Alex Ross: Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
Farrar, Straus and Giroux – 784 pages
Can enough ever be said about Richard Wagner? More than 50 years ago, one admirer wrote that only Jesus Christ and Napoleon had been more written about than the German composer. The flood of academic studies, personal reflections, philosophical insights, documentary collections, and other publications has only rushed on unabated. Alex Ross, best known as the New Yorker’s music critic, worked for eight painstaking years to complete this dense assessment of Wagner’s legacy. The result is a sprawling, 660-page tome on the phenomenon of “Wagnerism,” the various cultural responses to the composer and his works that began in his lifetime and continue down to our own era, now 137 years after his death.
Since Ross is best known as a music critic, perhaps the book’s greatest oddity is that it excludes virtually any discussion of Wagner’s musical legacy. Every country that has a classical music tradition encountered Wagner and produced passionate and revelatory debates about how and, indeed, whether his innovations in subject and composition should be approached, and how he responded to broader cultural wants and needs. But to take only the fertile example of France, we hear nothing of Chabrier or Chausson, Debussy or d’Indy, Massenet or Messiaen. Ross’s music criticism is replete with erudite commentary on Wagner’s influences, but for reasons he never explains this vital musical vein is absent from a study that seeks to be comprehensive in tracing his footprint across all media of human creativity.
It is rather the realms of literature, visual art, and later film that capture Ross’s attention. He has clearly read, contemplated, and watched a great deal of Wagner-infused masterpieces in many national traditions, and we can congratulate him on this time-consuming if rather curatorial exercise. Some of his discussions are thorough, highly original, and present cutting edge or little known scholarly work on a plethora of valuable topics. His discussion of Wagner’s influence on James Joyce, whose writings are a subject of Ross’s lifelong interest, are the book’s most insightful and best thought out passages.
I did occasionally wonder, however, whether the overall presentation lacked a judicious sense of proportion. Willa Cather is the subject of an entire chapter, most of which was devoted to her decidedly secondary novel The Song of the Lark, about a middle American woman who finds self-realization in pursuing a career as a great Wagnerian soprano. But Marcel Proust’s seven-volume A Remembrance of Things Past, arguably the most Wagnerian of all literary efforts given its elaborate structure interweaving evocative sensory motifs, penetrating psychological depth, and (by my count) 62 direct references to the composer or his works, merits only eight rather superficial pages. The encyclopedic approach sometimes descends to rote lists of creators and their “Wagnerian works,” but there are notable gaps. The final chapter, which addresses recent film, gets at Visconti, Coppola, and Terrence Malick, but leaves out Douglas Sirk and Lars von Trier. Ross’s discussion of French post-structuralist approaches to Wagner, now rather in disrepute, is precise, but we hear nothing about Roger Scruton’s three insightful and far more popular books on the composer. Joseph Campbell’s enormously influential appreciation of Wagner and myth gets a bare three sentences.
There are times when the book would have benefited from a clearer definition of “Wagnerism.” Ross never explains that for a generation after Wagner’s death the adjective “Wagnerian” was a metonym for practically anything in the cultural sphere that was new, radical, innovative, or experimental. As his research shows, this was not always a compliment. Ross spends more time than he probably should have talking about people who opposed or were merely indifferent to Wagner. Did the unconvinced Mark Twain or the Pre-Raphaelite painters who regarded him as an intruder in the mythological idiom in which they were already working really count as “Wagnerians?” At the risk of mentioning the most polarizing individual of our era, people who oppose or are indifferent to Donald Trump might well resist the notion that they are “Trumpian.”
We never quite get a sense of why Wagner appealed to many of Ross’s subjects, then or at any other time, but he occasionally observes that marginalized or emotionally isolated listeners found some form of transcendence in him. What they needed to transcend, and why, is vague, however, leaving the impression, to paraphrase Wagner’s quip about Meyerbeer’s facile opera plots, that there was no cause of this particular effect. Ross instead delights in the ambiguity of a composer who could appeal equally to communists and fascists, emperors and revolutionaries, gay activists and Russian mercenaries. This ambiguity does have the welcome effect of rescuing Wagner from damning identification with the Nazis, a theme that remained very much alive in scholarly and popular consciousness until about 20 years ago but is now fading. This move forward may be the book’s greatest achievement.
Paul du Quenoy