I’ve twice visited Bayreuth, the small city in southeast Germany that Richard Wagner called home for the last 11 years of his life and remains the site of the annual summer festival devoted to his operas. For a fan of Wagner’s music—and for an audiophile, as the acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspeilhaus are extraordinary—these were peak experiences. After my first pilgrimage, I returned to the U.S. on a Sunday and on Tuesday was back at work. That first day was a long one and I stopped for sustenance at a fast-food restaurant on the way home. I was about to take my first bite of hamburger when, a few tables away, a cell phone went off—with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The owner of the phone was a girl who looked to be 15 or 16. I wanted very much to ask her if she knew what a Valkyrie was, or who was responsible for the music she had chosen for her ring tone. She was still chattering away when I needed to hit the road and I never got to pose my questions. Still, I was impressed by the reach of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, dead for 120 years when that young lady and I crossed paths in a suburban strip mall on an August evening.
Alex Ross has been the classical music critic at The New Yorker for a quarter century, since he was 28 years old. A previous book, The Rest is Noise, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Ross is a Wagner authority who has written frequently on the composer, but it must be emphasized that Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music is not a biography, or an in-depth look at the composer’s music. Rather, it’s an exhaustive study of the influence Wagner—often referred to reverently as the “Meister” (“Master”) during his lifetime and beyond—has exerted on other artists, generally nonmusical ones, and in the geopolitical sphere. Do you need to be very familiar with Wagner’s music to get much out of this vast book, to understand the cultural hegemony of Wagnerism? You do not. Of course it doesn’t hurt if you can name the three Rhinemaidens or sing along with Walther’s “Prize Song” from Die Meistersinger, but one of Alex Ross’s great gifts is an ability to write about a topic in a way that engages people with all levels of experience. If you are familiar with even a few popular excerpts—“Ride of the Valkyries,” “Siegfried’s Funeral March,” the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, the overture to The Flying Dutchman—you’ll be fine.
The heyday of Wagnerism was long, encompassing the last three decades of the 19th century up until the Second World War, though there were many earlier adherents. The French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire could be considered the first, in the early 1860s, and the phenomenon lives on now to a degree: the artist Anselm Kiefer has produced numerous works with Wagnerian titles (and let’s not forget the manufacturer of expensive tube amplifiers who had models called “Siegfried” and “Wotan”). The crowd got so thick by the end of the 19th century that Ross had to devise ways of parsing the composer’s adherents. So he investigates not just Baudelaire but, at the same time, other French Symbolist poets, such as Mallarmé and Verlaine. Around the same time, in the same country, Impressionist painters were declaring a bond with the Meister, and Ross explores the work of Cezanne, Manet, Van Gogh, and Gaughin. The Bloomsbury group in London, Russian Futurists, Viennese Secessionists, the Chicago architecture school led by Louis Sullivan—all manifested a Wagnerian perspective, and Ross considers them in a coherent and methodical fashion
Ross also examines Wagner-admiring constituencies as defined by certain demographic metrics. The idea of Jewish Wagnerians is still surprising to some, but it goes back to the composer’s lifetime. Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi, was entrusted with the first performances of Parsifal and other Jewish conductors, from Mahler and Solti to Barenboim and Asher Fisch, have been among the composer’s most effective interpreters. But did you know that Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement that eventuated in the creation of Israel, was a proud Wagnerian? Scholars have suggested that Herzl may have seen parallels between Tannhäuser’s redemption and the potential salvation of the Jewish people through statehood.
At least as surprising is that W.E.B. Du Bois, the leader of the American Black intelligentsia and an antiracism warrior for 70 years, was a Wagner aficionado. A short story called “Of the Coming of John” that’s inserted as a chapter into the otherwise nonfiction work The Souls of Black Folk has its African American protagonist attending a performance of Lohengrin in New York City, where he experiences a soul-crushing incident of racism that, ultimately, leads to his lynching when he returns home to the Jim Crow South.
Ross notes, as well, the large constituency of gay Wagnerians: “Wagner became part of the syllabus of gay taste,” he writes, observing that, for many homosexual men nowadays, that cultural space has been taken over by Broadway musicals. Ross is himself gay and has sharp instincts regarding the sexuality of earlier literary types. Who else could get away with a statement like “Modern homosexuality was, to some extent, a German invention.” Wagner, while apparently strictly heterosexual in his intimate relationships, “qualified as a kindred spirit.” The composer’s penchant for satin underwear and his connections to the gay king Ludwig II certainly didn’t hurt his standing in the queer world.
Ross scrutinizes Thomas Mann, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, Marcel Proust, Joseph Conrad, Gabriele d’Annuncio, and many other important literary figures for Wagnerian influence, both in terms of worldview and the actual substance of their artistic endeavors. But one writer in particular secures Ross’s fixed gaze: Receiving 32 pages of attention is Willa Cather. That’s right, the author of O Pioneers! that you were required to read in the eighth grade. Cather, who was born in Virginia but grew up on the American prairie, was the most accomplished purveyor of the mini-genre known as the “singer-novel.” One such example was Cather’s The Song of the Lark, one of the novels in Cather’s “Great Plains Trilogy.” The principal character, Thea Kronborg, was largely based on the great Wagnerian singer Olive Fremstad, whom Cather had profiled for McClure’s magazine. Other Cather works, Ross points out, bear the clear “imprint” of Wagner’s music.
The book is subtitled “Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music” and, while Wagner’s work had plenty of advocates on the left (“Siegfried’s Funeral March” was played at Lenin’s memorial concert in 1924), most associations are with the fascist kind of authoritarianism. The storyline that Germany lost the Great War because the nation was “stabbed in the back” took on imagery right out of Götterdämmerung. By the early 1940s, the idea of Wagner as a kind of “proto-Hitler” had taken hold and has never completely gone away; in the popular imagination, Wagner’s music provides the soundtrack for the Nazi’s rise and rule, an association that is not unreasonable due to the close connections between the Wagner family and the regime. Ross does try to debunk some of the myths regarding Wagner and the Holocaust—the Meister’s music actually wasn’t played much in the death camps—but the association of the composer with German militarism and genocide was as responsible as anything for the decline in Wagnerism over the past 80 years, even as the operas themselves remain as popular as ever.
Can you read just parts of the book? Absolutely. Movie buffs will devour the 46-page chapter on Wagner in film—the Meister’s tunes have appeared in over 1000 movies, from Birth of a Nation to Apocalypse Now, and beyond. You can skip the French Symbolists if you want but consume the deep dives into Cather, Du Bois, Mann, and Joyce—not to mention Isadora Duncan, Salvador Dali, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Philip K. Dick. However much you do read, the take-away will be the same. Wagner may or may not have been, as Thomas Mann insisted, “the greatest talent in the history of art” but he was surely the most influential musician in history. To some extent, this is due to when he came along, at a time when Art was a kind of religion and its greatest practitioners had a cultural impact we’re unlikely to ever see again. But towards the end of Wagnerism, Alex Ross discusses the observations of a recent Wagner scholar, Alain Badiou. “The truth of a work of art,” writes Ross, “does not reside in the work itself or in the author’s intention. Rather, it composes a truth as it moves forward in time.” That’s a formula for immortality.
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