For it seems both large and small, intimate and colossal, at the same time. Here it isn’t a magnifying glass that Wagner gives us, but an electron microscope through which we see, blown up to a size that fills the frame, things which, with the naked eye, we cannot see at all. Or we could think of it as the musical equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider, an immense musical accelerator, built for the sole purpose of detecting the Higgs boson of the universe of love.

The particle at the heart of Tristan und Isolde is the word ‘and’. In the midst of her ecstatic exchanges with Tristan in Act II of the opera, Isolde suddenly catches sight of the word. ‘But our love, is it not Tristan and Isolde?’ she asks, perplexed by what would happen if death were to destroy this little word. Andrew Marvell defined love as ‘the conjunction of the mind and opposition of the stars’. ‘And’ is the conjunction that both connects Tristan and Isolde and separates them. The story of Tristan and Isolde is the story of ‘and’ and of what happens when the boundary it defends is overrun. In Act II, after almost an hour of unrelenting emotional pressure, the little word finally gives way. Tristan and Isolde collapse in on one another, no longer able to distinguish themselves as separate people: ‘Tristan you, I Isolde, no longer Tristan,’ Tristan babbles; ‘You Isolde, Tristan I, no longer Isolde!’ Isolde answers. Here music reaches the limits of its power to express feeling and something breaks. No sooner have Tristan and Isolde become one person, as it were, than King Marke (Isolde’s betrothed) and Melot, Tristan’s treacherous friend, burst in on them. ‘Save yourself, Tristan!’ Kurwenal cries.

As movingly as any music in the classical canon, the music in the second half of Tristan und Isolde, with its unconsolable sadness, tells of ‘infinite passion, and the pain of finite hearts that yearn’, the final lines of Browning’s poem ‘Two in the Campagna’, published four years before Wagner completed Tristan und Isolde and perhaps the perfect antidote to it. As Browning would know, Isolde’s final transfiguration is a beautiful delusion. The god Terminus remains immovable. ‘Concedo nulli.’ ‘I yield to no one.’

In the question ‘Is Wagner bad for us?’ there’s a hint of tiresome passivity, as though we had no choice in the matter. There are substances and there is substance abuse. It’s surely up to us to manage Wagner’s charisma, up to us to maintain the ‘and’ in our relationship with him. But whether it’s really possible to keep Wagner at a distance without losing something essential in our experience of his work is unclear to me. What I do know is that to toy with the idea of Tristan und Isolde as the foundational event in a new religion or to take it as ‘a sacrificial consolation for the imperfect loves of those who witness it’ is to turn this great work into a fetish. When we talk like this, the issue is not whether Wagner is bad for us, but whether we are bad for Wagner.

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Vol. 35 No. 8 · 25 April 2013

Nicholas Spice writes that Berlioz, while reviewing Tristan und Isolde positively, ‘privately admitted to being disgusted by the music’ (LRB, 11 April). True, he added private expressions of distaste to the printed score presented to him by Wagner, now in the Bibliothèque nationale. But he never heard, still less reviewed, the opera. He reviewed the prelude, which Wagner conducted at his Paris concert of 1860. Berlioz wrote that it had ‘no theme other than a sort of chromatic moan’, and was ‘filled with dissonant chords, their cruelty further enhanced by long appoggiaturas that replace the note that belongs to the harmony’. This public expression of disgust was reprinted in his essay collection A Travers Chants (1862) well before the first performance of Tristan.

Julian Rushton
University of Leeds

I learned a lot from the article by Nicholas Spice and, as a result, I may finally allow myself to listen to, and like, Wagner’s music. Mr Spice should know, though, that a trapeze artist – swinging on a fixed length of cord, attached to a fixed point – will describe the arc of a circle, not a parabola. The parabola is for the guy shot from a cannon.

Ed Morman

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