I have always felt an aversion to the works of Richard Wagner; his massive and melodramatic style, his well-known antisemitism, and the association of many of his operas with Nazi culture, have always seemed reasons enough to avoid his music. It was with some surprise then that, after hearing a fascinating radio interview of The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross, I found myself reading with interest and even enthusiasm Ross’s thought-provoking recent book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. In his book, Ross makes the convincing case that Wagner was and is one of the most important and influential artists of the modern Western era, even if many of his legacies and the use to which his art has been put are malignant. In this vast, intelligent book, Ross demonstrates that the works of a wide array of artists and writers reflect Wagner’s influence. Ross also makes the case that, regardless of how your feel about Wagner, he cannot simply be ignored.


Wagner of course wrote several operas in the mid to late 19th century, including, among others, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal, and perhaps most famously, The Ring cycle. He also originated several musical techniques and ideas that have now become standard, such as the use of leitmotifs to express a psychological state or to set a mood. He introduced the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), that is, a work of art that makes use of a variety of art forms. His work draws heavily on ancient sources, such as Arthurian legends, Norse sagas, and Greek myths. The characters in many of his stories are architypes, and he mines the elemental sources to invoke deep human urges and motivations. Audiences then and now have responded deeply to Wagner’s work. Many describe their experience of listening to Wagner (especially the Ring cycle) as “hypnotism,” “intoxication,” or “seduction.”


However, Ross’s book is not about Wagner or his work as such; instead, it is about the impact that Wagner’s music and ideas have had on subsequent artists, musicians, artists, and scholars – that is, the spread and diffusion of what came to be known as “Wagnerism.”


Ross describes Wagnerism as a “chaotic posthumous cult” that “traversed the entire sphere of the arts – poetry, the novel, painting, theatre, dance, architecture, film.” It also “breached the realm of politics” as both the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Nazis in Germany “used Wagner’s music as a soundtrack for their attempted re-engineerings of humanity.” The composer’s work, Ross writes, “came to represent the cultural-political unconscious of modernity – an aesthetic war zone in which the Western world struggled with its raging contradictions, its longings for creation and destruction, its inclinations toward beauty and violence.” The expression “Wagnerism” itself encompasses a multiplicity of meanings – it may mean modern art grounded in myth; it may mean involving multiple genres in pursuit of artistic expression; it may mean the incorporation of a theme, character, or scene from one of Wagner’s works into a novel, painting, or film.


The transformation of Wagner’s works and ideas into an artistic or philosophical approach began during Wagner’s own lifetime. One of Wagner’s earliest acolytes was the German philosopher and critic, Friedrich Nietzsche, who was an early exponent of Wagner’s music and philosophy. Although the two men ultimately had a falling out, Nietzsche’s continuing reflections on Wagner’s use of myth and story influenced some of Nietzsche’s best-known philosophical works. Nietzsche may also have been among the first to see the danger in the seductive power of Wagner’s works. In his late work, The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche recanted his earlier praise for Wagner, now characterizing his music as “decadent,” noting in particular its effect on German youth, saying of their response to Wagner that it “It was not with his music that Wagner conquered them, it was with the ‘idea’—it is the enigmatic character of his art, its playing hide-and-seek behind a hundred symbols, its polychromy of the ideal that leads and lures these youths to Wagner; it is Wagner’s genius for shaping clouds, his whirling, hurling, and twirling through the air, his everywhere and nowhere.”


One thing that is clear from the outset is that Wagner had an enormous impact on other artists, particularly writers. One of the strengths of Ross’s book, and one of the many features of the book that makes it worth reading, is the sheer number and range of artists and authors whom Ross convincingly shows Wagner influenced. The list is long and diverse. It includes the English novelist George Eliot; the novelist of the American prairie, Willa Cather; a host of modernist writers, including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Wolff; and even the German author of bourgeois decline, Thomas Mann. (Ross says of Mann this his “entire oeuvre is a kind of aftermath of Wagner.”)


Ross’s comprehensive approach finds deep marks of Wagner in some truly unexpected places, such as in W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk, one of the founding texts of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Du Bois, Ross writes, “took Wagnerian myth as a model for a heroic new African-American spirit, one that would make use of its own legends.” (It is probably important to note here that Du Bois spent two years studying at Fredrich Wilhelm University in Berlin.) Ross also shows that Theodor Herzl, the early prophet of Zionism, was a confirmed Wagner devotee. Herzl, Ross writes, looked to Tannhäuser to “fortify his Zionist vision.”


One interesting Wagnerian detour in Ross’s book is his exploration of the influence of Wagner on late 19th and early 20th century American urban architecture. A number of architects in the Chicago school – including in particular John Wellborn Root and Louis Sullivan — embraced Wagner and sought to embody in their work ancient values that were “rhythmic, deep, and eternal.” In an essay Root advocated an architectural aesthetic comparable to the nuances of musical language, in pursuit of the “complete unification of the arts for which Wagner labored.” Frank Lloyd Wright, one of Sullivan’s pupils, was to record, that Sullivan filled his studio with the strains of Wagner’s music. Similarly, architects in fin de Siècle Vienna sought to “translate Wagner’s idea of the total work of art” into a model for the future of the city itself. The artistic renegades within the Viennese Succession movement similarly sought to realize a “lived-in Gesamtkunswerk.”


Ross exhaustively documents the extent of Wagner’s artistic influence, but he also plumbs the depths of Wagner’s dark sides. Ross devotes a significant section of his book trying to understand Wagner’s vehement anti-Semitism. Professional jealousy bordering on paranoia was one source. Wagner apparently believed that Felix Mendelsohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Europe’s preeminent composers of Jewish descent, were “plotting to get him.” But notwithstanding these seemingly explanatory threads, Ross concludes that the ferocity of Wagner’s anti-Jewish rancor “welled up from deep in his psyche.” It culminated in Wagner’s 1850 essay, “Jewishness in Music,” written in language of “still shocking crudity.” Wagner initially published the essay anonymously, but in 1869 he republished it under his own name. His ruminations that tend toward an “as yet uncodified theory or ‘science’ of race” were to reach their most obscene manifestation in the “race” theories associated with Nazi culture.


The link drawn between Wagnerism and Nazism continues to cast a dark shadow over Wagner’s historical reputation. As early as 1939, commentators were asserting that Wagner was “perhaps the most important single fountainhead of Nazi ideology.” Hitler reportedly even claimed that an early youthful encounter with Wagner’s opera Rienzi “propelled him toward a career in politics.” Later historians later doubted the extent of Wagner’s influence; one modern historian wrote that “the composer’s influence on Hitler has often been exaggerated.” However, there is no doubt, as Ross writes, that “the cultural-political apparatus of the Nazi state drew liberally on Wagnerian mythology,” adapting Wagner’s mythological themes and symbols as party iconography. Wagner’s music featured prominently in the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg and other party events.  However, Wagner was not as popular with the masses as he was with Hitler, and Wagner’s prominence in the Nazi repertoire faded after the early years, especially because not all of Wagner’s legacy could easily be reconciled with Nazi ideology.


Since the end of World War II, Wagner’s reputation and cultural place has gone through several successive re-assessments. The question Wagner’s legacy faced after the war was whether he still had something important to say to a culture prepared to reject him on both aesthetic and political grounds. The straightforward answer is that his work continues to be performed (except notably in Israel), and to be incorporated into films and other art forms. Wagnerian themes have permeated some forms of cinema, including in particular such fantasy and sci-fi epics as The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Matrix, which Ross refers to as “updated Wagnerian tropes.” (The Darth Vader theme is a universally recognized use of a Wagnerian leitmotif.) The story of Wagnerism goes on.


Ross sums up the vast terrain he has covered by saying that “In the story of Wagner and Wagnerism, we see both the highest and lowest impulses of humanity entangled. It is the triumph of art over reality and the triumph of reality over art.” Of Wagner’s complex historical record, Ross notes that “To blame Wagner for the horrors committed in his wake is an inadequate response to historical complexity; to exonerate him is to ignore his insidious ramifications.” Upon inspection, the “cult of genius” that surrounded Wagner “comes undone,” and he becomes something “more unstable, fragile, and mutable.” Incomplete in himself, “he requires the most active and critical kind of listening.” Through his art, we may think we have caught a glimpse of some higher, more glimmering realm, but it is only a shadow; “the vision fades, the curtain falls, and we shuffle back in silence to the world as it is.”


I recommend this book for anyone who wants to confront long-held beliefs, to encounter new thoughts and new perspectives – and to learn something new. This book is an entire curriculum in art, music, and culture. Having now read the book twice, I am thoroughly convinced that it is literally impossible to talk about Western art and culture in the late 19th and early 20th century without taking Wagner into account. Ross also shows that Wagner’s influence continues to this day. Ross’s successful execution of his effort to understand and explain Wagner’s influence is an astonishing, even dazzling accomplishment.


All of that said, I must add that this book is not for everyone. Not everyone is going to want to travel with Ross to try to find Wagner in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites or the Symbolists. Though I found Ross’s extensive plot summaries of various works of literature fascinating, I can easily imagine that some readers might not.


However, if you are the kind of reader that is interested in being educated while being entertained, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough for you. This book raises important and though-provoking questions, such as: can we separate the music from its creator? Is it possible to admire the work of a despicable person? Can an artistic legacy be separated from the uses to which the art has been put? And finally — what is the purpose of art: merely to entertain, to uplift, or to inspire, enflame, enrage? A lot of questions for one book to raise…