What makes Richard Wagner such an anomaly is the reach of his influence, and Wagnerism, Alex Ross’s new 660-page biography of both the man and his legacy, is saturated with obscure anecdotes and analogies, both from Wagner’s lifetime and after his death, illustrating that point. From Alfred Hitchcock to Adolf Hitler, both Wagner the artistic genius and Wagner the vile bigot weaseled into political theory, film, the visual arts, and beyond.
Other distinguished composers, like Mozart or Bach, remain popular figures in classical music. But Wagner’s fame was different. Even during his lifetime, he and his work generated a cult-like following that remains unrivaled. No other composer has had such a profound and controversial impact on the ways we create and perceive art.
Ross, the longtime music critic of The New Yorker, has also written two other books: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century and Listen to This, both of which garnered praise for deftly exploring modern audiences’ relationships to Western music. But Wagnerism is a different feat. Though the book’s focus is narrower than its predecessors, the sheer volume of Wagner’s impact allows this treatment of a single subject to grow into a magnum opus.
— Arya Roshanian for Guernica
Guernica: This book was nine years in the making. What prompted the beginning of this project?
Alex Ross: I’ve long been fascinated by Wagner’s music, though not always fond of it. When I first listened to him, as a kid, I found it weird, ill-defined, amorphous. In college, studying European history and literature, I looked at Wagner mainly as a problem, as a source of anti-Semitism and nationalist ideology. Only later did I begin to understand the complexity and contradictions of his work, the breadth of his influence. When I was working on my first book, The Rest Is Noise, I kept making detours backward into Wagnerland, and the idea of the book began to germ. I write that this book “has been the great education of my life,” and it has.
Guernica: The book also sheds light on all the ways Wagner influenced the world outside of the music, from Nietzsche to Proust to Hitchcock to Hitler. You say it’s “unprecedented.” What is it about Wagner’s music that draws in so many non-musicians?
Ross: That’s a good question. Partly it has to do with the sheer visceral effect of the music, its way of somehow putting people under a spell. His orchestration has a hallucinatory quality to it. The sounds can be very grand, very overpowering. But ultimately this breadth of influence has to do with Wagner’s manipulation of myth, his way of taking up these archetypes and charging them with contemporary meaning, while leaving their ultimate implications unspecified. So you have very diverse groups of people responding to Wagner: French symbolists, American Western novelists, socialists and communists, African Americans, Jews, feminists, gays and lesbians. Each one can adopt Wagner’s mythic tropes to different ends.
Guernica: You discuss the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk throughout the book. It’s more closely associated with architecture and film now, but its roots are partly associated in Wagnerian opera. Is Gesamtkunstwerk an outdated concept now, or do you feel we still see it in opera today?
Ross: Gesamtkunstwerk has become a very famous word, but Wagner did not spend a lot of time on it. He used the word a few times in essays from around 1849, then set it aside. He had in mind a “collective work of art” that would enfold different genres within it, the theater of ancient Greece being the ultimate model. He never claimed that the productions at Bayreuth fulfilled that vision, and indeed they didn’t: they were theatrical productions, with some technological enhancement, but not some kind of total fusion of all art forms. However, the concept really began to take off at the end of the nineteenth century, and, as you say, became a mainstay of modernist thinking.
Guernica: Given Wagner’s impact on the early years of modernism, in what ways do you feel like he shaped the movement? In other worlds, could we have had Ulysses and The Waves without Wagner?
Ross: The question of modernism is a little different. Here authors were drawing to one extent or another on ideas of the stream of consciousness, of the interior monologue, which can be related to Wagner. Also, Joyce in particular followed Wagner in fusing myth and modernity. But he did it in a very different way, and he mocks Wagner even as he takes off from certain Wagnerian ideas. There was a competitive relationship that many artists of that generation had with Wagner—this giant of the nineteenth century needed to be displaced, in a way.
Guernica: Wagner was deeply political, and you discuss how his views seeped into his works, particularly The Ring Cycle. He was an anarchist in his youth, and his views slowly became overwhelmingly nationalist in subsequent years. Can you discuss this turning point for Wagner?
Ross: It is difficult to be too clear about his politics, since he was quite contradictory. He was strongly toward the left in 1848 and for a few years after, joining the revolutionary uprising in Dresden and then going into exile. But he was never a doctrinaire socialist or any other kind of leftist. Later, he tended toward chauvinist nationalism, and his anti-Semitism became more strident. But after an initial phase of embracing the German Empire he became disenchanted with it. He disliked its militarism, and was uneasy with the idea of a powerful, centralized, authoritarian state. In that sense he failed to point toward Nazism at all. Any appropriation of Wagner by either the left or the right is going to have to leave out some aspect or another of his political views, which were ultimately very incoherent.
Guernica: One universal quality about Wagner’s music is that it seems to signify hope for the future, especially to American audiences. Whether it be the women in Garland and Teller’s novels or the use of “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Birth of a Nation decades later, audiences are empowered by the revolutionary aspect of Wagner’s art in different ways. Did Americans catch on to Wagner’s nationalism?
Ross: There are many scenes in fin-de-siècle literature where a young person feels swept away by Wagner and also empowered by Wagner. This happens in W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Of the Coming of John,” Schnitzler’s The Road into the Open, the feminist novels you mention, and various other examples. You see it in real life, too: Theodor Herzl feels emboldened listening to Wagner as he is writing The Jewish State. On the other hand, the young Hitler apparently had visions of future greatness listening to Rienzi. So this seems to happen no matter what the ideological or geographical background of the listener. It happens in American literature and culture, too. “The Ride of the Valkyries” is somewhat different since this was a choice to use Wagner on a film soundtrack—many movies of the period paired the “Ride” with galloping horses. But the racist context for that scene is unsettling. The power of art can be used to horrible ends, particularly when, as in Wagner’s case, the artist’s own ugly views come into play.
Guernica: And Wagner was more controversial in France than in other countries. Where did the French hostility towards him stem from?
Ross: A lot of the resistance had to do with Wagner’s Germanness and his propaganda for the German cause, especially during and after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. He was identified with German aggression, German militarism. But French artists and writers tended to embrace him precisely because he was antithetical to the French establishment, to national conservative culture. You prove yourself a cosmopolitan by being open to Wagner. The people who were attacking Wagner were also very often the people who were attacking impressionist painters or naturalist literature.
Guernica: In the book, you reference Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist,” which uses Tannhäuser as an example to argue that “spectators shape artworks in their own image, overriding whatever intentions the artist may have had in mind.” This is more generally speaking, but at what point do we interpret what we see at face value versus grasping at straws to find meaning behind the artist’s intentions?
Ross: I’m fascinated by the way spectators have constantly reshaped Wagner’s work and found things in it that he could not have intended. We all do this in our relationship with art, and I think it’s deeply limiting to insist that someone can only experience what the artist originally intended. Furthermore, with Wagner, the intentions are very often unclear and contradictory, and we can’t say with any certainty what they were precisely. I admire the brazenness with which someone like Du Bois decides that Wagner should actually be an inspiration for African American artists, that he can be appropriated by a very different culture. This kind of attitude was much more common in the fin-de-siècle period than it is today.
Guernica: Right. I’m thinking specifically in the book where you discuss Jamie McGregor’s claim that Septimus from Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a blend of Siegfried from The Ring Cycle and Tristan from Tristan und Isolde. Though it’s an interesting proposal, I can’t help but feel like it’s a bit…
Ross: Like a stretch?
Guernica: Ha, yes, a bit of a stretch. And Wagner’s artistic genius is often overshadowed by his contemptible politics anyways. How important—or unimportant—is it to separate the art from the artist? It’s a conversation we’re having now that wasn’t on the table in the nineteenth century.
Ross: It is impossible to separate the art from the artist, especially in this case, and we shouldn’t even try. We can keep in mind all of the ugliness and horror attached to Wagner and still find our way to a personal relationship to the work. It’s all bound together. Some Jewish listeners, for example, felt that the best way to strike back against Wagner was to listen to his work and make it their own. A kind of revenge by way of appropriation. The worst thing is simply to ignore the problem and pretend that it isn’t there — either by insisting that the work is separate from the artist, or by shutting the work away and never touching it. Neither approach is a true confrontation with the problem.
Guernica: Surely there was lots about the composer that you learned while writing this book, for better or worse. What was the most surprising anecdote you uncovered in your research?
Ross: The most surprising thing I covered was the forgotten career of Luranah Aldridge, the daughter of the great Black actor Ira Aldridge, who almost sang as one of the Valkyries at Bayreuth in 1896. It’s very unexpected that the festival was willing to hire someone of mixed race, and I found a letter from Cosima Wagner, the composer’s widow, attesting to that relationship. I wrote more about Ira and Luranah Aldridge in a 2013 New Yorker article.
Guernica: Wagner’s operas are just as influential today. In what ways do you feel like we’re still learning from Wagner?
Ross: What we learn from Wagner is that art is always part of life, and can never float above it. For good or ill, it is caught up in history, in society, in everything that is magnificent and horrible in our species. Wagner is a mirror that shows us our true nature.