Exploring Wagner, Loathsome Genius Of Endless Allure

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Alex Ross shows how Wagner’s influence made itself felt in art, poetry, architecture, painting, dance, and theater.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Alex Ross. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 769 pages.

BOOK REVIEW – “A little over five feet in height, restless and antic in his movements, Wagner often struck people as a gnomelike personage,” Alex Ross writes in Wagnerism, his comprehensive and timely new cultural history. “Of the leading figures in the Ring, Alberich is the one the Meister most resembles.”

Alberich, the malevolent dwarf in Richard Wagner’s four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen was often seen as a Jewish stereotype, but Ross notes he can also be seen as a more sympathetic character justly defying unjust gods.

So was Wagner, an outsider by virtue of his early revolutionary impulses and precocity, projecting his own anxieties through his intense antisemitism? That’s just one fascinating question Ross raises without insisting on an answer.

Wagner’s antisemitism, misogyny, and racism are as inextricably linked to the man as they are inexplicable. To put it bluntly, Richard Wagner is the most loathsome great composer in the history of music.

In 1850, Wagner published his malicious essay “Jewishness in Music” under a pseudonym. He published it again in 1869 under his own name. “Chillingly,” Ross writes about the infamous essay, “the analogy of a worm-ridden corpse recurs, purporting to evoke Jews’ presence in German society.”

By republishing the essay, Ross says, Wagner ensured “it could never be forgotten or excused.” When a new edition of the essay was published in Germany during the 1930s, it was touted as “one of the nation’s most precious documents.”

Wagner, who died in 1883, is not alone among unregenerate racist and antisemitic artists. The savage 20th-century French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline went a horrible step further by advocating outright genocide. But notwithstanding Wagner’s malicious polemic, his stupendous creative achievements exerted a far more powerful and disturbing grip over that century’s art and politics.

Ross wrestles with this phenomenon throughout Wagnerism, which brilliantly shows how the composer’s image changed in the decades after his death, and how Nazi Wagnerites joined a long line of Jewish, Zionist, Black, feminist, and gay Wagnerites.

Alex Ross (Photo by Josh Goldstine)

Admiration for Wagner’s operas (he also wrote his own librettos) found expression, one way or another, in works by George Eliot, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Philip K. Dick, William Gaddis, and especially Thomas Mann, among others.

In film, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” punches up D.W. Griffith’s aggressively racist Birth of a Nation, and its driving rhythms turn the violence in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now into a kind of hypnotic triumphalism. Wagner’s Lohengrin prelude turns up twice in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Ross even gives a nod to Wagner noir (“admittedly a limited genre”) with Christmas Holiday (1944), which features the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. In 1947’s Brute Force, a recording of Tannhäuser serves as prelude to a prison torture. Even into the 21st century, Wagner’s Parsifal prelude makes an atmospheric appearance in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012).

Ross also shows how Wagner’s influence made itself felt in art, poetry, architecture, painting, dance, and theater. He writes that “Wagnerism became a kind of feedback loop: the composer impelled experiments in other fields, and those experiments affected perceptions of his work in turn.”  

Ross’s wide-ranging analysis finds a form in an almost classically epic and intimate orchestral fashion. An alluring exposition of themes is followed by continually fascinating development, leading to a largely sour recapitulation that gives way to a clear-headed, hopeful coda. One late section, for instance, is called “Hitlerizing Wagner.” Here the book’s political timeliness shows when Ross quotes another writer noting how Wagner’s leitmotif technique (short recurring musical cues to character or emotions) is used analogously in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, “where the entire art of eloquence and propaganda consists in repetition.”

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde in the opera’s premiere in 1865.

In any case, Ross’s method allows him to add gradual layers to his exploration of Wagner’s antisemitism, where envy (especially of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer) and race hatred likely helped fuel his immense creativity. There’s also Wagner’s love of animals, his androgyny, antimilitarism, homoeroticism, and disappointment in what his Bayreuth Festival, founded in 1876 to present his operas, turned into — “one more watering hole for the leisure class.”  

Ross is especially good on Wagner’s relationship with his young acolyte, Friedrich Nietzsche. Citing Wagner’s dislike of Nietzsche’s pitilessness and exaltation of power and Nietzsche’s impatience with Wagner’s Teutonic chauvinism and malignant antisemitism, Ross says it all “added up to an approximation of the fascist mentality.”

“Once the better angels of their natures are set aside,” Ross continues, “Wagner and Nietzsche darkly complete each other in the Nazi mind.” Rather scarily, Nietzsche predicted in Ecce Homo that one day his name “will be linked to the memory of something monstrous – to a crisis like none there has been on earth…”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, all this, contemporary artists continue to remake and re-imagine Wagner’s works into something relevant for our day. For instance, American opera director Yuval Sharon recently staged a version of Götterdämmerung in a Detroit garage.

On a practical level, Wagnerism, consisting of short sections with a staggering amount of distilled, accessible information, makes for perfect bedtime reading. The occasional longueurs, expected in such a compendious book, include a section on how Wagner’s music influenced novelist Willa Cather.

In a moving postlude, Ross recalls that Wagner’s work finally opened up to him in young adulthood through live performances. Watching Die Walküre while recovering from alcoholism, Ross understood “viscerally what it means when Wotan accepts his Ohnmacht, his powerlessless,” and how that paralysis opened “a path to a different state of being.”

Though in thrall to Wagner’s direct, emotional power (he calls Tristan “that megalith of melancholy”), Ross never attempts to idealize the composer or explain away, as a toxic product of its time, his role as a spreader of the worst in human nature. As Ross writes, “the ugliness of his racism means that posterity’s picture of him will always be cracked down the middle.”

Ultimately, Ross’s Wagnerism is an anguished but eloquent paean to art’s ability to transform both the artist and us by engaging our better, deeper selves.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.