Wagner Notes

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, x + 769 p. List price: $40.00; WSNY Price: $29.99

This is a remarkable book. Alex Ross has written what is arguably the most wide-ranging, intellectually comprehensive, entertaining, and thoroughly useful volumes ever produced on Wagner. Let us dispense at once, then, with its main problem: the title. This is not a history of “Wagnerism,” if that word means, as it does perhaps to most of us, a distinct body (or bodies) of thought that propagates the ideas of Wagner, drawn both from his writings and his music dramas. What it is is a panoramic survey, with multiple critical analyses, of the impact, for good or ill, that Wagner has had on European and North American culture over the last 150 years. The subtitle is also questionable. “Shadow” suggests that Wagner’s music has served in part as a penumbra that restrains or even limits artistic freedom or political action, whereas Ross offers ample evidence that Wagner has served as an empowering agency for artists from all walks of life. Indeed, in the balance, he has been more a vital impulse than an affliction on modern culture.

There are multiple dangers when dealing with the reception of a universal artist such as Wagner. He can mean all things to all people, and, because he can, writers can all too easily lose themselves in admiration of the boundless scope of the work so that any possibility of a palpable grasp of the subject dissolves. Ross, however, brilliantly avoids this problem. Narrative is one of his great strengths; he is a born story-teller who narrates his tales succinctly and compellingly. Chapters are centered around topics, but arranged in roughly chronological order, with considerable temporal overlap. The advantage of this approach is that discussion of major figures in the reception history of Wagner is often spread over several chapters. For example, Thomas Mann’s lifelong critique of Wagner surfaces throughout the book, covering not only the early ‘Wagnerian’ short stories, Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, and the ‘Sorrows and Grandeur’ lecture, but even Doctor Faustus. It would be difficult to imagine a more unWagnerian character than Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional composer in this work. He embodies a total rejection of Wagnerian romanticism, which Mann, by the 1940s, had come to sense as a demonic aspect of German society. And yet, by the end of the novel, Leverkühn’s modernism has not been offered as a solution to Germany’s problems; on the contrary, Ross even hints that the fate of Leverkühn indicates that Mann might have been moving back to an acceptance of Wagner as a humanistic force in society. It is this sort of extended argument that gives contour to Wagner’s reputation as well as a complexity and continuity to the whole volume. It also allows readers to draw their own conclusions as to the limitations and individuality, as well as universality, of Wagner’s work. Throughout, we see his impact on the modern world through both individual responses to his work and through public events. This leads to neither a hagio­graphy nor a denunciation of Wagner. Rather, it is a balanced and precise history.

Hardly a single major artistic figure from the fin-de siècle to the mid-20th century seems to have been able to avoid Wagner, either as a benign influence, a hostile antagonist, or both. It is perhaps ‘both’ that defines his unique power and becomes the dominant theme in the volume. The world has consistently felt exceptional ambivalence toward Wagner, arising from conflict between intense admiration for the seductive power of his music dramas and frequently acute discomfort at how overwhelming their impact can be. Many of Wagner’s more trenchant critics note the way in which his music leads one toward philosophies and ecstatic or utopian visions that are profoundly suspect, as the political and military conflicts of the early 20th century suggest. In this regard, it is appropriate that the opening chapter of the volume should be devoted to Nietzsche’s tormented and unresolved conflict with Wagner and his work, as it anticipates the wracking ambivalence that artists and writers, political theorists and revolutionary activists, individuals and collectives, have experienced with Wagner. Their struggles may have had triumphant outcomes, often in the realm of creative art — artists as various as Baudelaire, Shaw, Yeats, Willa Cather, Joyce, Woolf, Eisenstein, and Terence Malick, not to mention modern stage directors, have found Wagner to be primarily a liberating, if sometimes dangerous, influence — but when the struggles are collective and incorporate Wagner more as propagandist than artist, disaster can result. Ross focuses especially on the dilemma of racial minorities, especially Black and Jewish, many of whom have found liberation and self-fulfillment in the music dramas, but are cruelly disappointed by social responses, based on Wagner, that exclude, even erase them. The discussion of Wagnerite W.E.B. Dubois’ experience of racial intolerance, told in his story ‘On the Coming of John,’ is notably powerful in its anticipation of the destruction of minority culture, partly in Wagner’s name, that was to follow later in the century.

The dark side of Wagner, his appeal to nationalist and, above all, Nazi propagandists, is prominent in Ross’s book. Hitler’s sojourns in Bayreuth are described with discomforting detail, and yet Ross does not omit to notice that the bulk of the Nazi party had very little interest in Wagner and were not above resisting Hitler’s demands that they attend the Festspielhaus. When one balances this against abundant evidence offered elsewhere in the book that Wagner appealed to a wide range of political biases, especially left-wing revolutionaries, who, from George Bernard Shaw via Vsevolod Meyerhold to Frank Castorf, have stoked the flames of revolutionary impulse embedded in the works, one recognizes how truly universal Wagner’s appeal has been. Ross’ achievement has been not to beat the drum for a particular way of interpreting Wagner, but to show how many drums have been beaten.

Wagner has survived, Ross demonstrates, not only due to the power of his work, but by its constant ability to adapt to a changing world. It was threatened by the anti-heroic leanings of modernism, but survived as the modernists, in stripping the works of their Victorian trappings, found in them an elemental understanding of humanity as asocial, even mystical beings that had so far eluded readings of Wagner. It was threatened too by the cultural reaction to the two World Wars, and in our own time by our growing awareness of the Holocaust and Wagner’s problematic association with it. However, this cannot hide either Wagner’s intensely intelligent political understanding or the overwhelming sense of humanity that lies within his work. Often he can serve as a bulwark against forces that threaten our society. Indeed, it is notable that as the narrative moves into our own pitiless times, Parsifal frequently appears in discussion, not only from an antisemitic point of view, but as a work of extraordinary compassion.

Perhaps the most exhilarating parts of the book are those where the positive, life-giving attributes of Wagner’s influence come to the fore. Ross provides a succinct account of his influence on French symbolism and contributes an especially valuable summary of the Revue wagnérienne, which is followed a chapter or two later by a section outlining the maturing influence of Wagner’s ideas on Yeats and the Celtic twilight. The keystone chapter to the entire book is on Willa Cather, whose life was divided between the wild landscapes of the American West and the city; she never felt the countryside as a culturally deprived wasteland, as her experience of Wagner’s works had instilled the landscapes of her Nebraska home with an enormous beauty and consequent sense of meaning. There are some unexpected but very welcome sallies into distinctly unWagnerian territory, with telling passages on Theodore Fontane’s stories of the disastrous impact of Wagnerian ideals on lovers, and Frank Wedekind, who found the operas both ‘irritating and engrossing’, violently attacked the influence of Wagner on contemporary culture. Even Brecht, an anti-Wagnerian if there ever was one, is measured against Wagner in a comparison that could do with further development.

Ignore the inaccurate title. This is a noteworthy book, with breathtaking range and scope, by an author who is as good a literary critic as he is a musicologist. Ross does not lard his prose with jargon or, for that matter, with Wagnerian grandeur. He writes, first and foremost, because he loves to tell stories and there can be no grander reason for writing than that. Above all else, this book is a true pleasure to read.

© Wagner Notes, October 2020, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Simon Williams,

Professor Emeritus in the Department of Theater and Dance, University of California at Santa Barbara, lectures widely on theater and opera and was the Society’s Bayreuth lecturer from 1998 to 2000.