Alex Ross’s Wagnerism

The Daily — Sep 22, 2020
Detail from a Japanese poster for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)

In Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross readily points out that Monteverdi, Bach, and Beethoven have each had an impact on music as great or even greater than Richard Wagner’s. The nineteenth-century German composer’s “effect on neighboring arts was, however, unprecedented,” writes Ross, “and it has not been equaled since, even in the popular arena.”

Reviewing Wagnerism for the New York Times, composer John Adams observes that the book “has its own ‘Wagnerian’ heft and ambitiousness of intent, being nothing less than a history of ideas that spans an arc from Nietzsche and George Eliot to Philip K. Dick, Apocalypse Now, and neo-Nazi skinheads.” In Bookforum, Geoffrey O’Brien calls Ross’s third book after The Rest Is Noise, a history of music in the twentieth century, and the essay collection Listen to This, “an aerial view of a culture’s nervous system as it responds to an unexpected stimulus.”

The word “encyclopedic” crops up in more than a few reviews—see Peter Conrad in the Observer, for example, or Tim Riley in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and at 4Columns, Geeta Dayal suggests that, while Wagnerism is “an important book,” it’s “also many books in one.” There’s just an awful lot of influence to map. In cinema and television alone, Wagner’s music can be heard on more than a thousand soundtracks, but “the Wagnerization of film,” as Ross puts it in a recent issue of the New Yorker, extends far beyond the composer’s IMDb credits. “Cinema’s integration of image, word, and music promised a fulfillment of [Wagner’s] idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art,’” writes Ross. “His informal system of assigning leitmotifs to characters and themes became a defining trait of film scores. And Hollywood has drawn repeatedly from Wagner’s gallery of mythic archetypes: his gods, heroes, sorcerers, and questers.”


Embraced by Bolsheviks and Nazis alike, Wagner was a vortex of contradictions, “an anti-Semite and a racist who praised the Civil War as ‘the only war whose aim was humane’ for ending slavery and cheered the king of Zululand for defeating the British,” as Ashley Naftule notes at the A.V. Club. “Because of what Ross calls ‘the emphatic vagueness of his convictions,’ entire groups who would have good reason to dismiss Wagner could still claim him as one of their own.” Though he inspired figures as varied as Black activist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois, novelist Willa Cather, and architect Louis Sullivan, Wagner will nevertheless be indelibly marked by one association above all others.

In the New Republic, Adam Kirsch argues that “the deep compatibility between Wagnerism and Nazism reveals something essential about the composer that lovers of his music have no choice but to reckon with.” Ross’s reckoning leads to the argument that Wagner’s work is simply too multifarious, too great to cede to Hitler alone. “Instead of uniformly absolving or canceling Wagner,” writes Olivia Giovetti at Literary Hub, “Ross instead asks across 800 pages if we can hold the two impulses at the same time.”

Talking to Lindsay Pereira in the Observer, Ross suggests that “Wagnerism really ended as a worldwide phenomenon” after the Second World War. “Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick have made beautiful references to Wagner in their films, often focusing on the theme of the ruination of nature, which is a preoccupation of Wagner’s Ring cycle. The philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have presented vigorous new interpretations of Wagner. So Wagnerism goes on, but more as a kind of underground.”

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