Is Wagner bad for us?

Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books:

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.

More here.