The gigantism of Wagner—the sheer scale of his output, his stupendous intellectual scope, his action-packed life, and his all but unfathomable personality—affects the works that have been written about him, and Alex Ross’s book, about his influence, past and present, is a real doorstopper. But it could not have been a page shorter. Wagner’s reach, as Ross comprehensively demonstrates, is vast, greater by far than that of any other musician in history, greater perhaps than any artist in any medium, his influence profound and continuing and by no means confined to music itself. I find myself already slipping into hyperbole, always a danger with Wagner. This is something Mr. Ross never does. One of the many beauties of this incomparably rich book is that it refuses to engage in any simplistic analysis of its subject, who emerges in his full bewildering complexity. It is one of the most valuable books about Wagner I know of, compelling one to engage not merely with the composer and his legacy but with music itself, how it works on us, what it is.
Ross is a fearless writer: to have attempted a comprehensive study of the tangled and explosive story of music in the 20th century, and to have succeeded triumphantly, in his best-selling The Rest Is Noise, was a stunning coup, but it was child’s play by comparison with what he’s attempting in Wagnerism,namely to give an account of the literature, art, philosophy, and history of the last 150 years, insofar as Wagner impinged on it—which he did to an astonishing degree. Ross is candid about the scale of the undertaking: