Wagner’s boundaries and Bach’s aspirations

Wagner’s Boundaries (The Null Set)

The London Review of Books features in its 11 April 2013 issue a musing by Nicholas Spice titled “Is Wagner bad for us?”  The breadth of Spice’s inquiries prohibits useful capsulization here, but an early passage of the article is so trenchant that I hoped readers would find it stimulating. 

The question posed was “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….”  That is to say, does Wagner talk about things one is not supposed to, write about stuff that is meant to be personal and private?  Does he touch us where he ought not?

Of course he does, writes Spice:

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 bread-line, 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 overscaled and the interminable.

Now, this is a very attractive postulate, not least because it accepts and exalts two immutable attributes of Wagner’s work that attract his enthusiasts: its passion and its iconoclasm.  But it set me to thinking about a moment during a recent performance of Bach’s B-Minor Mass, in New York, that was profoundly moving.

After the “Et Incarnatus Est,” there follows a deeply sad setting of “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est.”  The form is, I suppose, a passacaglia, the walking bass being a chromatic downward passage that constitutes a tritone.  At the very final iteration, the accompanying strings are omitted altogether and the chorus, over a bare bass line, executes a sublime and utterly quiet — almost silent, if music can be so — series of modulations from E-minor to G-major.  Then all glory breaks loose, with trumpets, chorus and full orchestra shouting a D-major arpeggio, rejoicing again and again, “Et resurrexit.”

I believe — no, I actually bodily sense and experience — that the core of the Christian myth lies is in the silent pause between those two choruses.  It is a moment of spiritual and experiential ecstasy, and it is a great privilege to be alive in a room when it is performed.  But where is Bach in all of this?  Working on his next gig, one supposes.

Wagner’s works have Wagner’s thumbprint all over them.  Wagner’s willingness to schtup other men’s wives yields to his penchant for depicting other husbands schtupping other men’s wives, or brothers schtupping sisters, or dwarves schtupping mermaids, or whores schtupping knights-errant, or knights schtupping goddesses of love, and so on.  There is a notoriously close, even symbiotic, relationship between Wagner’s creepy life and his “boundary-transgressing” art.

However, I invite comparison of Wagner’s words on the last page of the manuscript of Götterdämmerung — “I will say no more!” — to the dedication that Bach made with respect to all of his work — “AMDG,”  Ad Maioram Dei Gloriam, To the Greater Glory of God.  

Each announces a fact of great importance to the creator of the work at issue — Wagner, with respect to himself; Bach, with respect to God. 

Does the contrast suggest a difference in the intention of the work?  The effect of the work?  The nature of the boundaries that are crossed and the intimate parts that are touched within the listener?

One Comment

  • Donna Hughes wrote:

    It all depends on how you feel about God, I suppose, or if you even think there is a god.

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