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Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

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Alex Ross, renowned New Yorker music critic and author of the international bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Rest Is Noise, reveals how Richard Wagner became the proving ground for modern art and politics--an aesthetic war zone where the Western world wrestled with its capacity for beauty and violence.

For better or worse, Wagner is the most widely influential figure in the history of music. Around 1900, the phenomenon known as Wagnerism saturated European and American culture. Such colossal creations as The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal were models of formal daring, mythmaking, erotic freedom, and mystical speculation. A mighty procession of artists, including Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Paul Cézanne, Isadora Duncan, and Luis Buñuel, felt his impact. Anarchists, occultists, feminists, and gay-rights pioneers saw him as a kindred spirit. Then Adolf Hitler incorporated Wagner into the soundtrack of Nazi Germany, and the composer came to be defined by his ferocious antisemitism. For many, his name is now almost synonymous with artistic evil.

In Wagnerism, Alex Ross restores the magnificent confusion of what it means to be a Wagnerian. A pandemonium of geniuses, madmen, charlatans, and prophets do battle over Wagner's many-sided legacy. As readers of his brilliant articles for The New Yorker have come to expect, Ross ranges thrillingly across artistic disciplines, from the architecture of Louis Sullivan to the novels of Philip K. Dick, from the Zionist writings of Theodor Herzl to the civil-rights essays of WEB Du Bois, from O Pioneers! to Apocalypse Now.

In many ways, Wagnerism tells a tragic tale. An artist who might have rivaled Shakespeare in universal reach is undone by an ideology of hate. Still, his shadow lingers over twenty-first century culture, his mythic motifs coursing through superhero films and fantasy fiction. Neither apologia nor condemnation, Wagnerism is a work of passionate discovery, urging us toward a more honest idea of how art acts in the world.

784 pages, Hardcover

First published September 15, 2020

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About the author

Alex Ross

26 books377 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. From 1992 to 1996 he wrote for the New York Times. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, was published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and became a national bestseller. It won a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Royal Philharmonic Society Creative Communication Award; appeared on the New York Times's list of the ten best books of year; and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the Samuel Johnson prizes. Ross has received a Letter of Distinction from the American Music Center, fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin and the Banff Centre, three ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards, and an honorary doctorate from the Manhattan School of Music. He has also served as a McGraw Professor in Writing at Princeton University. In 2008 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. His next book, an essay collection titled Listen to This, will appear in fall 2010. A native of Washington, DC, Ross now lives in Manhattan. In 2005 he married the actor and filmmaker Jonathan Lisecki.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 170 reviews
Profile Image for Tosh.
Author 14 books659 followers
September 15, 2020
Probably one of the 'fun' reads this year is "Wagnerism" by Alex Ross. And to be honest I don't care about Wagner. What I do find fascinating is how a 19th-century composer can transform not only the music world, but also in the visual and literary arts. And of course that Hitler connection. Ross is an amazing music historian, and like his other book "Rest is Noise," "Wagnerism" has at least five great stories per page. This mega-book is huge and is probably one of the great reads on how art can have an effect on culture. One doesn't have to be a Wagner fan to appreciate this book. It's interesting that like The Beatles, who had a strong impact on pop - both high and low culture, Wagner did the same in the 19th-century. He even had his own merch shop when he was alive!

Kimley and I discuss this book on our podcast BOOK MUSIK. You can hear it here: Book Musik podcast.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,136 followers
July 20, 2020
It's not an exaggeration to say that Ross's 2007 book THE REST IS NOISE forever changed the way I think about and listen to music. What a glorious, exalted, human experience it was to read his earlier book, and to have a companion website there to hear in real time of all of the music I was learning about. Apart from the music itself, and apart from Ross's always-fascinating, never-condescending approach to explaining the significance of a given composition, another thing that really made this earlier book soar and sing for me was Ross's historical scene setting--his extraordinary ability to make these composers come alive as human beings who were living through a moment in history, and influencing that history. Ross's scenes are as vivid as Barbara Tuchman's and they call to mind Tuchman's humanity and her uncanny ability to revivify the past.

Ross's previous book also included a tantalizing, brief examination of Wagner's music and influence, that left me wanting to know more. And now Ross has devoted himself fully to Wagner, and Wagnerism in this next book. The book begins with a vivid scene of Wagner's death, and follows on with even more vivid detail about the way the world reacted to the news of Wagner's death. It's stunningly written. The moments come alive on the page. And then comes a bald statement of Ross's thesis about Wagner and his influence. I suggest you just accept it. Dive in, rather than trying to this-or-that his thesis, or debate it on the page as you read. Just go with it. Put aside any conclusions you may have made about Wagner and his art, prior to reading this book, and let the book lead you. I was exhilarated by the journey. I felt warmly taken care of, but never condescended to. Ross gave me so much to think about.

I'm assuming that Ross will put up a companion listening web site as the publication date draws nearer, with links to all of the music he refers to in the text, but I was able to find all of it fairly easily online and to listen as I read. It really enhances the reading experience and it's one of the best intermedia experiences I could recommend.

I could not have been more grateful, when I got to the end of this book, for the way Ross introduced me to new thoughts about Wagner, about music, about history. Thanks to FSG for making this book available to me in electronic ARC.
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews234 followers
December 10, 2020
The chaotic posthumous cult that came to be known as Wagnerism was by no means a purely or even primarily musical event. It traversed the entire sphere of the arts.
-Alex Ross

Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit!
-Elmer Fudd

One of Alex Ross' previous books, The Rest is Noise, was a broad tour through the world of modern classical music. Chapters were devoted to movements or individual composers and their works, and how they inspired generations of future artists -- but Wagner gets his own book. He has "Wagnerism", where other composers might not have their own "isms".

Wagner passes away less than 200 pages in, and nearly all the text is devoted to the "shadow of music", or how Wagner's own techniques in composition, staging, mythology, and depiction of emotion influenced a bewildering array of other artists, writers, and thinkers. His use of the leitmotif may be the ancestor of the use of music in film - where Leni Reifenstahl used Wagner in the Triumph of the Will, Charlie Chaplin used him to mock Hitler. Ross is sure to include other musicians, but also - in this music critics' phrase - the "artists of silence" - poets, writers, and painters.

Wagner's appeal was broad, and Ross's telling of this is almost overwhelming. It would be easy to say that the book in this way almost resembles a performance of Wagner, with a bombardment of facts. His popularity was astonishing. At his height, tens of thousands of concerts of his works were played in a decade. Imagine anybody who's music was played live that much. The performances at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus drew devotees from all over the continent and the United States. They are of all classes and backgrounds - from middle-class ladies to such figures as W.E.B. DuBois or Theodor Herzl.

Much of the book is devoted to Wagner's enduring and broad influence across generations of artists. Baudelaire, the French poet, saw in him a gift for the otherworldly, an understanding of dreams. Artists from the French Symbolists to high modernists, from Willa Cather to James Joyce, saw something in him. Not everybody who heard him was a fan, of course. W.H. Auden thought he was not respectable as a person and Mark Twain felt out of place at Bayreuth, like a "heretic in heaven". Yet Ross also, in his wide scope of searching for Wagner's devotees and listeners, finds some on the radical left, of a few brief visits by Mikhail Bakunin, and of his association with gay camp and lesbians who took on the iconography of Brünnhilde. Unavoidably, there is also the intersection between Wagner's art and his politics. As we leave the 19th and move on to the 20th century, Wagnerism takes on sinister connotations.

Wagner's own disgusting anti-Semitism looms over his life and art, and Ross to his credit does not avoid or deny it. Wagner's distinct aesthetics and eccentric lifestyle would have made him a pariah or an unreliable element in Nazi Germany, but his gleeful use by the Third Reich and the extreme right is his "Nosferatu shadow", and the retread of his own prejudices and of his appropriation by some of the worst evil in human history.

That said, Ross goes on to say that "Wagner served the Nazi state only when he was shorn of his ambiguities," and it was partly due to this own rewriting of his story and his own family's complicity that the Third Reich had gone so far in its identification with him as it did. Attempts to mandate Wagner into the life of Nazi Germany were unsuccessful. Soldiers of the Wehrmacht who were given tickets to the opera did as you'd expect soldiers to act. They sold the tickets for beer money or fell asleep in the seats. It would be too easy to say: First Wagner, then Hitler. Ross is right to assert you'd be better off looking at all the history of the West to find where Hitler came from.

Wagner has "near-infinite malleability", and interpretations of his work defy easy categorization or description. His legacy is beyond the "chaotic posthumous cult" of what "Wagnerism" was in the late 19th century, and ranges from the heights of idealism to the worst of concealed hatred. Ross takes us on a grand lecture tour of them all, and shows the composer and the artist, through his vast, conflicted, ongoing legacy.
Profile Image for Magdalena.
42 reviews2 followers
May 4, 2021
I love Alex Ross's writing, which is why I spent the last 6 months reading his book on the influence of a composer I've never liked or listened to fully awake. Modern (mis)perceptions of Wagner also make it easier to dismiss him; his association with Nazism (real but also aggrandized & derivative) still dissuades many from probing into his work. However, that's exactly what Ross does in this virtuosistic excavation of Wagner's complex legacy, and the result defies reduction. Many factions have tried to claim him, and even if the right wing seems to have prevailed, Ross proves it would be a gross disservice to let them have him. His work was ambiguous and complicated enough to fit a thousand sexual, religious, political and spiritual dimensions. His legacy permeates everything. Ross never shies away from the ugly side of Wagner; it's part of the prism. There is no apology for his antisemitism; just a wider lens to try and give a sense of the disconcerting, brilliant man he was. If you're looking for cliff notes to Wagner's legacy, this is not it. This is a very dense, exploding book. But it does expand your world. And in a moment when everything feels small and narrow, that's exactly what I needed.
Profile Image for Cem Alpan.
35 reviews98 followers
September 26, 2022
Yaklaşık 800 sayfalık bu incelemeyi birkaç paragrafta anlatmak mümkün değil elbette. Zira son derece yoğun, tabiri caizse "sıkıştırılmış" anlamda yoğun bir metin bu aslında. Yaklaşık 40 sayfayı bulan bölümlerden her biri yüzlerce kaynak metin ve belge üzerine kurulu. Elbette başta Wagner-severlere ve sanat tarihine ilgi duyanlara hitap etmekle beraber modern edebiyatla, politik sinemayla, sanat-siyaset ilişkisi ve özellikle 20.yy. tarihiyle ilgilenenler için de değerli bir kaynak metin.
Kitap Wagner'in müziği ve operalarının tek tek incelemesi değil. Bununla birlikte hem "fin de siecle" yani 19 yy sonu estetiğinin, hem de modernizmin -hatta Alain Badiou'nun aralarında olduğu kimilerince geleceğin sanatının- en önemli temsilcilerinden biri olan bestecinin eserleri ve başta sahne sanatları ve bütünsel/birleşik sanat (Gessamstkunswerk) kavramı olmak üzere çeşitli teorik düşüncelerinin, genel olarak sanat ve siyaset alanında o günden bugüne seyrini, nasıl algılandığını, etki alanlarını ortaya seriyor. Siyaset kısmı özellikle önemli çünkü Wagner'in, büyük Eski Yunan tragedya yazarı Aeskhilos'tan esinlenip seküler tapınma biçimi olarak, eserlerini sahnelemek üzere bizzat yarattığı "Bayreuth Festivali" zaman içinde Alman milliyetçilerinden sosyalistlere, ziyonistlerden feminist ve eşcinsel hakları savunucularına, siyah ırk aktivistlerinden teozofistlere, kimi birbirine karşı konumlanan çok farkı taraflar için çekim kaynağı olarak, farkı ideolojilerin yana yana gelip boy gösterdiği bir tür tarafsız mekan haline geliyor... Milliyetçiler ve hatta faşistler kısmının üzerinde durmalı, çünkü Nazi'lerin iktidarında, özellikle Wagner kızıyla evlenen ırkçı Lord Chamberlain'in lobi faaliyetleri ve Hitler'in bizzat Wagner hayranı olmasından güç alarak "Bayreuth" Nazilerin kültürel kazanımı, Wagner müziği de Alman kültürünün doruk noktası olarak lanse edilmeye çalışılmış. Bunda Wagner'in payı var elbette, zira "Sanatın Yahudileşmesi" adlı etkili bir makalenin yazarı olarak bestecinin düşmanlığa varan bir Yahudi karşıtı olduğu söylenebilir. Ayrıca komedi operanın başyapıtlarından "Nürnberg'in Usta Şarkıcısı" adlı eserinin sonunda da Alman kültürünü yücelttiği replikler milliyetçi duygular aşılar nitelikte.
Ancak durum o kadar basit değil hatta fazlasıyla karmaşık aslında - tam tersi düşüncelere hizmet edecek kadar karmaşık hem de. Zira Wagner, anarşist sosyalist Bakunin'le aynı saflarda mücadele etmiş, devrime kalkıştığı için de 7 sene İsviçre'de sürgün yaşamış son derece çelişkili bir kişilik. Eserlerinde Yahudi sürgün/gezgin figürü yer bulsa da, Wagner'in eserlerinde kendisini ya da düşüncesini temsil eden karakterlerin de aynı duruma düştüğü kolaylıkla görülebilir - Wotan, Parsifal, hatta Lohengrin örneğinde olduğu gibi. ("Yüzük"teki Alberich figürünün bir Yahudi tiplemesi olduğu yorumuna Wagner, o figürün aslında kendisini temsil ettiğini defalarca ifade ederek karşı çıkmış). Ayrıca militarizme, mülkiyetçiliğe karşı, din sonrası toplumu tahayyül edip yerini neyin alması gerektiğini hayal etmeye çalışan, evrenselci, sosyalist eğilimleri ağır basan bir figür. Zira başyapıtı denebilecek Nibelung Yüzüğü Dörtlemesi'nde, Alman kültürünü temsil eden ve Nietzsche için de Naziler için de bir sembol olan Alman kahramanı Sigfried, aşırı dirim gücü olan, korku nedir bilmeyen ancak yetişkin olamamış, dürtülerini kontrol edemeyen ve saftorik budalalığıyla yok olup giden ergenimsi bir figür olarak resmedilmiş. Nietzsche, Wagner'in bu Sigfried portresine çok tepki göstermiş, Wagner'in irade gücüne ve dirime değil, Hıristiyan değerlere sahip çıkmakla eleştiriyor - ki bunun da tam olarak doğru olduğu söylenemez. Sözgelimi Alain Badiou'ye göre "Parsifal" Hıristiyanlığın çürümüşlüğünü anlatan ve Tanrı sonrasını -ve ebette Patriarki sonrasını- hayal etmeye çalışan bir sanat eseri...
O nedenle Nazilerin Wagner sahiplenmesi ancak bir yere kadar mümkün olabiliyor. Zira ne Nazi gençliği ne de yöneticiler bu fazlasıyla kompleks ve incelikli, oylumlu müziğin derinliklerine inebiliyor - ne de elbette ortalama 4 saat süren eserleri sabredip dinleyebiliyorlar. Dinleyebilen de bir noktada da kendi ideolojileriyle fazlasıyla çeliştiğinin farkına varıyor ve bu mirasla baş edemiyor. Toplama kamplarında Wagner müziği çalındığı söylentisi de sadece söylenti aslında, Hollywood filmleri uydurmalarından ibaret. O karmaşık ve ancak büyük orkestrayla çalınan müziği oralarda icra etmek imkansız. Ama sözgelimi Chopin'in piyano müziğinin çalındığı söylentileri var. SS subaylarına caz dinlettirildiği de biliniyor.

Kitabın özelikle benim için çekici yanı, Baudelaire'den George Eliot'a, Willa Cather'den Virginia Woolf'a, James Joyce'tan Thomas Mann'a ve elbette Proust'a, Wagner'in özellikle modern edebiyata olan muazzam etkisi. Zira "bilinçakışı" tabiri bile ilk kez Wagner'in romantik operayı bir yerde yapısökümüne uğrattığı "Tristan und Isolde" operası için kullanılmış. "Nibelung Yüzüğü Dörtlemesi'nde kullanılan muazzam leitmotif tekniğinden, Woolf ve Joyce gibi yazarlar başyapıtlarını yazarken fazlasıyla faydalanmışlar. Örneğin Parsifal figürü, Woolf'un "Dalgalar"ı W. Cather'ın "Death Comes For The Archbishop"u için esin kaynağı olmuş. Muhteşem George Eliot Wagner'in sanatındaki muazzam yenilikleri ve potansiyeli fark eden ilk büyük yazarlardan/entelektüellerden. "Daniel Deronda" romanı, bir yerde Wagnerci tema ve tekniklerin kullanıldığı, modern romana giden yolu açan eserlerin başında geliyor - daha da önemlisi Wagnerci temalar Yahudi saflarında durarak anlatılıyor.

"Wagnerism"in bir diğer ilgimi çeken tarafı da, Badiou'dan Jameson'a, Adorno, Zizek ve Sontag'a sol düşünürlerin Wagner mirasını nasıl yeniden yorumladıklarını anlatan, özellikle de Badiou'nun saptamalarına yer veren bölüm.
(Ne var ki bu konuya ilgi gösterenlerin özellikle Badiou'nun "Five Lessons of Wagner" / "Wagner Üzerine Beş Ders" adlı incelemesini okumasını öneririm. Önsözünde yazar kitabın ilk İngilizce yayımlandığını yazıyor. Zira dersleri derleyen çevirmene epey iş düşmüş. Belki Fransızcası da arkasından takip etmiştir. Bu kitap boyunca Badiou, en başta Nietzsche ve Adorno'nun Wagner eleştirileriyle sıkı bir hesaplaşmaya girişmiş. Kitabın yarısı boyunca onların düşüncelerini kristalleştirip konumlandırırken diğer yarısında neden bu eleştirilerin karşı kutbunda yer aldığını serimliyor. Ayrıca kitapta Zizek'in fazlasıyla uzun bir sonsözü var.)
(Bir parantez de "Nibelung Yüzüğü" hayranlarına öneri olarak düşünürler P. Kitcher ve R. Schatch'ın [insanların soyadları bu kadar zor olmamalı...] birlikte kaleme aldığı inceleme "Finding an Ending", "Bir Son Bulmak" için açmalı. Toplam 14 saati bulan bu heyula eser üzerine yazılmış incelemelerden benim okuduklarım arasında en iyisi. Roger Scruton'ın "Ring" kitabı da faydalı bilgi ve yorumlar içermekle birlikte, bana kalırsa muhafazakar, keza aynı yazarın Parsifal incemelesi de öyle. Elitist ve muhafazakar Scruton eserlerin tetiklediği düşüncelerdeki radikalliği görmezden geliyor sanki: örneğin Parsifal'deki "duygudaşlıkla kurtuluş" temasının toplumsal ve siyasi içerimleri üzerine pek düşünmüyor ve Ring'in bir tür mitoloji olarak sahnelenmesi gerektiğinde ısrar ediyor. Oysa başta Fransızlar olmak üzere bazı düşünür ve sahneyelenler, Benjamin'den yola çıkarak eseri "teatrelleşitiriyor" yahut "tarihselleştiriyorlar" - belli bir döneme uyarlıyorlar. Zira eser, mitler üzerine kurul olmaktan çok mitlerin değişkenliğini hatta Badiou'ya göre, en nihayetinde, mit'in sonunu, silinmesini anlatıyor - kısacası tanrıların, kahramanların ve liderlerin sonunu ve insanların sahneye çıktığı geleceğin toplumunu tahayyül ediyor - eserin sonunda alevlerin üstünde okşar gibi salınan temayı böyle yorumlamalı belki.)

Kısacası Wagnerism'in kaçınılmaz olarak siyaset ve tarih gibi disiplinleri de içeren muazzam bir birikim üzerine kurulu bir metin. Yukarıda yazdıklarımdan çok daha fazlasını anlatıyor - sözgelimi kesintisiz müzik, Wagner'in popüler kültüre, sinemaya ve özellikle görsel sanatlara ve sahne sanatlarına etkisi gibi. Bazı temaların fazla tekrarlanması kaçınılmaz, o nedenle sabır gerektiriyor. Klasik müziğe, hele Wagner'e ilgi duyanların kesinlikle ilgisini çekecektir.
Profile Image for Dan Graser.
Author 4 books105 followers
September 26, 2020
This is the most thorough examination of the panoply of lenses through which Wagner's effects on art and society have been viewed. Speaking as a musician there are certainly composers who have had a larger effect directly through their music, (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc...) there are no composers who are even in the same league in terms of their effect on broader artistic movements and societal workings. Ross deftly analyzes what it is about Wagner's music, his person, his writings, his family's work at Bayreuth, and the tumultuous time period following his death that have contributed to such a huge array of movements and views dealing not just with the music but with true, "Wagnerism."

In our clickbait reductionist simplistic culture of simply declaring a composer cancelled this is a 700+ page riposte that in no way shies away from any possible controversy. Rather, the controversy of Wagner is examined right from the source and its context, and then in proper order as opposed to the ceaseless, "backshadowing," we hear from armchair social-media level, "musicologists," and, "historians." That so many today accept that Houston Stewart Chamberlain's view of Wagner and, through several connecting threads, Hitler's view of the composer and his work are the correct one and a result of an inevitable causal thread from Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk is an affront to any serious discussion of the workings of history at the level of civilization. It is also to posthumously award such disgusting figures with a cultural credit of perception of which such stultified lunatics are not deserving.

As with his previous writings, Ross is a wonderful guide through this incredible list of cultural figures all of whom have had their own perception and interactions with Wagnerism for over 150 years. Despite the fact that Wagner himself had such terrible views on race and society, his work lives on because of the sheer range of human experience and transcendence it relates to listeners and opera-goers, and because the works themselves are such a better expression of humanity than the figure who created them.
Profile Image for Harris.
142 reviews15 followers
October 2, 2020
Probably once or twice a year I read one of these massive yet easy-to-read pop history books about a topic that catches my interest for whatever reason. I always enjoy them, but this one is truly fantastic.

You got a chapter about Baudelaire and the Symbolists, one about occult appreciation of Wagner, one about Jewish appreciation of Wagner and Black appreciation of Wagner, one about feminist appreciation and gay appreciation, and of course more than one about Hitler. Thomas Mann features heavily, as does Joyce, Woolf, and Cather. Gaddis' JR makes an appearance, so does Carl Schmitt, and so does W.E.B. Dubois. If there's an artist or thinker you like or dislike, they're probably in here (especially if they're European) and you can read about how Wagner and Wagnerism informed them.

This book made clear some of the murkier thinkings of Walter Benjamin, Frederic Jameson, Anselm Kiefer, Proust, Derrida...

Ross deals with the complexities and dualities of art (and the artist) so well. There are tons of reasons to read this book, but, for me, it was an extended meditation on what it means to like art created by troublesome people. Wagner swung left and right and so did his appreciators. He was anarchic and fascist.

This is a truly detailed exploration of Wagner's cockamamie legacy and it left me with a profound understanding that I can do whatever the hell I want with other peoples art and ideas.
Profile Image for Kimley.
199 reviews175 followers
September 15, 2020
Wow! Just, wow!

Tosh and I discuss this on our Book Musik podcast.

A famous quip goes “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Whether you find Wagner’s music to be sublime or bombastic, this is an essential read. It is not a biography or an examination of his music but, more interestingly, it’s a very deep dive into the enormous cultural and political influence Richard Wagner has had on his contemporaries and everyone since, from writers to painters, dancers, philosophers, politicians, and filmmakers. The diversity of those who’ve come under the spell of Wagnerism is beyond compare. And this is despite Wagner’s well-known antisemitism and association with Hitler and the Nazi regime. Cancel culture hasn’t quite figured out what to do with Wagner but Ross leaves no stone unturned in this enormous and hugely satisfying read.

Profile Image for Wiom biom.
60 reviews7 followers
December 11, 2020
As Tony Kushner wrote, Wagnerism is as magnificently realised as it is monumentally ambitious. It is a compelling cultural history of the modern world that Wagner's music helped augur, perhaps beginning in 1848, the year European monarchies faced widespread republican revolts, the year Wagner conceived of the Die Nibelungen in its very formative shape.

Sometimes a fervent admirer and sometimes a vicious hater of Wagner, Nietzsche wrote in 1888 that "Wagner sums up modernity. There is no way out, one must first become a Wagnerian.” How and why was Wagner a torchbearer of modernity?

That is a question that Ross answers in detail in Wagnerism, a book that thrillingly ranges across various artistic disciplines and disparate historical phenomena, from the architecture of Louis Sullivan (check out his jewel boxes) to the novels of Virginia Woolf, from the Zionist writings of Theodor Herzl (father of modern political Zionism) to the civil-rights essays of W. E. B. Du Bois, from O Pioneers! to Apocalypse Now (Vietnam War film).

Interestingly, in the preface, Ross introduces us not to the world in which Wagner lived, but the world which he left behind. Death in Venice, which is also the title of a work by Thomas Mann, seems to establish the core thesis of the book -- Wagner's impact was/is most profoundly observed and felt after his death, not during his lifetime. And that brings us back to the title of the book: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Just like how Wagner's revolutionary music served as the soundtrack to the modern world of his time and its aspiring intellectuals, we, the reader, are left to navigate and grapple with his multifaceted and protean legacy (aesthetic, philosophical, political, etc.). What makes Wagner's music so compelling seems not to be any intrinsic quality but instead the way it has been interpreted and acted upon by his contemporaries and those who grew up in a Post-Wagnerian world.

Thus, the focus of Wagnerism is not on appraising Wagner's music or the man himself (though there are brief analyses) but on his legacy in all its complexity. While this means that we aren't really getting to know Wagner on his own terms, the kaleidoscopic portrayal of his legacy nonetheless offers layers of insights that cannot be found in a biography. Being neither distorted by hagiography nor demonology, Wagnerism is an honest and critical attempt at making sense of the world Wagner left behind.

In the final paragraph, Ross writes that "In Wagner's vicinity, the fantasy of artistic autonomy falls to pieces and the cult of genius comes undone. Amid the wreckage, the artist is liberated from the mystification of 'great art'. He becomes something more unstable, fragile, and mutable. Incomplete in himself, he requires the most active and critical kind of listening." Perhaps that is why Wagner was and is so fascinating -- because he is such a contentious yet towering figure in the history of the modern world.

If you're interested, here is a non-exhaustive list of the topics that Wagnerism touches on: philosophy (Nietzsche), art (French Symbolists, Post-Impressionists, abstract art à la Kandinsky, Futurism, Dadaism), occultists, anarchists, modern literature (Baudelaire, Whitman, TS Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf), cinema (Triumph of the Will, Matrix), theatre, LGBTQ+, feminists, Jews, African-Americans, WWI, Nazism.

Specific to modernism, which is defined as a body of work that cuts against prevailing modes of representation, broaches transgressive themes and threatens zones of bourgeois comfort, Wagner's legacy is best observed in three areas: 1) the gesamtkunstwerk, 2) the use of stream of consciousness and interior monologue, and 3) the juxtaposition of myth and modernity.

Having read Wagnerism, which was such an engrossing read, I have come to appreciate Wagner's preludes, especially the Tristan, as well as the fact that he was and still is a force to be reckoned with. Admittedly, I never liked Wagner's music (mainly because his pieces are so long and I much prefer Brahms) but this book has opened my eyes to the bewildering and perhaps seismic scale of his impact on the world through modernism. However, I'm not sure his music is as great as the interaction between it and the world he lived in; perhaps if not for the revolutionary circumstances of his time, he would not be such a colossal figure in music history. Also, reading about the literary/artistic elites of his time and afterwards has reinforced an opinion of mine that some intellectuals just utter whatever provocative idea comes to their mind in an attempt to make their mark. Take for example, the ridiculous manifesto of the Futurists (who repudiated Wagner in a Wagnerian style) or the various remarks that "theatre must be..." or the invention of words like "erotical" as in "erotical-poetical-political" if I remember correctly. Basically, they come across as pretentious individuals desperate to be remembered for something.

Also I think I'm interested in the fin de siècle and its art and literature so hopefully it's not just something I'll dip my toes in and decide it's not for me.

Really recommend this book!

Professional review:
"Alex Ross deftly teases out the tremendous and often polarising impact that Wagner's music and theories had on modern culture and history. He underscores a paradox at the heart of modernism itself: the tension between the retrograde and the avant-garde and thus, the political right and left, themes of even greater relevance in our present times."
- Vivien Greene, Senior Curator, 19th- and Early 20th-Century Art, Guggenheim Museum
Profile Image for Chris Molnar.
Author 3 books85 followers
September 4, 2020
Robert Ashley or Kanye West engage me viscerally with their loose reimaginings of the form, using the word "opera" to harness history while pushing into the unknown. Puccini or Mozart, on the other hand, I appreciate strictly on an intellectual basis.

Precisely because it understands this attitude and connects it to the radical innovations of Richard Wagner, this book is a masterpiece which rewards readers at any level of familiarity with opera or Wagner specifically. In many ways it reminds me of The Power Broker, Robert Caro's peerless biography of Robert Moses, insofar as it is the kind of all-consuming, exhaustively researched tome that turns the reader into a paranoid font of bizarre historical tidbits, fully convinced that the subject of the book created modern society (either physically, for Moses, or psychically, for Wagnerism) and are, as such, visible everywhere. Moses and Wagner were both idealistic, hard-working, power-hungry racists who just so happened to define the framework for modern society in a completely inescapable way - that one became a caricature of hidden Jewish power and the other of rancid Germanic anti-Semitism is a topic for someone else's doctoral thesis.

That said, this is a book about Wagnerism, not Wagner, about an idea of influence which is completely subjective and ghostly, not a person. Caro is the apotheosis of research as discipline-cum-religion, and so is uniquely suited to write about Moses, and later, LBJ - two 20th century masters of bureaucracy who were (operatically) responsible for sweeping actions of pure good and pure evil that we all have to deal with the ramifications of every single day, and who both compulsively left massive paper trails. Alex Ross, on the other hand, professionally gives his opinion about musicians for the New Yorker, and despite the voluminous Wagner literature he is building on, Wagnerism is a rather loose term that he is continually adding to and redefining over 650+ pages.

Ross is an expert who earlier wrote a well-regarded book synthesizing the history of classical music in the 20th century, but in many ways this is breaking the sound barrier, so to speak, of music criticism - trying to capture not the art but its emanations, the sound of the music, sure, but more so the echolocation of it, passionately and dispassionately following it through the convoluted mess of time. Wagnerism, in the tradition of all great works of criticism, most obviously Nietzsche’s own writing about Wagner, reveres its subject until it is completely beside the point, less a topic of conversation than a fact of life that must be dissected because it is so unavoidable. This is a book about “art and politics in the shadow of music,” and keeping with that promise Ross tracks Wagner’s art as it arises in the ferment of mid-19th century revolution, nationalism and reawakening of mythos in the dawn of the age of mechanical reproduction.

He lays persuasive claim to the idea that Wagnerism, even as it dissolves ever more imperceptibly into our cultural bloodstream, is sufficiently complex to be harnessed, though never coopted, by all ideologies and artforms, and that no matter what our conscious influences are, it is always already at work behind the good and the ill. Yes, Hitler was a Wagner fanatic, but most Nazis were bored stiff by it and the music just didn’t juice the volk in the same way that American pop music did. Yes, Wagner was a raging anti-Semite, but in a pre-modern way that didn’t stop him from hiring and being hired by Jews his entire life. At length Ross explores the competing claims laid to Wagner by leftists and Jews who point to his revolutionary beginnings and utopian ideals, and an avant garde which continues to mine his work as a precursor, counterpoint, and antithesis.

The bulk of the book takes place while the effects of Wagnerism were most obvious, between Wagner’s death and the fall of Hitler, about sixty years that Ross knows very well and about which much has been written. Among others we follow James Joyce, W.E.B. DuBois, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, all of them perfect emissaries of Wagnerism, bridging as they do the 19th century and the 20th, radicalism and conservatism, the old world and the new, straight and queer, othered and mainstream, woke and pre-woke. Crucially none of them are musicians or even music critics, they are writers and thinkers for whom Wagner represented in a visceral way the possibility and downfall of art, who all wrote about him or were influenced by him in ways that reverberate still, perhaps more so than the music itself.

The vagaries of influence (made more vague once we get all the way to Joseph Beuys and Star Wars) are saved from tendentiousness by the simple fact of the imagery, the narratives, the songs, the leitmotifs themselves. You can theorize all day about the idea of totalizing art and myths and human identity but at the end of the day there are catchy ideas and tunes that you associate with Bugs Bunny, or Frodo Baggins, or marriage, or Apocalypse Now, or any number of continually multiplying fractal cultural memories, and the dazzling array of intentions and results driving their use in culture and politics accumulates a totemic over-meaning that Ross never belabors or even attempts to make sense of beyond what is readily apparent.

In fact, the tidbits just keep coming at you, exhausting every possible angle of approach, until the very end. The fact that in the penultimate paragraph Ross is still going on about Terrence Malick’s use of Wagner in the little-seen, little-loved Ben Affleck vehicle To The Wonder, with no sign given that we are about to slam into the brick wall of finality, is maybe the perfect summation of what he’s going for here – the idea that Wagnerism is neverending, that like Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Dostoevsky or the Buddha or Mohammed or Bob Marley or Bob Dylan or David Lynch, Richard Wagner is an imperfect vessel for pure inspiration that will be interpreted and misinterpreted and mangled and bettered until the end of time, justifying atrocities and inspiring those dreaming of a better world over and over again until the thing itself is forgotten for good.
Profile Image for Michelle Curie.
789 reviews377 followers
July 5, 2022
Opinions on the German composer Richard Wagner are as strong as the force in his music. But while his character provides reason to disagree, his influence on literally everything to come after is undeniable – and here beautifully laid out.

Wagnerism is a thorough and well-researched exploration of the impact Wagner had on other musicians, politicians, philosophers, writers and whole cultures even. In an almost microscopic fashion Ross chronologically goes through different time periods and analyses what Wagner meant to people and how his music was perceived and absorbed.

This manifests Ross as one of the most thrilling musicologists of our time. It takes someone with knowledge and the ability to tell stories to write a book like this and make it engaging! Beware that this is an incredibly dense book – it took me about a month to read it and while it never got boring, it does occasionally feel overwhelming.

He made Wagner come alive on these pages. It's incredible how vivid the picture Ross painted here is. While never directly focussing on Wagner as an individual or the contents of his works specifically, you can feel his presence in between the lines as we learn how people interacted with his music.

It's neither an absolution, nor a condemnation. Wagner is undeniably one of the more problematic people we like to look up to – often referred to as an antisemitist, he was also famously Hitler's favourite composer. It's an incredibly touchy subject to address and I think this book did a grand job by looking closer. Without ever protecting Wagner as a person, Ross does dissolve the image of Wagner as a Third Reich flagship musician and points at the duality of his being: while openly hating Jews, he did work with quite a few of them in his lifetime (some of which he liked and respected). While Hitler loved his music, most German soldiers were bored by it. No stone is left unturned here.

As said before, it's an insanely detailed examination that feels satisfying and enjoyable to read. Filled to the brim with fun facts, deep analysis and fresh points of view, this is a true success. I'm more excited about not only Wagner now, but also about Alex Ross's writing, more of which I shall explore soon.
Profile Image for Will White.
49 reviews4 followers
December 18, 2020
This is a tough one to rate. I can't say it was always a compelling reading experience. In some ways, it's a reference book in the guise of a popular history. At times I felt like I needed a philosophy Ph.D. to parse the writing, and I'll be honest, I skipped around quite a bit in the book. I'm a professional musician and I speak 4 languages; I needed every last bit of that skill set and more to get through the parts of this thing that I did.

Having said that, there are some great stories in here, and lord knows Alex Ross did his due diligence. He must have read like every book in every language from Wagner's time to now. And watched every movie.

So with that in mind, I feel a little bad giving this an A+++ for effort because it was so exhaustive; on the other hand, in terms of reading it, it was exhausting.

Let me put it this way: this is a book that doesn't have a subject; it has a lens. The lens is Wagnerism. So, just like you could do a feminist reading of, say, Anna Karenina, it turns out you can do a Wagnerist reading of just about anything. And that's what he does. He uses the Wagnerist lens on literally every single thing.

The result is a book that is extremely erudite and rather academic, but not without some bread crumbs. This would be the foundational tome of a Wagnerist Studies department at a university.

Oh and one more thing: if anyone is reading this to learn about Wagner's life or his music, this really isn't the place to turn. This book is about everything that's NOT Wagner, through the lens of Wagner's aesthetics and philosophy.
Profile Image for David C Ward.
1,534 reviews24 followers
December 11, 2020
Not the book of linked topical essays I was expecting but a huge, sprawling examination of everyone affected by Wagner both during his lifetime and after. Can you write about Wagner without becoming “Wagnerian?” Apparently not. In this case, encyclopedic isn’t necessarily a virtue. Ross has to rely on the secondary sources and potted histories because he has so much ground to cover. (His lens is almost always biographical which enforces its own limitations.) The result is a study that is too thin for the specialist and too diffuse for the general reader.

Also, just asking: we now have the technology to embed audio (and visual) clips in e texts. Is not doing so a rights and expense issue? As it stands, there is something weird about the ongoing attempt to render music into words. Of course, one of the reasons music mystifies (in both the common and philosophical senses) and is seen by some as a higher language, is because it’s non verbal.
Profile Image for Ryan.
67 reviews26 followers
September 8, 2023
Pretentious trivia.

The author declares in his introduction: "Writing this book has been the great education of my life."

Well maybe that's why it sounds like a graduate student with an approaching deadline and a word count requirement trying to cobble together wikipedia articles into an academic essay.
Profile Image for Mir Bal.
73 reviews14 followers
March 26, 2022
In the introduction to his study of Wagnerism, Alex Ross borrows a striking parable. He compares this movement and perhaps even its founder Wagner himself to a black hole. Its unimaginable attraction affects everything in its surroundings, pulls in and devours the objects that happen to be in its vicinity, and curves the travel lines for those who are too far away or themselves have too strong a mass to avoid the power of Wagnerism itself. What makes this parable more ingenious than Ross himself seems to understand is that it is next to impossible to study a black hole as a "thing in itself." The darkness and gravity are so strong that the gaze cannot capture the object itself. Instead, we are left to study its effect on the environment. It is this approach that makes Ross' book on Wagnerism succeed in avoiding the classic trap of the discord between form and content in this magnificent study. By building up his book in fragmented studies of other phenomena that are stuck in its gravitational field, we can slowly but surely form our own picture of the subject in question.

The first chapter of the book is what gives us the most insight into the movement's father Wagner himself and deals with his relationship with Nietzsche and how Wagner influenced him. This is also where we come closest to Wagner's own time and thinking, even though his personal life, writings and music are treated throughout the book. It is full of the different ways in which Wagner revolutionized not only the music but the cultures and other practices around him. From his way of using Nietzsche as a personal publicist (something that, according to Ross, has not occurred in a similar way before) to his way of carefully controlling his own brand and image. The rest of the book deals with various objects that were drawn into the cultural maelstrom that his music and thinking unleashed on values. From the way in which writers such as Baudelaire, Joyce, Wolff and Prust's literature were influenced by it to the black opposition to racism in the United States, from Nazism's complicated relationship with Wagner to how the movement was involved in shaping left - wing anti-capitalism in both Germany and Russia. From movies like apocalypse now to science fiction writers like Arthur C Clarke. Ross brings the reader on an odyssey in cultural history which does not shy away any subjects and really shows how the Wagnerian revolution is still with us today.

According to Ross, what then created this attraction in Wagner? Even if it is not said outright, or at least not developed as much as I would have liked, it is clear to the author that Wagner was a reaction to the cold and bare aristocratic rationalism of the Enlightenment. A burning hatred of capitalism and the pharaonic inequality and industrialization of the lower classes was a hearth in Wagner's world. So was the hatred of the way industrialism shattered both nature and human life. Packed cities full of desperate people reduced to cogs in an industrial machine whose sole purpose was to make a profit for an elite. At the same time, this pathos was paired with a contempt for the demystification of values ​​where the clinical light of enlightenment peeled away all romance and all values ​​beyond the cold profit. The answer was for Wagner the romantic, as for so many others a return to a mystified host, but not to Christianity but to the classic national myths, of course this fairly common mixture of romance and anti-capitalism is closely associated with Wagner's ardent anti-Semitism. Something that Ross fortunately did not shy away from in the least.

Wagner and Wagnerism response to the enlightened slaughterhouse where everything is dissected into smaller and smaller pieces was to try to create an art that housed more than just the music. An art that could encompass the entire human being. Both the intellect, the mysticism, politics and different art orientations in one.

What, then, created the traction of this art and its creator? Ross gives no simple answer. Which is admirable if anything. Instead, he focuses on how this leap of artistic and intellectual tendencies came to spread and change everything around him, right up to the present day. From politics to art. Low and high. The closest explanation we can glimpse form between the lines is that there were aspects of Wagner that everyone could use. From Baldwin, du Bois and Kropotkin to Hitler and later everyone else. The main problem with Ross' book is that it unfortunately does not focus enough on the material upheavals that enabled both Wagner's art and, perhaps more importantly, its spread throughout the world. But with that said, there are small grains of this here and that in the book, and that one wants more of it, of this indispensable book for those who want to understand culture, politics and intellectual development during both the 1800s and 1900s, is a higher grades than I give most other books.
Profile Image for Marks54.
1,368 reviews1,160 followers
October 28, 2020
This is a book by the music critic of the New Yorker about the life and work of Richard Wagner. It is much more than that. It is a study of the impact of Wagner’s work on the broader political and cultural environment in which it was performed. Wagnerism is the broader impact of Wagner on culture and politics. Mr. Ross argues that Wagner has had a huge impact and that this impact has been most notable outside of music per se and on the broader cultural milieu.

This is an amazing book that spans the time during which Wagner was active up through his death in 1883 and continues through Gilded Age America and Fin de Siecle Europe through the World Wars and the interwar period - including Wagner’s adoption by Hitler’s regime through the Cold War and up to the present. So you have operas - long operas - that come in bunches (The Ring cycle). They are long complex works that combine, music, singing, acting, and stagecraft all in an integrated whole. Opera is often an acquired taste. You also have politics and culture and how opera is put to use in supporting politics and culture. And then you have how the plots and subplots of Wagner’s operas, the various songs and themes/leitmotifs have been adapted for use in a wide range of other cultural works from high fiction, to comic books, movies and television, art movements, and pop art.

While there are some opera aficionados who will be familiar with much in this book, I strongly suspect that most readers who have any interest in Wagner’s operas will find this book fascinating and valuable. Readers should have their tablets handy to look up the stray references and terms that are dropped on nearly every page.

I started reading this because I am still in mourning for the cancellation of the Ring Cycle that I was supposed to see last April. Opera, like choral music, has not had a good record in the age of COVID. Hard to social distance both on stage and in the audience! After reading this book, my regret is that I had not seen a couple of Wagner’s operas, which I now need to track down and listen to.

If you are interested in opera, I highly recommend this book

The book is so rich, however, that I will need to think more about this and come back to the review.
Profile Image for Chris.
386 reviews151 followers
March 2, 2021
Monumental and intensely stimulating. 5+
Profile Image for Bill FromPA.
693 reviews30 followers
November 6, 2020
Wagnerism Audiovisual Companion

Ich weiß allein, / daß die Stücke mir nichts nützten
I hope after some reflection to write a fuller review, though I think the five star rating is likely to stand. Ross has given us the fruits of a vast amount of research in an absorbing narrative, a synoptic overview of the many disparate strands of Wagnerism. In the meantime, here are my chapter-by-chapter notes, which take up just about all the space Goodreads allows for a review.

Prelude: Death in Venice
Excellent research in digging out obituaries and reactions to Wagner’s death from the US and Europe.
This is a book about a musician’s influence on non-musicians – resonances and reverberations of one art form into others. Wagner’s effect on music was enormous, but it did not exceed that of Monteverdi, Bach, or Beethoven. His effect on neighboring arts was, however, unprecedented, and it has not been equaled since, even in the popular arena. He cast his strongest spell on the artists of silence – novelists, poets, and painters who envied the collective storms of feeling that he could unleash in sound.
A musician, yet on the previous page Ross says
He became the Leviathan of the fin-de-siecle in large part because he was never merely a composer. An idiosyncratic but potent dramatist … He was a prolific, all-too-prolific essayist and polemicist whose menagerie of concepts … overran intellectual discourse for several generations. He was a theater director and theorist who reshaped the modern stage … Finally, and fatally, he dabbled in politics … The sum of all these energies cannot be fixed. “The essence of reality lies in its endless multiplicity,” Wagner wrote in 1854. “Only what changes is real.”
Anthony Burgess gives Wagner credit for a fairly significant musical influence in his introduction to Universe Opera Guides: Don Giovanni and Idomeneo
Stravinsky’s The Rakes’ Progress is, like most of his work, genius happy in pastice, a deliberate return to the opera buffa as Mozart was to practice it in Don Giovanni. The rest of twentieth-century opera is derived from Wagner. The Singspiel survives as musical comedy.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

1. Rheingold: Wagner, Nietzsche, and the Ring

Much more about Wagner than I expected – an extended essay on the composition of the Ring - The Birth of the Ring from the Spirit of Revolution -> Schopenhauer, Bayreuth, leading up to the friendship and falling out with Nietzsche. Siegfried as a model of the “overman”.
This furiously conflicted relationship is best understood in terms of the Greek agon – the contest between worthy adversaries, in athletics or the arts. Nietzsche wrote about the agon in his 1872 essay “Homer’s Contest,” saying that the Greeks abhorred the predominance of a single figure and desired, “as a means of protection against genius – a second genius.”

2: Tristan Chord: Baudelaire and the Symbolists

Ross gives strange emphasis at the beginning of this chapter to summarizing Tristan and its effect, while Tannhäuser seems to be the work most provoking and appealing to French sensibility. Judith Gautier, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, La Revue wagnérienne, Verlaine, Mallarme; Fantin-Latour, Cezanne, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin.

3. Swan Knight: Victorian England and Gilded Age America

England: George Eliot and Daniel Deronda, Swinburne, by way of Baudelaire. In the case of the Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson, William Morris, and Matthew Arnold, their “Wagnerism” consists of treating themes from Arthurian romance, the Eddas and Volsung Saga, and the Tannhauser legend that were also used by Wagner but don’t take direct inspiration from his treatments. Swinburne, again: Tristram of Lyonesse.

America: More musical history than other sections. Sidney Lanier, Owen Wister and The Virginian. Architects. Mark Twain, a reluctant Wagerian, and Whitman, who accepts the purported parallels between their arts without knowing Wagner.

4. Grail Temple: Esoteric, Decadent, and Satanic Wagner

The 1888 Bayreuth Festival. Josephin Peladan: Kabbalistic Order of the Rose + Cross, Rops. Belgian Wagner: Khnopff Maeterlinck, Redon, Ensor. Elemir Bourges and Le Crepuscule des Dieux , Huysmans, Camille Lemonnier, Marcel Batilliat and Chair Mystique. Theosophy and Willian Ashton Ellis -> Katherine Tingley, Theosophical Society in America -> Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophy. George Moore and Evelyn Innes, Yeats, “unmusical” (Moore), but influenced by Wagner’s drama and theater.

5. Holy German Art: The Kaiserreich and Fin-de-Siecle Vienna

Wagnerism transformed from radical to establishment. Jugendstil and Viennese Secession, German painters cited are more illustrative than self-expressive. Fontane as anti-Wagnerian, Stefan George, Gabriele d’Annunzio, the Mann brothers. Alfred Roller designs.

Moritz von Schwind

Antisemitism in Wagner, antisemites and Wagner, anti-Wagnerian antisemites: Houston Steward Chamberlain. Jewish Wagnerians: Hermann Levi, Theodor Herzl, Otto Weininger and Sex and Character: a continuum of gender and “race”. Black Wagner: W. E.B. Du Bois, Luranah Aldridge, Shirley Graham.

7. Venusberg: Feminist and Gay Wagner
Brunhilde and Chriemhilde are authentic archetypes of old German female characters, before whose powerful appearance we must bow even today; and presenting these characters on stage I believe to be very appropriate to our times. After all, Brunhilde is the representation of the free, brave woman who does not wish to be the slave of any man; and who, as she nevertheless does become one, sees herself pressed into the harsh realities of slavery, and her only means of help – insidiousness. Meanwhile the noble, delicately loving Chriemhilde, from whom her beloved has been snatched and to whom justice is denied in his death, resorts to revenge and transforms from a loving maid to a blood-thirsty wolf. Many women in our time have experienced Chriemhilde’s fate – and also in this sense it is time to introduce our female readers to this old Saga.
– Louise Otto, Die Nibelungen: Text zur eine großen heroischen Oper in 5 Acten (1852), quoted in Laurie McManus, “Feminist Revolutionary Music Criticism and Wagner Reception: The Case of Louise Otto” - 19th Century Music (Vol 37, #3, pg. 175)

Ross doesn’t point out the irony that Wagner transforms Krimhilde, the “blood-thirsty wolf”, one of the fiercest and most determined heroines of literature, into the mild Gutrune, his most traditionally feminine character.

Ross cites a number of literary examples where the music of Tristan und Isolde both awakens sexual desire and weakens inhibitions, but, like all other commentators on Wagnerian influence I’m aware of, he fails to note the role Tristan plays in the failed seduction of the eponymous heroine of Ann Veronica.

His section on homosexuality goes over much the same territory as Wagner and the Erotic Impulse with additional discussion of Beardsley, Wilde, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and a brief mention of Wagnerian lesbians. A last section discusses Wagner and psychoanalysis: Freud, Jung, Rank, and Sabina Spielrein.

8. Brünnhilde’s Rock: Willa Cather and the Singer-Novel

A mini-monograph on Willa Cather and Wagner, concentrating in particular on The Song of the Lark. This seems to be too much attention paid to a single figure in a work of this kind. A brief section on “singer-novel” consists mostly of material covered in earlier chapters, unnecessarily recapitulated here.

9. Magic Fire: Modernism, 1900 to 1914

Dance: Fuller & Duncan. Adolphe Appia. Painting: Theosophy -> Kandinsky. Ford Madox Ford, writers from Richard Wagner And The Modern British Novel. Proust.

10. Nothung: The First World War and Hitler's Youth

Parsifal around the world after copyright expires. War: Wagner as enemy alien or prophet of Germany’s doom. Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End, Willa Cather: One of Ours (Parsifal). Wagner in the air: Valkyries, Liebestod. The stab in the back: Hagen and Siegfried. Hitler’s early Wagnerian experiences: Lohengrin, Rienzi, Tristan.

Henry Fuseli6. Nibelheim: Jewish and Black Wagner

11. Ring of Power: Revolution and Russia

Leftist Wagnerism. The revolutionary origin of the Ring revived by Shaw. Russian Wagnerism: Andre Biely, Alexander Blok, Diaghilev as creator of Gesamtkunstwerk. Russian Symbolism recreates French movement, including Wagnerism. Bolshevik Wagner: Taitlin, Meyerhold. Weimar Wagnerism: reaction against Kaiserreich Wagnerism, Brecht, Kroll Opera. Robert Musil and Franz werfel as anti-Wagnerians: playing Wagner is a turn-off for a musician's wife in The Man Without Qualities

12. Flying Dutchman: “Ulysses,” “The Waste Land,” “The Waves”

Literary essays on: Joyce and Ulysses, Eliot and The Waste Land, Woolf and The Waves (with a bit on Jacob's Room), mini-essay on Finnegans Wake.

13. Siegfried’s Death: Nazi Germany and Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann: “Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner”, The Magic Mountain, Joseph and His Brothers, Doctor Faustus: The Life Of The German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told By A Friend. The reopening of Bayreuth, Hitler and Bayreuth; Wagner seen as a taste inflicted on Germans, including Reich officials, from above. Ross looks at the question of whether Wagner was played in the death camps (probably not very much, if at all). Ant-Nazi Wagner in the US: Toscanini and the Met, Anti-Nazi anti-Wagnerism accepts Hitler’s appropriation of the composer.

14. Ride of the Valkyries: Film from “The Birth of a Nation” to “Apocalypse Now”

A fairly comprehensive list of movies about Wagner or featuring Wagner’s music, much more complete than Peter Conrad’s similar survey in Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries, though Ross neglects to mention the rather unusual, or perhaps “off-brand” use of Siegfried Idyll in the Peter Lorre film Mad Love. As this chapter covers almost the entire 20th century, some of the material on the prewar and wartime years might have fit better into earlier chapters. Some tropes, such as Wagner’s music being used as a tool of seduction or symbol of intense passion, carry over from literary examples earlier in the book.

15. The Wound: Wagnerism after 1945

A rapid run through roughly the last 70 years of Wagnerism, each topic could have been a separate chapter and this may stand in place of a sequel. Topics: The Chéreau Ring; the New Bayreuth; Late 20th Century Philosophy and Wagner (as opaque to me as most philosophical summaries); Lévi-Strauss; Wagner and Literary Criticism; Wagner in Postwar German Literature and art: Anselm Kiefer and Ingeborg Bachmann; Wagner and Painting; Wagner and Literature (Ross mentions the Wagnerian themes in J R, but does not note its Rheingold-like structure nor the way that, unlike other books he’s discussed, Gaddis’ use of leitmotiv becomes essential for the reader to grasp in order to understand the novel on the most basic level); the Israeli Wagner ban; Wagner and neo-Nazis and white supremacy (in these movements, as among the general population, it remains a specialized taste); Wagner and Fantasy Culture (Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Star Wars, The Matrix - interesting that Lewis came to Wagner in a similar way to me, encountering Arthur Rackham’s Ring illustrations beside Margaret Armour’s translation); Wagner in comic books; Werner Herzog and Terence Malick (though I haven’t seen the film, the closing account of Malick’s To the Wonder seems a bit artificially rhapsodic as if Ross felt that a properly Wagnerian conclusion was required).


In this brief afterword, Ross gives a short autobiographical account of his history with Wagner. Though he says that in childhood “the great classical tradition from Bach to Brahms occupied me to the exclusion of almost all other music,” except for an unsuccessful stab at listening to Lohengrin, he didn’t listen to Wagner until he was in college, and only fell in love with the composer when his “life veered in a chaotic, self-destructive direction.” And only on seeing the operas on stage did he begin to see them as dramas rather than “simply a phenomena of sound”.

I wonder whether Ross’ childhood “great classical tradition” included Liszt or, as I suspect, he didn’t see Wagner as fitting into it because his musical education followed the Brahms side of the post-Chopin Brahms / Wagner split. It’s amazing how something like that late 19th century split, though it was extremely bitter, can carry over into musical experience a century later and an ocean away; perhaps it’s a sign that some fundamental aesthetic difference did divide the two parties. My own tastes took me to the Wagner side of the divide, and I was even later in coming to Brahms than Ross to Wagner. Perhaps because I came to the operas a s stories first and heard the music afterward, I also always related to them as narratives, and listening to Wagner seemed an experience between that of reading Shakespeare and listening to Beethoven – powerful stuff in combination.

Ross says that
The endlessly relitigated case of Wagner makes me wonder about the less fashionable question of how popular culture has participated in the politics and economics of American hegemony.
I think I sense the stirrings of his next book in that statement.
Profile Image for Julian Douglass.
313 reviews12 followers
December 11, 2022
It is a great book that shows how Wagner shaped art and politics well after his death, and the reach was far greater than many people have realized. The main issue with this book is that it was a very tedious read. The amount of information that was packed into a little over 650 pages of text was a lot and sometimes I had to read each chapter in instalments because it was such a slog. I feel that the book could have been broken up into more chapters to make it not seem like such a chore, and there were clear transitions to where that could have happened. This was definitely a 3.5 star book, but more because of the style than the substance.
Profile Image for Carmen.
141 reviews1 follower
March 11, 2021
5* because it's a great overview of Wagner's influence and those inspired by the composer in cultural and (non-musical) artistic spheres, but there is so much information here that I want to read more books going deeper on certain areas (e.g. film scores, LGBT+ readings)
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,970 reviews97 followers
October 24, 2020
This is a monumental book. Its almost 800 page bulk is a testament to the extent of Wagner's influence. I am not a fan of opera, and I have never seriously listened to Wagner's music, but of course I familiar with his most famous and ubiquitous pieces such as the Ride of the Valkyries and the Bridal Chorus. We all know Wagner from Looney Tunes and Apocalypse Now. We all know about his anti-Semitism and his deification by the Nazis. But as this book demonstrates, Wagner's influence on art, culture and society is much deeper and more complex than this. I found it fascinating to learn how I have been exposed to Wagner in places that I didn't even notice in, among other places, the works of Virginia Wolff, James Joyce and Thomas Mann.

Wagner's music and the stories of his operas are triumphal, heroic, grand and emotionally stirring. Many people are moved to tears by his works. But he is also excessive. Sometimes he is just too much. He goes over the edge and descends into self-parody and kitsch. And then there is his extreme German nationalism and anti-Semitism, which sit on his works like an ugly black smudge. It is a measure of Wagner's greatness that he has found admirers even among people who one might expect to be least forgiving of his failings. And both lovers and haters of Wagner sometimes have shifting points of view over time and different circumstances. Is he great or his he horrid? He's both. Does he deserve our admiration or disdain? Yes, he merits both. It's complicated.

One interesting thing about this book is how little it focuses on the actual music. I would have liked to have had more musical analysis so that I could have a greater understanding of Wagner's techniques and musical ideas and forms beyond the Leitmotiv and Gesamtkunstwerk. I would have liked to know more about his influence on subsequent music. Alex Ross is a music critic who is certainly professionally qualified to write about these things. I guess he thought 800 pages were enough, and he wanted to write a book of more general cultural relevance. It was a valid choice, but still I felt the absence of more direct consideration of the music.

Profile Image for Daniel Maurath.
156 reviews1 follower
March 12, 2021

This is a frustrating read. There are morsels of magic among a morass of cited defenses too indulging of the academy. Early chapters on black or gay Wagner dwell too long on listing example after example after example of Wagners influence. Its unnecessary and very soon into the chapter starts to feel like simply an expression of a bias of subjective validation, the author sees Wagner in everything. And this breadth displaces the more interesting opportunity for depth. His explorations of Nazi Wagnerism are fascinating but short and he alludes to the need to explore the impact of pop music (Wagner then, Taylor Swift today) but avoids that more interesting line for his recitation of examples on how Wagner influenced one esoteric work after another. One needs the patience of a fan of multi-day operas perhaps to enjoy not only endure this work.

As for the audio recording, its equally frustrating. The sound quality is poor, his voice always strained and his German pronunciations are painful and depressingly innumerable.
10 reviews
November 29, 2020
The first few chapters are interesting, as these chart the initial spread of Wagnerism. After that, the book becomes an exercise in dilettantism, exploring Wagner's influence on other arts. Some of the connections to Wagner are tenuous at best, especially when it comes to some of the literary analysis. As the author himself states in discussing Wagner's influence on Hollywood music, "Wagner's influence is easily overstated." That is essentially what the author is doing throughout. There are a few insights here, but you have to read through a lot of superficial cultural commentary to get to them. And I was disappointed that Wagner's influence on music is hardly charted at all.
Profile Image for Gabriel Armstrong.
22 reviews119 followers
August 6, 2022
An INSTANT favorite. Absolutely astonishing in its breadth and detail, and a resource of incomparable value for understanding the artistic, aesthetic, and philosophical trajectory of the last century and a half.
Profile Image for Emory.
64 reviews
June 29, 2022
This reminded me a lot of Tom O'Neill's Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties and Oliver Stone's JFK, both in set-up and in scope. Chaos and JFK have both sent me down rabbit holes and created new interests that I'll take with me for life, and I can tell that this will do the same. I found myself needing to Google people and quickly read their Wikipedia pages before continuing on and quickly realized how little esoteric and literary knowledge I have. You'll find yourself viewing all media that you consume through a new lens.

Wagnerism is a mammoth of book and is absolutely amazing. I recommend it to anyone who has the time read it and wants to see how many different ways art (and the artist) can be interpreted.
Profile Image for Mark.
Author 58 books72 followers
November 25, 2020
Among the many themes explored here, one seems perpetually undervalued---the impact and influence of aesthetics in just about everything. Alex Ross's exhaustive survey of the cultural proliferation of Wagner's music (and his writings) shows us how we collectively move toward goals dressed in more "sensible" garb, when really the driving impetus is often to be found in our response to art.

Or sometimes not. (Hitler scolded his officers and aides for falling asleep during performances of Wagner.) We jokingly (sometimes) argue whether the Sixties would have happened without the music. Well, we can hear something different inherent in much of that music which subsequent imitations simply lack. Whatever it is, it seems to go with the politics, the cultural upheavals, and the shifting of values. It seems here Ross offers a good reason to pay better attention to the soundtracks of eras.

Profile Image for Andrew Higgins.
Author 24 books39 followers
November 20, 2020
This has to be one of the most comprehensive and excellent books I have read on my favourite composer Richard Wagner. Ross gives an in-depth analysis of the influence Wagner and his works had on all forms of culture throughout the 20th and 21st century. Ross had opened up new vistas in this influence for me to explore. Despite its Wagnerian length I did not want it to end and Ross supplements his incredible research on his website with a brilliant audio-visual companion at https://www.therestisnoise.com/2013/0.... I highly recommend this work and enjoyed many hours of re-visiting the Ring and Parsifal while reading a highlight of my 2020 reading and a shining light of fantastic scholarship in these dark times. Bravo Alex Ross.
Profile Image for Joel Adams.
80 reviews5 followers
June 15, 2021
Epic, sprawling and deeply informed. Like its subject matter, the book is itself a gesamtkunstwerk tracing the legacy of Wagner from Mallarmé to Mann to the Matrix.

Excellent as an audiobook read by the author with embedded musical excerpts.
Profile Image for Indraroop.
36 reviews
October 20, 2021
Unapproachable and mostly-unreadable for the average audience. This reads like a PhD thesis written for PhD types with the appropriate classical background. Immaculately researched, but held back by the incredibly dense presentation.
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