Wagnerism | Alex Ross

Summary of: Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
By: Alex Ross


Delve into the fascinating world of ‘Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music’ by Alex Ross, and discover the extraordinary impact of Richard Wagner’s visionary music dramas on art, culture, and politics throughout the centuries. In his book, Ross will explore Wagner’s controversial life and works, his profound influence on literature, visual arts, cinema, and nationalistic ideologies, from the likes of George Eliot and W.E.B. Du Bois to the leaders of the Nazi party. With its all-embracing themes, artistic influences, and political interpretations, Wagner’s legacy remains a captivating enigma that defies easy definition.

Wagner’s Influence

Richard Wagner, a controversial composer who referred to his work as “music dramas,” created influential works like the Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s impact was not limited to music, as his work influenced art, literature, and even politics. Despite his musical achievements, his infamous essay “Judaism in Music” caused a scandal and his association with Adolf Hitler led to a protofascist interpretation of his work. However, Wagner’s influence remains a complex and enduring subject for exploration in the arts.

Wagner’s Literary Influence

Wagner’s influence transcends music and spans across literature and politics in different regions.

In the late 1800s, Wagner’s contemporary style and controversial themes drew admiration from renowned artists and writers in France and Britain. From Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola to George Eliot and Willa Cather, all were captivated by his scandalous decadence and innovative techniques. Wagner’s influence even reached American shores, where he inspired writers such as Owen Wister, whose cowboy novel, like Wagner’s music, introduced characters with no name.

As modernism emerged, Wagner’s literary influence persisted and manifested in the works of Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce. They were fascinated by his leitmotif technique, which repeated musical phrases to aid storytelling.

Wagner’s impact stretched beyond the arts and into politics in German-speaking lands. The composer’s works were used to inspire nationalism and German identity.

Overall, the impressive range of Wagner’s literary influence was both vast and diverse, revealing the ability of his music to transcend the confines of music and spread throughout literature and politics.

Nationalism in Wagner’s Works

Wagner’s influence on Austrian and German art was intertwined with nationalism, with his works becoming increasingly politically tinged as the early twentieth century progressed. The nationalist themes in Wagner’s operas and writings were hard for many to resist, including Gabriele d’Annunzio, who became a protofascist leader. Wagner also had a direct effect on Hitler, particularly through his anti-Semitism. Despite some like novelist Theodor Fontane, who found Wagner’s operas pretentious and deluded, many saw a progressive artistic streak in Wagner, including Viennese Secession artists. Wagner’s enormous artistic influence in Austria and Germany led to the production of a substantial body of literature on Wagner and “Germanness”. Souvenir hunters could even buy Wagner figurines and candlestick holders, and as he referred to himself as “the most German” of all people, the frenzy became fevered after he opened his custom-built theater in Bayreuth.

Wagner’s Bigotry vs. His Diverse Fan Base

Despite Wagner’s anti-Semitic views, his music had a following among Jewish, Black, and gay communities. The characters in his operas were often seen as Jewish stereotypes, but they were not strictly villains. Wagner’s works contained intense, forbidden desire that spoke to gay culture in the late nineteenth century. In terms of feminism, The Ring’s Brünnhilde was a powerful female warrior driven by her love for a man. Despite his nationalist image after death and his association with the Nazi regime, Wagner’s music influenced Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state. W.E.B. Du Bois also championed African-American Wagnerism.

Wagner’s Paradoxical Legacy

Wagner’s political influence beyond boundaries and ideologies.

Richard Wagner’s works have always been a topic of debate among experts. In “Religion and Art,” an essay written in 1880, he expressed his concern about the destructive potential of modern technology like bombs and torpedoes, which makes it difficult to conclude whether he was a pacifist or not. Despite this, his music comes off as strident and pugnacious, which establishes a sense of paradox in his values.

As World War I began, Wagner’s name became a symbol of the German military effort, and his works continued to be staged in American and British theaters despite the anti-German coalition. While his influence reached beyond national, political, and ideological borders, many thinkers in London keenly pointed out that Wagner did not represent Germany as a whole. Due to the ambiguous nature of his works, both right and left-wing groups appropriated his music, as seen in Russia, where the Bolsheviks extolled Wagner’s writings. Moreover, Wagnerism became deeply political, and stagings of his works became radical and symbolic.

In the post-war Weimar Republic, Wagner’s influence played a significant role in the new progressive voices. Walter Gropius’s “Bauhaus Manifesto” of 1919 was written unmistakably in a Wagnerian style, and his aim was to bring different art forms together, just as Wagner did.

However, there was another revolutionary who had been captivated by Wagner, Adolf Hitler. In Mein Kampf, he wrote about his admiration for Lohengrin and the influence of Wagner’s early opera Rienzi. Hitler saw a huge value in appropriating Wagner’s complex, ambiguous works and giving them one disturbing singular meaning in Nazi Germany.

Wagner’s music and writings were paradoxical, and his legacy is a reflection of how his work became a symbol for both sides of the political spectrum, ultimately affecting not just his home country, Germany, but the world over.

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