The Varieties of Musical Experience

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music BY Alex Ross. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 784 pages. $40.

The cover of Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

As its title suggests, Wagnerism is not precisely a book about Richard Wagner, or even about his music. It is rather, as Alex Ross clarifies, “about a musician’s influence on non-musicians”—a narrow premise seemingly for a work of more than seven hundred pages, but Ross is only teasing out the most salient points from a crowded and mesmerizing history. His book stretches from the opening of Wagner’s first mature operas in the 1840s to the present moment, when fantasy movies and comic books teem with Wagnerian echoes, and the operas themselves are accessible in multiple formats on a previously unimaginable scale. Whether greater availability means more profound receptiveness is the irresistible question raised by Ross’s superb chronicle of obsession, intoxication, hyperbolic exultation, appropriation, exploitation, repudiation, transmutation, and perpetual reinvention—an aerial view of a culture’s nervous system as it responds to an unexpected stimulus. 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.

As a non-musician myself, I like the importance that Ross places on their reactions, reactions that occur (as his subtitle puts it) “in the shadow of music.” Not echo but shadow: we are in a synesthetic domain where Wagner feels very much at home, since it is a domain that the theorist of “total artwork” and “endless melody” virtually invented. In the testimony Ross has gathered, we hear of sound as color, sound as habitation, sound as occult manifestation, sound as mental theater, sound as embodied myth. From the beginning of Wagner’s fame, his music dramas were conceived as points of entry into the otherwise unknowable, along the lines of a pronouncement in Parsifal: “Here time becomes space.”

Ross draws on an impressive range of texts, delving particularly deep into the arcana of fin-de-siècle literature. His accounts of the Wagner-infused novels of Gabriele d’Annunzio (The Triumph of Death), Joséphin Péladan (Latin Decadence), and Marcel Batilliat (Mystic Flesh) reveal vistas of delirium. He explores Wagnerian subtexts in the work of Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf. This history of listening becomes a history of consciousness—and ultimately collides with a history of poisonous hatred and genocidal violence. To different listeners, Wagner’s music figured as opiate, aphrodisiac, mystic healing force, strident call to arms. The composer who believed that “the essence of reality lies in its endless multiplicity” opened up interpretive leeway for alternate worlds upon worlds, cauldrons of identities still in formation. Through his “music of the future,” as it achieved its most radical definition in the Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, he gave the nineteenth century a pervasive, sometimes apocalyptic sense of impending possibilities—aesthetic, political, erotic, mystical, murderous. The music cut across all lines. This was a composer who counted Queen Victoria, Grover Cleveland, Aleister Crowley, Stéphane Mallarmé, Vincent van Gogh, and Emma Goldman among his fans.

An overheated mood suffuses the testimonials from the start. Whether it is Charles Baudelaire writing to Wagner after hearing excerpts from Tannhäuser and Lohengrin (“I owe to you the greatest musical pleasure I have ever experienced . . . a truly sensual enjoyment, which resembles that of rising in the air or tossing on the sea”) or Friedrich Nietzsche describing his first response to the preludes of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger (“Every fiber, every nerve in me is quivering”), the music provokes responses too overwhelming to be adequately put in words. (Nietzsche, after a decade of close personal involvement, became estranged from Wagner and critical of many aspects of his art, but to the last acknowledged him, despite Wagner’s reputation for grandiosity, as “our greatest miniaturist in music, who can urge an infinity of meaning and sweetness into the smallest spaces.”)

Wagner’s influence spread by a protracted and roundabout process. As much as he struggled for acceptance in the early years (until the providential intervention of his greatest fan, the newly crowned Ludwig II of Bavaria), those drawn to his music struggled even to hear it. The only chance Baudelaire got to see a Wagner opera staged was the disastrous Paris production of Tannhäuser in 1861, musically shaky and sabotaged by hostile members of the Jockey Club with hisses and hunting whistles. Many early admirers had to rely on piano scores, librettos, or rearranged orchestral excerpts. The operatic preludes traveled around the world, and Wagner’s essays on music drama were absorbed and debated, but some waited half a lifetime to experience one of the operas as intended. When that chance came, in an era when every hearing was an unrepeatable experience, they listened with a fervent and undivided attentiveness now hard to imagine. The difficulty of the quest imparted an oracular aura. The Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, Wagner’s dream theater, inaugurated in 1876 with the first complete performance of the Ring cycle, became a site of pilgrimage.

Richard Wagner Festspielhaus am Grünen Hügel in Bayreuth.
Richard Wagner Festspielhaus am Grünen Hügel in Bayreuth. Photo: Rico Neitzel/Wikicommons

It became, as well, a nexus for high-end tourism, with nobility and statesmen in attendance, and of tie-in merchandising, with Wagneriana ranging from beer mugs to pipe bowls. For the truest devotees, the occasion was sacramental. Bayreuth created a space for rapt contemplation, with the orchestra hidden from view and distractions cleared away so that (in Wagner’s words) “the abstracted image assumes the unapproachability of a dream vision.” The fusion of music and mythic drama could and often did elicit experiences of otherworldly rapture. Even Mark Twain, who had his doubts about Wagner’s music, was impressed: “I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.”

Devotional it was, although of no easily definable church or persuasion. Wagner might be the most seductive of composers, but the end toward which one was being seduced remained tantalizingly indefinable. However copiously Wagner wrote about the roots and purposes of his art, a cloud of mutability and ambiguity persisted. About the forcefulness of his techniques and effects there was no such ambiguity. The power of the music was difficult to deny, even by those who resisted it. For some the adjective “Wagnerian” would persist as a descriptive term for what is loud, unrelieved, and punishingly long. The initiates drawn past the threshold meanwhile continue to discover Nietzsche’s “infinity of meaning and sweetness,” however dangerous the sweetness may seem in light of this music’s historical afterlife.

The meaning that the Wagnerites found was infinite also in its varieties. Wagnerism’s chapter headings indicate as much: here are explorations of Symbolist Wagner, Esoteric Wagner, Decadent Wagner, Satanic Wagner, Jewish Wagner, Black Wagner, Feminist Wagner, Gay Wagner, Modernist Wagner. Here too are Victorian Wagner, Gilded Age Wagner, Socialist Wagner, Bolshevik Wagner, Nazi Wagner. Hearing the same sounds and contemplating the same mythic scenarios, listeners discovered exactly what they were looking for—an all-encompassing, oceanic mental space offering a new freedom, or a new religion, or a vision of all-redeeming love, or a vision of racial unity. The French esotericist Édouard Schuré called Wagner “the greatest unconscious occultist who ever lived.” The questions that pioneering writer Xavier Mayne designed to determine gay identity included: “Are you peculiarly fond of Wagner?” Cowboy novelist Owen Wister heard echoes of Die Walküre in the canyons of Wyoming. Louis Sullivan found Wagner’s music an impetus for designing skyscrapers, and Theodor Herzl drew on performances of Tannhäuser for inspiration while he wrote The Jewish State in Paris.

W. E. B. Du Bois visited Wagner’s grave in Bayreuth, and wrote of the operas that “no human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life.” In Du Bois’s story “Of the Coming of John” (included in his 1903 masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk), a young man flees the racism of his Georgia town for New York, where at a performance of Lohengrin he glimpses “a world so different from his, so strangely more beautiful than anything he had known”—until an usher expels him from the opera house and sets him on a path that will lead to his becoming the victim of a lynch mob.

Then there was Adolf Hitler, likewise swept away by his first encounter with Lohengrin: “I was captivated at one stroke,” he wrote in Mein Kampf. He claimed to have awoken to his political destiny during a performance of Rienzi in 1905. A musician friend left an eerie account of Hitler in the early 1920s whistling along with the piano score of Die Meistersinger: “He knew the thing absolutely by heart. . . . He started to march up and down the hall, waving his arms as if he was conducting an orchestra.” Hitler’s rhapsodic bonding with the music—“when I hear Wagner, it seems to me like the rhythms of the primeval world”—coincided conveniently with the views the composer laid out in his pamphlet “Jewishness in Music” (1850, revised and expanded 1869).

Wagner’s anti-Semitism, accentuated by resentment toward Jewish composers and critics, was malignant and hard-baked, and was easily matched by his second wife Cosima. Her twenty-one-volume record of their conversations contains, as Ross notes, “a daily barrage of hateful antisemitic language.” (A newspaper account of four hundred Jewish deaths in a theater fire in Vienna prompts the couple to mutual joking.) Wagner’s political views were variable and ill-defined—at different moments revolutionary, pacifist, nationalist, anticapitalist, anarchist—but his singular animus was an unchanging through line, as he acknowledged in a remark to his father-in-law Franz Liszt: “This rancor is as necessary to my nature as gall is to the blood.” Following Wagner’s death in 1883, his family and the Bayreuth Festival became steadily more linked with racism and German nationalism. The British botanist and aesthete Houston Stewart Chamberlain, author of the Aryan supremacist text Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, married Wagner’s daughter Eva in 1908 and exercised a dominating influence on the family. After Hitler assumed power in 1933, Bayreuth became a Nazi ceremonial site: “Hitlergeist ist Wagnergeist.”

In consequence, the music that had so profoundly swept through Europe and America can never sound the same again. “An artist who had within his reach the kind of universality attained by Aeschylus and Shakespeare,” Ross writes, “was effectively reduced to a cultural atrocity—the Muzak of genocide.” Wagner believed that “the incomparable thing about myth is that it is always true, and its content, through utmost compression, is inexhaustible for all time.” Anyone who surrenders to Wagnerian music drama comes to know that there is indeed something inexhaustible in it—an aspiration toward rapturous transcendence never so persuasively materialized—alloyed inescapably, as the revenge of history, with the basest and most ominous elements. 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’s books include The Phantom Empire (Norton, 1995), Sonata for Jukebox (Counterpoint, 2004), and most recently Where Did Poetry Come From (Marsh Hawk Press, 2020).