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Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Wagnerism Download image

ISBN10: 0374285934
ISBN13: 9780374285937


784 Pages


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For better or worse, Wagner is the most widely influential figure in the history of music. Around 1900, the phenomenon known as Wagnerism saturated European and American culture. Such colossal creations as The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal were models of formal daring, myth-making, erotic freedom, and mystical speculation. A mighty procession of artists, including Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Paul Cézanne, Isadora Duncan, and Luis Buñuel, felt his impact. Anarchists, occultists, feminists, and gay-rights pioneers saw him as a kindred spirit. Then Adolf Hitler incorporated Wagner into the soundtrack of Nazi Germany, and the composer came to be defined by his ferocious antisemitism. For many, his name is now almost synonymous with artistic evil.

In Wagnerism, Alex Ross restores the magnificent confusion of what it means to be a Wagnerian. A pandemonium of geniuses, madmen, charlatans, and prophets do battle over Wagner’s many-sided legacy. As readers of his brilliant articles for The New Yorker have come to expect, Ross ranges thrillingly across artistic disciplines, from the architecture of Louis Sullivan to the novels of Philip K. Dick, from the Zionist writings of Theodor Herzl to the civil-rights essays of W.E.B. Du Bois, from O Pioneers! to Apocalypse Now.

In many ways, Wagnerism tells a tragic tale. An artist who might have rivaled Shakespeare in universal reach is undone by an ideology of hate. Still, his shadow lingers over twenty-first century culture, his mythic motifs coursing through superhero films and fantasy fiction. Neither apologia nor condemnation, Wagnerism is a work of passionate discovery, urging us toward a more honest idea of how art acts in the world.


Praise for Wagnerism

“[Wagnerism] takes up Wagner’s protean impact with unprecedented scope . . . The result is an indispensable work of cultural history, offering both a comprehensive resource and a bravura narrative . . . Extraordinary . . . As Mr. Ross richly details, Wagner’s appeal to women and gays is a hallmark of his achievement . . . Writing about Virginia Woolf’s mostly concealed Wagnerian dimension, Mr. Ross is again keenly attuned to defining yet elusive subcurrents.”—Joseph Horowitz, The Wall Street Journal

“Ross’s impressive research has uncovered hundreds upon hundreds of Wagnerian references, allusions, and influences in the art and literature of the last 150 years . . . [Ross] offers insightful discussions of Wagner’s most significant legacies—for theater direction and narrative technique, for feminism and queer culture, and for revolutionary politics.”—Adam Kirsch, The New Republic

"Sweepingly original . . . [Ross] ushers readers along an endlessly fascinating tour of the lives and works touched by, in his words, 'the chaotic posthumous cult' spawned by a composer with a gift for making impassioned friends and equally impassioned enemies . . . In page after lucid page, Ross narrates this epic tour while hovering above the fray with a kind of lyrical skepticism that eventually starts to feel like its own quietly principled way of knowing the past: an ethic of reading history against its accumulated layers, granting irony its own power of illumination, and holding open a space for complex, contradictory truths. Ultimately Wagnerism, the fruit of nearly a decade of exhaustive research, is a masterwork of historical synthesis and historical sleuthing."—Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe

“Illuminating . . . Ross traces the controversial composer’s influence across what the author calls the ‘artists of silence’: novelists, poets, and painters. What makes Wagnerism such a challenging and rewarding read is how Ross comes to terms with that influence . . . Where once was a man, there is now only a shadow. What shape that shadow takes, Wagnerism suggests, says just as much about the beholder as it does about the body that once cast it.”—Ashley Naftule, The AV Club

“In the end, Wagnerism is, however obliquely, very much a book about Wagner and his music, all the richer for being filtered through such a range of listeners and spectators . . . This history of listening becomes a history of consciousness—and ultimately collides with a history of poisonous hatred and genocidal violence . . . The Wagnerian fever charted in this grand and magnificently realized mosaic might be seen as a global and inchoate effort at liberation from a catastrophe that had not yet happened, but whose world-churning orchestral murmurs were already audible.”—Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum

"Reading Wagnerism took me two weeks, and once through with it, I felt as if I'd spent a fortnight in Bayreuth among affable and highly informed friends. It's a magnificent, eminently readable and often entertaining fund of knowledge and I recommend it unreservedly."—Rob Cowan, Gramophone

“Ross does a good and very full job in tracing the obsession of different times and places, and the intellectual flavour each wave took . . . Ross’s book is excellent, and extraordinarily thorough . . . A very thorough account of apparent delusion in search of a fugitive meaning.”—Philip Hensher, The Spectator (Australia)

“Until now, what I didn’t know about Wagner and his influence on culture could have filled a book. Fortunately, Alex Ross’s brilliant evocation of the composer’s world more than elucidates Wagner’s various mysteries—it gives voice to why and how he came to be such a significant political and aesthetic influence on the world stage. Masterfully written and researched, Wagnerism is itself a masterpiece—a breathtaking achievement.”—Hilton Als, author of White Girls

Wagnerism is monumental not only in scale but in accomplishment. Wagner casts a vast shadow over modern culture and it takes an incandescent critical intelligence to illuminate this legacy in its full complexity, distorted by neither hagiography nor demonology . . . Afro-Wagnerians jostle with Nazis, Gilded Age feminists share the stage with Zionists, gay Wagnerians consort with modernist litterateurs. The result is a singular achievement of scholarship, sensibility, and storytelling.”—Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Lies That Bind

“An absolutely masterly work . . . A miraculous synthesis. Ross’s writing is an art that conceals art, propelling the reader on and on.”—Stephen Fry, actor and author of Mythos and Heroes

Wagnerism is as magnificently realized as it is monumentally ambitious, a cultural history of the modern world that Richard Wagner and his protean art helped mightily to create, and equally a brilliantly synthetic mapping-out of the infinitely multiplying, antagonistic and cross-pollinating readings and misreadings, transformations and transmogrifications that the world has wrought in its unceasing, ongoing grapplings with Wagner. Alex Ross has assembled a vast convocation of the artists, proponents and prophets of realism and hallucination, psychology and mythification, avant-gardism and populism, democracy and fascism, cosmopolitanism and racism, and collectively they offer us an epic account of the progress of modernity through mazes of aesthetics, ideology and consciousness. It’s a journey for which Ross is the ideal guide: lucid, astoundingly erudite, scrupulous, generous, profound, objective and engaged, and enormously entertaining.”—Tony Kushner, playwright

“In this epic, extraordinary book, Alex Ross contends with the ‘infernal logic’ of Wagner’s legacy, through the centuries and across poetry, literature, art, philosophy, architecture, politics, war, film. Wagnerism is a hugely exhilarating read, and a virtuoso feat of scholarship and supple writing: Ross is such a companionable guide, connecting ideas so casually and unspooling stories so fluidly that you can almost lose sight of the ferocious erudition that undergirds every page. I can’t think of a better or more profound work about the long, complicated shadow of cultural influence.”—Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say Nothing

“For those who love Wagner, this book is obviously heaven. But Wagnerism goes far beyond the man himself, using its subject to springboard into a breathlessly entertaining and dizzyingly diverse survey of art, politics and culture over the past century and a half. Ultimately, it’s a book about how humans are inspired by art, and like all of Alex Ross’s writing, it bottles that strange lightning and inspires us in turn.”—Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi and Knives Out

“In this prodigious interdisciplinary opus, encompassing the visual arts, literature, and philosophy, Ross deftly teases out the tremendous and often polarizing impact Wagner’s music and theories had on modern culture and history, parsing those luminaries who celebrated the composer and those who reviled him. In doing so—in this prismatic examination conducted through a Wagnerian lens—Ross underscores a paradox at the heart of modernism itself: the tension between the retrograde and the avant-garde and, thus, the political right and left, themes of even greater relevance in our present times.”—Vivien Greene, Senior Curator, 19th- and Early 20th-Century Art, Guggenheim Museum

“A masterpiece—massive and magnificent. A book I’ve been waiting fifty years to read. It turns lights on in regions where I have bumbled in murk.”—Peter Schjeldahl, author of Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988–2018

“Attention: a masterpiece! Wagnerism is extraordinary for the richness of references and testimonies drawn from literature, philosophy, the visual arts, musicology, the cinema. It is probably the most informed work on Wagner and his aesthetic and cultural significance that I have ever read.”—Jean-Jacques Nattiez, author of Wagner Androgyne

"Capacious, fascinating . . . A deeply informed history as vigorous as Wagner’s music."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"It’s always cause for rejoicing when The New Yorker music critic Ross publishes a book, and this latest is on a scale worthy of the composer of The Ring of the Nibelung . . . It’s a tribute to the thoughtful and accessible Ross that his conclusions seem both valid and inevitable. With this multifaceted jewel of a book, Ross has produced a monumental study of Wagner’s legacy. Eighteen out of 18 anvils."—Bill Baars, Library Journal (starred review)

“Richard Wagner is all things to all people in this sweeping cultural history . . . Ross follows Wagner’s long reach everywhere: Nietzschean philosophy, high-modernist novels, The Lord of the Rings, cowboy stories, Bugs Bunny cartoons, and such Hollywood epics as Birth of a Nation, Apocalypse Now, and Captain America. Ross manages to tame the sprawl with incisive analysis and elegant prose that casts Wagner’s music as ‘an aesthetic war zone’ . . . The result is a fascinating study of the impact that emotionally intense music and drama can have on the human mind.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Read an Excerpt



Wagner, Nietzsche, and the Ring

In the beginning was the tone: octave E-flats in the double basses, sustained in a barely audible rumble. Five bars in, bassoons add a pair of B-flats,...

About the author

Alex Ross

Alex Ross has been the music critic for The New Yorker since 1996. His first book, the international bestseller The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won a National Book Critics Circle Award. His second book, the essay collection Listen to This, received an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008 and a Guggenheim Fellow in 2015.

David Michalek

Alex Ross

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