Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross

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:

I am conscious of my limits in both expertise and language. Nietzsche accused Wagner of dilettantism: in fact, the composer’s legacy is so multifarious that anyone who studies it is a dilettante by default. Writing this book has been the great education of my life.

The book is of such scope, filled with so many surprising and unexpected details, crammed with astonishing juxtapositions and unexpected connections, replete with searching analyses of artists in every medium who have been influenced by Wagner, that all one can possibly do, here, is—like a guide in some great palace or museum—to point the reader gently in this direction or that.

Wagner’s West

Nietzsche is a starting point: “Wagner sums up modernity,” he said. “It can’t be helped, one must first become a Wagnerian.” And he didn’t mean simply in music—he was referring to a fundamental cultural change of which Wagner was the avatar. “The composer,” says Ross, “came to represent the cultural-political unconscious of modernity—an aesthetic war zone in which the Western world struggled with its raging contradictions, its longings for creation and destruction, its inclinations towards beauty and violence.”

At the same time, Wagner was being enlisted by conservatives as one of their own, culminating in his posthumous embrace by Adolf Hitler—despite his pacifism, his contempt for the newly founded German Empire, the proto-Marxist analysis of capitalism underlying the “Ring,” and his exaltation of compassion (Mitleid) as the supreme virtue. Wagner held many surprising views: as early as 1850 in his pamphlet Art and Climate, he pioneered ecological awareness, seeing industrialization as a “corrosive force,” Ross writes. He supported vegetarianism, strongly opposed cruelty to animals, and—completely unexpectedly—was very sympathetic to homosexuality, remarking to his wife that “it is something for which I have understanding but no inclination. In any case, as with all relationships what matters most is what we ourselves put into them. It is all illusion.”

But the self-same Richard Wagner was the author of Jewishness in Music, one of the crudest and most poisonous essays in the foul history of anti-Semitism, which reads like a tweet from hell, the unmediated contents of a maligned subconscious. To Liszt, he breezily remarked, “This grudge is as necessary to my nature as gall is to blood.” He needed an enemy to function properly; the Jews came in very handy. He also told Liszt that he had “an enormous desire to commit acts of artistic terrorism.” Everywhere in Wagner’s life and writings, one runs up against paradox and contradiction. But it is this seemingly direct connection, for better or for ill, to his subconscious that accounts for his capacity to stir us so deeply, to get under our skins.

Wagner exalted compassion as the supreme virtue. He also wrote one of the crudest essays in the foul history of anti-Semitism.

This is what Alex Ross confronts head-on across the whole of recent Western culture, weaving a vast tapestry consisting of hundreds of vignettes, monographs, studies, and meditations, which, all put together, amounts to a gigantic portrait of this most vexed, most baffling of composers. In turn, each different country as it discovered him and his charismatic music somehow remade Wagner in its own image.

The French were the first. Indeed, the very word “Wagnerism” is translated from the French: Wagnérisme was a term coined to describe the poets, painters, and musicians who, in the 1850s, were intoxicated by the sensuality of such fragments of the composer’s music as they were able to hear. For them, Wagner represented an escape from the decorum and cerebralism of French music: dream- or even nightmare-like, his was a royal road to the unconscious, to the irrational. Hearing the prelude to Lohengrin, Baudelaire said, “I experienced the sensation of a brightness more vivid, an intensity of light growing so swiftly that not all the nuances provided by the dictionary would be sufficient to express this ever-renewing increase of incandescence and heat.

Tristan,” says Ross, “set the course for an avant-garde art of dream logic, mental intoxication, formless form, limitless desire.”

The British, on the other hand, made Wagner an honorary Briton, praising him for his “firmness and presence of mind” and for “the middle-class freedom and intelligence of some of his characters.” Queen Victoria herself and her spouse, Albert, were enchanted by the music, and invited Wagner to conduct at Windsor Castle. There were dissenting voices, of course: “Clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded … sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless,” said John Ruskin, on hearing Meistersinger.

In an entertaining chapter with a section called “Star-Spangled Wagner,” Ross shows Americans trying to co-opt him into their efforts to create a national myth, though Wagner was not, says Ross, so easily assimilated: “The idea of a national mythology based on the legacies of conquered, murdered, and enslaved peoples was not one for which Wagner provided a precedent.” Nonetheless, the composer seemed to answer the cry of the Southern poet Sidney Lanier—“O Wagner, westward bring thy heavenly art!”—insofar as the first cowboy novel, The Virginian, by devoted Wagnerian Owen Wister, betrays the influence of Lohengrin, the great loner, the knight from nowhere, whose solitary specter haunts many novels of the period, Willa Cather’s, notably. The opera itself has a very significant role in “Of the Coming of John,” the haunting penultimate chapter in W. E. B. Du Bois’s great pioneering study, The Souls of Black Folk. Paradoxical as ever, Wagner took a keen interest in the work of the great Black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge; and, astonishingly, barely a decade after Wagner’s death, Aldridge’s daughter Luranah was cast as a Valkyrie in the 1895 Bayreuth revival of the “Ring.”

Ross probes Wagnerian influence in the novels of George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Colette, James Joyce, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, J. R. R. Tolkien—of course!—C. S. Lewis, and even Upton Sinclair, whose fantastical early novel, Prince Hagen, describes a young poet camping in the Canadian forest who stumbles across the Nibelheim, where Alberich is still alive and with his grandson, the prince of the title. Ross’s account of Thomas Mann—who characterized his relationship with Wagner as “an affair, sceptical, pessimistic, clairvoyant, almost testy, and yet full of passion and indescribable joie-de-vivre”—brilliantly expresses the almost traumatic ambivalence that the composer seemed to provoke in his fellow countrymen.

“Part of the National Arsenal”

By 1911, Germany—fully militarized under the Kaiserreich Wagner so despised—had conscripted the now long-dead composer into active service; by 1914, says Ross, “Wagner had become part of the national arsenal.” In the French town of Saint-Quentin, which fell to the Germans in the first weeks of the war, they celebrated by arranging a concert performance of Parsifal. The very conduct of the war was delineated in Wagnerian terms—defensive bulwarks were called the Siegfried and Wotan Lines; the retreat from the Wotan to the Siegfried, during which houses were razed, wells were poisoned, and railway lines were destroyed, was dubbed Operation Alberich; a final counter-offensive, in 1918, never enacted, they called Plan Hagen.

A French cover of Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second opera in the composer’s “Ring” cycle.

In embattled France, Wagner fell from grace; the poet Aragon recalled policemen entering people’s apartments and stopping them from playing Wagner. In a delicious detail typical of the lightness of touch with which Ross leavens what could easily have been a harrowing haul through history, a humorist in the provisions division of the French Army, sick of the endless Valkyrie imagery deployed by the German High Command, stamps the meat-delivery trucks with the image of a laughing cow, which they punningly nickname “La Wachkyrie”; out of this came the still popular brand of processed cheese known as La Vache Qui Rit.

By the time the First World War ended, Wagner seemed doomed to the museum, the modernists having turned against him. But the European and American public remained stubbornly loyal. In Germany, inevitably, it was a different matter. Wagner became weaponized. His characters, having been deployed in the drawing up of war plans, now assumed a role in explaining their failure. It was impossible for the Germans to acknowledge weakness or guilt: they had been betrayed, like Siegfried himself, stabbed in the back. But by whom were they betrayed?

In France, Wagner fell from grace; in Germany, he became weaponized.

Enter Adolf Hitler, who ushers us into what was inevitably going to be the dark heart of the book, with a few answers. Ross doesn’t flinch from the horrors, but he finds, perhaps to his own surprise, that Hitler’s Wagner was in many ways a fundamental distortion of both the work and the man. “The military state that devised Operation Alberich and Plan Hagen was internalizing the ethos of hardness that Wagner’s philosophy of compassion strove to overcome.… The 1848 dream of the overthrow of worldly power gave way to a cult of force: all irony was stripped from the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.” Ross brings us to the present day, where Bayreuth, no longer the temple of German supremacy, has become, instead, the forum in which Germany questions its own past—to excess, in fact. Scarcely a production fails to feature Nazis, which is now no longer a provocation but merely a convention; the booing is part of the ritual.

By the end of the book, you may not like Wagner any more than you did before, you may not enjoy his music any more than you have in the past, but you will be compelled to admit that he was an absolutely titanic figure, whose influence and traces are everywhere, in areas scarcely touched on in this review. One of the key figures in Western cultural history, and indeed in the history of the West, period, Wagner was a figure at once atavistic and forward-looking, who fundamentally remade the arts—music and drama—that he practiced, and who is so complex and on such a scale that the study of him is inexhaustible. The miracle of Ross’s book is that it is so fresh and so personal; his intellectual stamina, though prodigious, is never flaunted. In a “postlude” he writes about himself: “At the end of my college years, my life veered in a somewhat chaotic, self-destructive direction. It was at this point, naturally, that I began to fall in love with Wagner.... None of this is interesting except insofar as I am a typical case. My immersion in Wagnerism has led me to realize that I had been reciting a dog-eared script of passionate ambivalence.”

Ross’s final verdict: “When we look at Wagner, we are gazing into a magnifying mirror of the soul of the human species. What we hate in it, we hate in ourselves; what we love in it, we love in ourselves, also. In the distance, we may catch glimpses of some higher realm, some glimmering temple, some ecstasy of knowledge and compassion. But it is only a shadow on the wall, an echo from the pit. The vision fades, the curtain falls, and we shuffle back in silence to the world as it is.”

Is he the Wizard of Oz, then? Is there really no one and nothing behind it all? Surely Ross is too pessimistic. After the curtain has fallen, after the echo from the pit has died out, after the vision has faded, are our heads not filled with the bewitching sounds we have heard? Are not the often suppressed emotions to which we have been stirred now alive again in us? The force of nature that he is, destructive and healing at one and the same time, will not be easily stilled.

Simon Callow is an actor and director, and the author of several books, including an acclaimed three-volume biography of Orson Welles