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784 pages, Hardcover
First published September 15, 2020
Ich weiß allein, / daß die Stücke mir nichts nütztenI 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.
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.
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.”
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)
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.