A towering work of cultural history and criticism, Alex Ross’ new book Wagnerism takes a deep look at the always-controversial composer and his many legacies.
Born in 1813, Wagner had his first operas appear before he turned 30. As a bit of a firebrand, he spent part of his life in exile and part in luxury. As he wrote more and more operas – cumulating in his famed Ring cycle, which premiered in 1876 – he grew in fame and influence, courting admirers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche and King Ludwig II. He died in Venice on Feb. 13, 1883.
Of course, Wagnerism isn’t just as simple as that. This is not a biography of Wagner, much less an admiring one. True, Ross sketches out Wagner’s life and works, and dives into familial details at time. But this book is far more concerned Wagner’s complex cultural legacy, which runs the gamut from his early anti-Semitism to his use in movies like Apocalypse Now, how his ghost haunts books like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus or Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark.
What seems like something of academic interest, or something catering to Wagner fanatics, shapes into a fascinating look at how popular culture has evolved and changed over the decades, with a specific focus on a figure who, as a recent Slate essay put it, was “Too Big to Cancel.”
This legacy starts, as much of the Wagner legend does, with arguably his most famous fan: Nietzsche. The two met in 1869, when Nietzsche was 24, and quickly hit it off. As Ross puts it: “Nietzsche promptly took on a role that others filled before and after him… companion, propagandist, factotum.” He’d bounce ideas off Wagner, and wrote excessively fondly of him. In turn, it helped Wagner to have a rising star of the German intellectual elite on his side; when the two broke, Ross makes a case for it being seen as a back and forth that went sour fast. By the time Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra, he was almost writing fan fiction, making a Wagner stand-in bend and grovel.
At the same time, Nietzsche wrote a line that echoes throughout this book: “Wagner sums up modernity.” And as the book progresses, Ross returns to that idea again and again – a leitmotif of his own. In art, for example, Manet and Cezanne paintings of society have him in the margins: Wagnerite fans huddled in a corner, a pianist playing Tannhauser. Culturally, the festival at Bayreuth became an annual gathering of the rich, elite class.
But it’s in literature that Ross’ investigations really take form. He takes deep looks at Thomas Mann, Cather, Theodor Adorno, James Joyce, and many others, to show how literature evolved and engaged with Wagner. Cather deserves special mention; Ross has devoted an entire chapter to her engagement with Wagner. He writes:
“Cather has gone down in literary history as the bard of the American prairie. Her most popular novels… are set in the Great Plains and southwestern desert, away from large urban centers. Yet Cather was also an acute observer of city culture, and few novelists have so alertly chronicled the world of opera. The backstage and audience chatter in The Song of the Lark rings true.“ (pg 323)
In Ross’ telling, Cather is the rare writer who knew the music, and was able to engage with while also writing powerful novels. Her stories, which have doom violinists in the rural outlands, soldiers marching to certain death, or following a singer as she rises to fame, echo with Wagner’s plots and music.
Conversely, Ross doesn’t shy away from the politics surrounding Wagner. Infamously, he was Hitler’s favourite composer, and there are legends about his music being played at the death camps (a bit of a fabrication, notes Ross, as they tended to play music easier for amateur musicians). But in an interesting piece of scholarship, Ross notes that Wagner revivals weren’t especially popular – tickets were often just given away – and his music actually score Triumph of the Will. Indeed, it was more the American propaganda machine that tied the two together, often in old Loony Tunes cartoons.
At the same time, too, Soviet artists drew inspiration from Wagner, and Toscanini played a program of Wagner to raise money for Red Cross efforts, an attempt to separate the “real Germany” from the country they were at war with.
Where Ross’ book gets bogged down is when he turns to more recent popular culture in the tail end of the book. He often returns to the scene in Apocalypse Now, but when he tries to stretch the comparison to movies like The Matrix or Star Wars, it feels a little forced. His citing of Zizek doesn’t help, either, as he’s been known to say intentionally wild things just to be heard.
When he engages with critical theory, things get a little muddled too – Barthes, Derrida and Foucault are all invoked, but their connection with Wagner seems a stretch at best. And Adorno, who had chops as a musicologist and a thinker, gets comparatively short thrift.
Overall, however, Wagnerism is a huge, towering piece of cultural history. Ross takes innumerable threads and stitches them together here into a giant quilt, a piece of work that’s both engaging and frequently interesting to the hardcore music fan. But even more casual fans will find it enjoyable, if perhaps overwhelming in scope and depth. It’s inspired me to dig out copies of Tannhauser and collections of preludes and overtures; I suspect it’ll do the same for you.