As a light lyric mezzo-soprano, I never felt any great need to watch and listen to Wagner operas. I studied them in music history class and that was the scope of my exposure.
I knew, however, someday, the time would come to end my abstinence of this larger than life composer. One moment of presentiment occurred in 2010. My husband and I were in Chicago, ready to run the Chicago marathon. We had just walked around the University of Chicago and had found our way to a bookstore. It was a used bookstore and as I walked the aisles, I noticed the music. It was dark, and heavy. The orchestration was gargantuan. The music, seemingly, never resolved. Unlike bel canto or verismo operas, there were seemingly no arias. I, of course, knew it was Wagner. There, walking the aisles in a Chicago bookstore, overhearing employees swapping Saul Bellow stories, on the eve of running 26.2 miles, was the most I had ever heard a Wagner opera.
Still, it was not until two months ago, that I decided to enter his world. I am currently taking INFO 5367, Music Libraries and Information Services, and our mid-term assignment is to read a book and review it. I had recently started reading The Rest is Just Noise: Listening to the Twentieth, by Alex Ross, and knew that he was coming out with a new book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. I knew that it was time. I have read the book, and written the review and more importantly, have begun watching his operas. Where do I stand now? I see Wagner everywhere. I hear Wagner everywhere.
Over a decade after the release of his award winning book, The Rest is Just Noise: Listening to the Twentieth, Alex Ross has recently published his new and exhaustively comprehensive book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. In addition to studying music at the university, Ross has written as a music critic for almost 30 years, and currently writes for The New Yorker.
While this work deserves a place on the shelf of the academic and public library, it is wholly accessible to the non-musician reader who has interest in music, literature, art or history. Even at an epic 660 pages, it is an accessible read and maintains an interesting and energetic narrative. Only at the beginning is there an excerpt of music notation, from Das Rheingold, the first opera of the Ring cycle, and is less to showcase harmonic structure, but rather to demonstrate the beginning of a new era in art and music.
The book is organized by chapters that are mostly chronological and are each titled with a reference to various mythologies of Wagner operas. The chapter entitled, “Siegfried’s Death: Nazi Germany and Thomas Mann” is a latter chapter that covers the aforementioned time and people. Siegfried is both a key character in Wagner’s operas and also the name of Wagner’s son. Ross expertly weaves these real and mythological characters into a seamless narrative. Resources at the end of the book include a chronology of Wagner’s life, an extensive reference section and an index. A welcome guide that is easy to miss (it is noted in the reference section in the smallest of fonts) is a url link to reviews, a glossary, and an audiovisual companion to the book.
While the title of this book narrows the scope of the behemoth that is Wagner, to art and politics, it remains impressively comprehensive. Ross gives examples from seemingly every art medium to judge Wagner that include literature, philosophy, art, dance, and culture.The strength of Ross’s narrative lies not only in his extensive readings and sources that reference Wagner, but in the manner in which he organizes and ties them together. He recounts how a literary figure first encountered Wagner or his music and how he influenced their work. Ross quotes passages from such figures such as Willa Cather, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Bernard Shaw, Marcel Proust, W.E.B. du Bois and James Joyce. Stories of dancers, choreographers also pepper the tale, with characters such as Isadora Duncan and Serge Diaghilev. In the current national climate of race inequality, it is refreshing to have references, albeit few, of Black Americans in Wagner’s world with stories ranging from opera goers such as W.E.B. du Bois and Langston Hughes to Black opera singers in Germany.
Wagner is treated with as much objectivity as the primary documents allow. Throughout these anecdotes, Ross consistently addresses the recorded racism of Wagner. The underlying and inescapable question throughout the book is, how do we reconcile Wagner’s antisemetic views with his oeuvre? Ross confronts Wagner’s antisemitism with directness, quoting or paraphrasing his horrid statements from primary sources. To that end, the main argument of Ross is that, while Wagner published and spoke abominable words against Jewish people, his work has left an indelible mark on every art. Ross tells of how Wagner and his music was used in the most nefarious ways. Leading up to and during World War II, Wagner’s words and music are used everywhere from Nazi propaganda, to military operation[s] with names such as “Siegfried line.” Yet Ross points out that in reality, “Wagnerism was on the decline in Germany at this time” and that Wagnerites, including Jewish Wagnerites, extolled the themes of love and understanding present in such works as Parsifal. In his postlude, Ross astutely asserts,
“To blame Wagner for the horrors committed in the wake is an inadequate response to historical complexity: it lets the rest of civilization off the hook. At the same time, to exonerate him is to ignore his insidious ramifications…the ugliness of his racism means that posterity’s picture of him will always be cracked down the middle…”
Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music is an essential work in understanding the momentousness of Wagner’s influence on culture and the arts while understanding his deeply flawed racism. He was just a man. His music, however, is, was and forever will be as transcendent and ever reaching as the gods in his repertoire.
Bohlman, Andrea F. “Ross, Alex.” Oxford University Press, 2016. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.A2289326.
Ross, Alex. Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.