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.”
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.