Back in 2008, when longtime New Yorker music critic and Pulitzer Prize finalist Alex Ross began writing his monumental, highly engaging original study, “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music,” he was mainly driven by a personal fascination with how the fin-de-siècle era of the 19th century gave rise to Wagnerism, the uniquely pervasive cultural influence of composer Richard Wagner.
Little did Ross know that by the time he finished the book, Wagner’s notorious other reputation — as the anti-Semitic composer of what would become a soundtrack for fascist Germany — would make his book intensely relevant to today’s world stage.
“When I first conceived this project,” Ross said in a telephone interview earlier this month, “the idea that we’d be living in a world where authoritarianism was on the rise in so many countries around the world, and democracy was under threat in so many places — including our own country — was inconceivable … But it’s a problem for us now.”
All the more reason to dig into this highly readable narrative, written with a surprisingly light touch, given the mountain of often recondite raw material it devours.
The book doesn’t focus on music, per se, but rather on how Wagner’s grandiose, bombastic Romantic style, with its mythic swirls and flowing stream-of-consciousness, influenced other disciplines: literature, visual art, theater, architecture, philosophy and film. That multidisciplinary influence, says Ross, “is what really divides him from Bach and Beethoven … I don’t think anything quite like it had happened before and I don’t think anything has happened quite like it since.”
It didn’t hurt that Wagner was a master of self-promotion who went so far as to create his own annual festival to promote his music, in Bayreuth (still in operation), branding it with mugs and other “merch” in a way that foreshadowed arena rock by a century.
Ross details all this with lively, loving care. Here, you will find not only a retelling of the famously bumpy relationship between Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche, but an incisive analysis of the link between Wagner’s music and James Joyce’s literary stream-of-consciousness. There are also close readings of Willa Cather’s lesser known music-centered novel, “Song of the Lark,” Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” One of the books signal delights is its gallery of weird, obscure characters, such as the fin-de-siècle novelist and “occult ringmaster” Joséphin Péladan and scary proto-fascist Wagner champion Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a key link to Hitler. Ross adores nothing more than a “sublime historical coincidence,” so it’s delightful when Péladan suddenly pops up again in the story in 1914, as a ticket buyer at Bayreuth.
“[The book] becomes this kind of novelistic cast of characters,” Ross explains, accurately portraying the feel of a read that flows like rich fiction, though sometimes Ross carries this too far, when he speculates that some character “might have been” at some performance.
There is nothing speculative, however, about the horrifying details of Wagner and the Nazi era. Because Wagner’s music extolled German identity, history and mythic origins, it was ready-made for Hitler, who regularly attended Bayreuth and mutually befriended the Wagner family. As early as 1922, Wagner excerpts were played before Hitler’s speeches, one of which he delivered in 1923, at Bayreuth, asserting that National Socialism was “anchored in the music of Richard Wagner.” Excerpts from the opera “Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg” were played at the Nuremberg rallies. It is to Ross’ credit that he offers this litany of damning details — unpacking the specific trails of responsibility — while also arguing against any “canceling” of the man and the music for the uses they were put to.
“I haven’t emerged with a sense either that Wagner is this glorious figure who should transcend all of these dark stories about him, nor that he’s just so unbelievably awful that we shouldn’t have any more to do with him,” says Ross. “[But] we have to look at it in its face. Wagner is part of our world. He’s not going away … To ‘cancel’ Wagner would not only put a lot of people out of work, it would be an enormous loss in so many ways, just in terms of the power of his work.”
Chalk it up to an absence of sublime historical coincidence, but Ross has never seen Seattle Opera’s world-famous production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which he says he “regrets very much.” He will, however, be chatting with a fellow writer who grew up on those productions, former Seattleite and NPR music critic Ann Powers, in a livestreamed discussion of the book Sept. 29.
“Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music” by Alex Ross, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 769 pp., $40
Town Hall and Seattle Opera will present a livestreamed discussion with author Alex Ross and fellow music critic Ann Powers about “Wagnerism” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29; free-$15 (townhallseattle.org).