books Philosophy

Are We All Wagnerians?

Richard Wagner (1813-1873) is the most enduring and reviled of all the great composers of Western music. No artist is more scorned, adored, and mystifying than the Meister of Bayreuth who, actually, spent little time in Bayreuth and most of his life as a European nomad. From politics to religion, and art to culture, no aspect of modernity has escaped the shadow of Europe’s most notorious composer.

In defining Wagnerism, Alex Ross provides a paradoxically concise but expansive definition befitting of the man under scrutiny. “Wagnerism,” Ross writes, “may mean a modern art grounded in myth, after Wagner’s example. It may mean imitating aspects of his musical and poetic language. It may involve combining genres in pursuit of a total artwork. It may take the form of what I call ‘Wagner Scenes’—tableaux in novels, paintings, and films in which the music is played, discussed, or heard in the background of interaction, often seduction.” Wagnerism, as such, seems as elusive and influential as the composer himself.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music is neither a biography of Wagner nor an explanation of the inner meaning of his operatic stories and music. Though the book includes biography and ruminations on Wagner’s various scores and leitmotifs, the true spirit of the work is in exploring how the enigmatic spirit of Wagner took hold of the general spirit of modernity. After all, in Wagner’s own life many of his contemporaries looked at him as the embodiment of the modern spirit—whatever that means.

It is fitting that Ross has written a heroic and monumental work dealing with the legacy of Wagner that takes its cues from Wagner’s own masterful moments to delve into those “Wagnerisms” that have seeped into our culture and historical imagination. High culture, as we all know, is under siege. And the pages of America’s faux high cultural cathedrals are but the organs continuing to propagate our high cultural illiteracy; how we are supposed to feel about culture is what is pontificated from their pages rather than any substantive teaching about our high culture. This book breaks from the sentimentalism of contemporary journalism and offers an incredible tour-de-force in how Wagner influenced Parisian decadence and art, left and right politics, and, of course, Hollywood from the late nineteenth century to the present.

The vague understanding of Wagner goes something like this. Wagner was friends with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) until Wagner embraced a heterodox Christian ethic of compassion, Mitleid, later in his life (best exemplified in Parsifal). Adolf Hitler fell in love with Wagner and used Wagner for his Nazi propaganda. Wagner was also something of anti-Semite and German nationalist, therefore, Wagner is persona non grata because of his proto-Nazism. “Ride of the Valkyries” is pretty awesome, especially how it was used in Apocalypse Now (more on that later). For most Westerners, even those who fancy themselves as cultured, this is the story of Richard Wagner that they know and all that they do know.

While that minimalist story is also contained in the pages of Wagnerism, Ross does a heroic job in rescuing Wagner from the iconoclasts while also praising the iconoclasts for their revisionism of Wagner, especially in his chapter dealing with “the wound” in our post-1945 world. What gives? We want to love Wagner. Yet we also know we should keep some distance from him at the same time. If we can appreciate his music, we ought not embrace his mythicism and aesthetic of enchantment. Thus we end up where we are: Wagner’s music is blaringly performed surrounded by an aesthetic entirely opposite of Wagner’s artistic mission. Appreciation and mockery flow together.

Yet Wagner’s larger than life spirit was already embarking on its world cultural conquest during his life and in the immediate aftermath of his death. Wagnerism begins, ironically, not in Germany but outside of Wagner’s homeland. France, England, and America all manifested Wagnerism in their own image, “Each country saw Wagner through a self-fashioned prism. For the French, he was a torchbearer of the modern; for the British a messenger of Arthuriana. In the United States, Wagner harmonized with a national love of wilderness sagas, frontier lore, Native American tales, stories of desperadoes searching for gold.”

Thus Wagnerism came into its own. While Wagnerism in England and America took on tamer, softer, and even child-friendly spirit compared to Francophone Wagnerian decadence, this story of Wagner’s music and artistry being utilized for self-conscious purposes is the drama that Ross inevitable tells. We have the French Wagner and Wagnerians; the English Wagner and Wagnerians; the American Wagner and Wagnerians; the revolutionary Wagner and Wagnerians; the reactionary and conservative Wagner and Wagnerians; the feminist Wagner and Wagnerians; the gay Wagner and Wagnerians, etc.

It is a true joy, and a great educational ride, to read through how Wagnerian imagery and character archetypes rocketed into national literature, poetry, and artwork. Readers of Willa Cather (1873-1947), James Joyce (1882-1941), and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) will gain new insight and appreciation of their works and how the spirit, or shadow, of Wagner loomed over them. Likewise, readers will see the influence of Wagner over symbolist art, Bolshevik politics, and nationalist mythology. Love him or hate him, as Ross makes abundantly clear, anyone of any serious artistic and cultural clout had to have an opinion on Wagner. The same is true now as it was a century ago.

Ross’s analysis and deconstruction of the myriad of Wagnerisms reveals the extent that Wagner has influenced our culture even as we wrestle with the more unsavory side of Wagner (which Ross doesn’t neglect but doesn’t necessarily dwell on at any length with the predictable pieties of woke cultural criticism). While Ross does a commendable job highlighting the Wagnerian side to art and literature, especially gems of Americana like Willa Cather, his work undoubtedly shines brilliantly and strikes a chord with a younger generation in his exposition on Hollywood Wagnerism and Fantasy.

If Wagner was the composer of “spectacle,” then Hollywood—starting with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—followed suit to spectacular success. (Ross points out that at the premier of Griffin’s racist epic that the climactic scene rode forth to the tune of a live orchestra playing “Ride of the Valkyries” before closing with “Dixie.”) Moderns have no doubt experienced the ear-numbing ring of shrieking Valkyries from Apocalypse Now, perhaps the most iconic manifestation of Wagnerian spectacle in film. But the Hollywood appropriation of Wagnerian leitmotifs, rather than Wagner himself, came into vogue because of Star Wars. The familiar ringing of a short leitmotif for a viewing audience to communicate an aesthetic and emotional feeling is the most pervasive shadow of Wagner in modern times. As Ross’s book routinely highlights, even when trying to escape Wagner many artists and our broader cultural spirit remained indebted to him.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music is a Wagnerian book par excellence. From our own writing styles, picturesque scenery in art, naturalistic and fantasy yearnings, creating a total work of art, and musical leitmotifs in television and cinema, Alex Ross’s book reveals all the Wagnerian shadows we live and labor under. And we are culturally enriched because of it even when Ross’s sometimes brief pontifications do not allow the nuance that he grants the Meister.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
Alex Ross
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020; 784 pp.

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