Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

Alex Ross, who has been the classical music critic at The New Yorker since 1996, can make readers feel they’re right next to him in the concert hall or the opera house, sharing his excitement. Whether his subject is a singer in a classic role or a new composition by a young composer, Ross is engaged, informed, even avid. Writing about Ferruccio Busoni’s enormous five-movement piano concerto, he describes this “gaudy, unapologetically over-the-top piece” as “a remarkable feat of controlled chaos.” He responds to Busoni’s virtuosity with his own virtuosic roll call of sources and inspirations, praising Busoni’s “Lisztian arpeggios, brooding spells of Wagnerian orchestration, delicate Chopinesque interludes, depressive Schumannesque detours, and madcap Rossinian crescendos.” Ross grasps the imaginative daring of Busoni’s wild ride of a concerto. He’s also having some fun: intellectual fun. For Ross—and for many of his readers—that’s part of what concertgoing is about.

More than a dozen years ago Ross published his first book, The Rest Is Noise, a deft, inviting survey of twentieth-century music that built on many of his gifts and became something of a best seller. Although I found it a little too breezy in places, I understood Ross’s determination to give what many regard as modern music’s thorny history a less strenuous presentation. He followed The Rest Is Noise with an essay collection, Listen to This, and has now produced his most ambitious book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. There’s nothing breezy about it. In more than 650 tightly packed pages, Ross explores the impact of Richard Wagner’s art and ideas from his own time down to the present.

Ross has much that’s interesting to say about the responses to Wagner’s controversial, wide-ranging, and widely circulated writings about art, nationalism, anti-Semitism, and any number of other topics; he’s attentive to Wagner’s early anarchist and leftist views; and, of course, he devotes many pages to the embrace of Wagner’s music and ideas by Hitler and the Third Reich. He’s generous when it comes to citing the work of a great many scholars who have explored Wagner’s influence on generations of literary figures and on social and political issues and movements. Ross goes overboard in demonstrating his scholarly credentials; he didn’t need to discuss the plots and themes of quite so many novels, theatrical events, and movies in which Wagner’s operas make some sort of appearance. At times Wagnerism seems not a sustained narrative but an encyclopedia of everything related to Wagner.

Like so many of the isms we reach for to explain forces in the political, social, economic, and cultural realms, “Wagnerism” is a term that takes on radically different meanings and implications depending on who is using it—and when, why, and how. At the beginning of his book, Ross writes that after Wagner’s death in Venice in 1883, there developed a “chaotic posthumous cult that came to be known as Wagnerism.” By the time he is finished, Wagnerism has turned out to be both a good thing and a bad thing, by turns exhilarating and demoralizing, a cult but also a source of artistic inspiration. The fluidity of the idea seems to be what Ross likes about it. He regards Wagnerism as a transnational and maybe even a universal obsession; a reader may begin to wonder whether some of his subjects were as obsessed with the composer as he is. The danger with isms is that they can be too loosely and easily applied—in the case of Wagnerism, to everything from movies to sporting events to monsoons.

The strongest pages in Wagnerism—they come in the final third of the book, mostly in the chapter “Siegfried’s Death”—deal with the complex position of Wagner in Hitler’s imagination, Nazi Germany, and the Allied countries before, during, and immediately after World War II. Ross brings a feeling for historical paradox and ambiguity to this prototypical case study in the relationship among art, society, and politics. He explores the long-running scholarly debates about what he refers to as “the Wagner-Hitler problem.” Addressing scholarly discussions as to whether Hitler’s obsession with Wagner was dominated by a rapturous engagement with the operas themselves or an enthusiasm for Wagner’s writings on anti-Semitism and the German spirit, Ross concludes that “Hitler’s relationship with Wagner remained one of musical fandom rather than of ideological fanaticism.”

Whatever attracted him most strongly to Wagner, Hitler was determined to make him central to the iconography and mythology of Nazism, though the composer and his work were not wholeheartedly embraced by the citizens of the Third Reich. Wagner “was too strange, too eccentric, to serve as a reliable ideological bulwark” in Nazi Germany, Ross writes. “Nor was his work popular enough, in the mass-market sense, to operate as a unifying force.” The Bayreuth Festival, the center of the Wagner cult, which was founded in 1876 to perform the composer’s works—and no one else’s, though an exception was made for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—drew at least as much of an international audience as a German one.


Although European and American operagoers, including many Jewish Wagnerites, had been aware of rising anti-Semitism in and around the festival since its post–World War I reopening in 1924, it was only after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933 that foreign ticket sales dropped precipitously. “Hitler,” Ross writes, “stepped in to save the festival.” He saw to it that the performances remained well attended, often filling seats with what Ross refers to as a “fictitious audience” of party members and students who had no interest in what they may well have regarded as highfalutin music. As for the claims that Wagner’s music was played in the concentration camps, Ross examines them carefully and concludes that if it happened, it was only rarely. “The vast majority of survivor testimonies,” he writes, “indicate that the music of the camps was popular in nature: marches, dance tunes, hits of the day, light classics.”

In looking at Wagner, Hitler, and Nazism, Ross finds himself debunking what he later describes as “the habit, widespread in the Anglophone world, of treating nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German history as an extended preamble to the Nazi calamity,” with “Wagner as Hitler’s precursor.” His studies have led him to conclude “that the backshadowing narrative was too simplistic.” Attitudes toward German culture in the non-German world had long been an unpredictable and sometimes uneasy mix of veneration, prejudice, and outright ignorance. One saw what one wanted to see. “During the First World War,” Ross writes, “everything German had been demonized. [During World War II], the Allied countries made a point of extolling the ‘good Germany.’”

Ross argues that “Wagner’s popularity in America actually surged” in the 1940s. Arturo Toscanini and other conductors performed his music before enthusiastic audiences; apparently some concertgoers didn’t find it difficult to separate the nineteenth-century artist from the country that he had mythologized and that was now a sworn enemy. The New York Times critic Olin Downes wrote that Wagner’s operas were “the antithesis of Hitler, and crushing condemnation of all that Hitlerism implies.” These pages are engrossing, because Ross is cutting through simplifications and generalizations. He has a focus here that eludes him in much of the rest of the book, where he piles up so much information and makes matters so complicated that a reader may end up wondering what exactly he’s getting at.

A project as vast as Wagnerism demands methodological clarity. In the sciences, it’s taken for granted that the significance of your conclusions is shaped by the strength of the hypotheses with which you begin and the soundness of the evidence you select and the procedures you follow. The same is true in the humanities. Ross may be acknowledging this, at least in principle, when he observes that “Wagner first interested me as a problem.” The problem he has in mind, as best I can understand it, is that Wagner has meant a great many different things to a great many different people. Within a few pages he suggests that Wagner has been—or can be—seen as “the cultural-political unconscious of modernity,” “the presiding spirit of the bourgeois century,” “the Leviathan of the fin de siècle,” and even “a cultural atrocity—the Muzak of genocide.” The term “Wagnerian,” he explains, initially “denoted a follower or fan. Later, it marked an artistic quality, an aesthetic tendency, a cultural symptom.”

Ross presents these broad statements about Wagner’s significance near the beginning of his book. He appears to be setting out to write a history of Wagner’s influence and the shifting understanding of his art. But evidently he had something even bigger in mind. While a straightforward methodological approach to the subject would assume that Wagner’s operas are stable facts that have been seen from a variety of different vantage points, Ross maneuvers the blizzard of information in such a way as to suggest that the work of art itself is porous, unstable—not a fixed fact but a forever shifting target. As far as Ross is concerned, the reactions to Wagner and his music become a form of feedback that reshapes the music. Deep into his book he finds support in Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author,” where the argument that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” leads him to observe that this “follows naturally from the interpretive pandemonium of Wagnerism.”


I would have expected Ross to want to find some order in this “interpretive pandemonium.” But the more I’ve thought about his book, the more I’m convinced that the overload of sometimes only partially digested material that he’s packed into these pages is engineered to feel anarchic—maybe even nihilistic. Ross has set out to shatter Wagner’s work into a million pieces. He hints at some of the reasons for this in a brief, elliptical, and improvisational “Postlude,” in which all pretense of historical analysis is abandoned and he embraces something closer to psychology or even self-analysis. Some readers may be relieved to discover, at the end of this long and difficult book, a few snapshots of Ross’s own evolving interest in Wagner, which began when he was a ten-year-old boy and experienced “an almost physical unease,” “a kind of auditory seasickness” when he listened to the recording of Lohengrin he’d taken out of the library. “Embarrassingly,” he tells us,

I associate early experiences of the Ring with the ups and downs of various crushes and love affairs. More than once I sat next to another young man at a Wagner performance, likening myself to Tristan, Isolde, or, on bad days, Alberich.

He goes on to write that Wagner has “brought revelations of my stupidity, my self-pity, my absurdity—in other words, my humanity.”

What Ross is alluding to here, in a witty, self-deprecating way, is one of the central questions in aesthetics, namely to what extent the emotions elicited by works of art do or do not echo, parallel, and diverge from the emotions we experience in other areas of our lives. That these fragmentary reflections are what Ross has chosen to offer as something approaching a conclusion suggests that his interest in Wagner and Wagnerism has all along been fueled less by historical concerns than by philosophical ones. It may be that what he has been looking for as he examines the thinking of 150 years’ worth of artists, writers, philosophers, and politicians is some ultimate confirmation that his own ambivalence about Wagner’s achievement reflects an ambivalence that’s inherent in the music. What Ross believes, simply put, is that since life is disorderly, then art must be disorderly, too.

“In Wagner’s vicinity,” Ross announces in his next-to-last paragraph, “the fantasy of artistic autonomy falls to pieces and the cult of genius comes undone. Amid the wreckage, the artist is liberated from the mystification of ‘great art.’” Artistic autonomy, Ross tells us, is a fantasy. Genius is merely a cult. “Great art”—note the skeptical or ironic quotation marks—is a mystification. Ross is certainly entitled to believe these things. But they are not historical ideas, much less historical facts—and they are not necessarily supported by the hundreds of pages of history that have preceded them. The artist, Ross goes on to say, “becomes something more unstable, fragile, and mutable. Incomplete in himself, he requires the most active and critical kind of listening.” Is Ross’s description of the artistic act as condemned to ambiguity meant to underscore the importance of the critic, who, whatever his own uncertainties, offers the “active and critical kind of listening” that the work of art, left to its own devices, might fail to elicit?

Ross’s belief that transcendent values are illusory values fits all too easily into our embattled moment, when social and political cataclysms have understandably forced us to question many of our fundamental assumptions. He pretty much sets aside the idea that the arts have any freestanding value—an idea that was influential in the early twentieth century, went into something close to eclipse amid the social and political turmoil of the 1930s, was revived in the postwar decades, and would seem to be in near-total eclipse again now. I understand Ross’s unease with theories of art that prioritize unity and purity while downplaying the multitudinous, often dissonant impulses and apprehensions that lie behind any significant work of art. But isn’t there something facile in his passing reference to “the fable of modernism inventing itself ex nihilo, in an immaculate aesthetic conception”? It’s all too easy to knock what amounts to a cartoonishly simplified version of an extraordinarily important albeit highly controversial idea about the nature of art.

Although Ross never explains how expansively he means us to understand his closing observation about “the fantasy of artistic autonomy”—is he speaking about all music, art, and literature or merely about Wagner and his “vicinity”?—I don’t think he would be unhappy to have readers conclude that art can never stand alone. His book amounts to a frontal assault on what at one point he refers to as modernism’s “rhetoric of purity, autonomy, and freedom.” I would hasten to add that these are by no means exclusively modern or “modernist” ideas. They can be found in the artistic thinking of the Renaissance and many other periods; Meyer Schapiro discovered them in Romanesque art. Even Ross is at pains to explain that what he calls the “medium-transcending aesthetic” of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk—the artwork that unites many different arts on the theatrical stage—has its own qualities of distillation and purification.

But in Ross’s account of the arts, purity can never stay pure for long. Life intervenes. “Purity” is a word that keeps coming up in Wagnerism, often in distinctly impure or disturbing contexts, as when Ross observes that there were some members of the Hitler Youth who found Wagner “lacking in Nordic purity.” By the time Ross is through with him, Wagner looks anything but pure. He’s shopworn, beaten up, deflated.

Does Ross’s book really support the conclusions he wants to draw about Wagner in particular and, I suspect, about the arts more generally? I don’t think so. Near the beginning, when discussing the varying responses to Wagner, he quotes W.H. Auden’s “description of the man as ‘an absolute shit.’” Ross goes on to say that “Wagner’s divisiveness, his undiminished capacity to enrage and confuse, is part of his allure.” This sets the stage for the more than six hundred pages that are to come. But if we look at Auden’s full comment, which is found in Robert Craft’s Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, it can lead to a very different conclusion, one that might cast doubt on Ross’s investigation before it has even begun. Wagner, Auden apparently said, “was indisputably a genius, but apart from that an absolute shit.” For Ross genius is nothing but a “cult.” For Auden, if I understand him correctly, there is a complete separation between the music, which is pure genius, and the man, who was a shit.

So there remains an entirely different hypothesis with which Ross might have begun his studies of Wagner and his influence, namely that the music does or at least might stand apart from the man. That’s how I feel after I’ve taken account of the bewildering variety of contradictory claims that have been made on behalf of The Ring of the Nibelung, Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde, and their author, many of which Ross describes at considerable length. Returning to the operas, I find myself wondering whether they are susceptible to all these divergent interpretations precisely because they’re ultimately immune to each and every one of them. Why not conclude that the music survives—and triumphs—because it has an essence or power that’s untouched by what anybody says? If this isn’t a conclusion that readers are necessarily going to draw from Ross’s book, that’s at least in part because of a rather extraordinary decision he has made about what evidence he’s willing to examine. He has banished from this enormous study of Wagner’s influence any discussion of his influence on music or musicians.

“This is a book,” Ross writes, “about a musician’s influence on non-musicians—resonances and reverberations of one art form into others.” I find it difficult to know what to make of this assertion, considering that Ross—who is, after all, a music critic—writes about his chosen subject with such feeling and lucidity. At the beginning of Wagnerism, invoking the prelude to Das Rheingold, he describes how the double basses and bassoons create “an emanation of primordial nature, the hum of the cosmos at rest,” and then how, as other instruments join in, “the prolonged stasis engenders a new sense of time.” There are many pages in Wagnerism where Ross brings his considerable descriptive powers to bear on the subtle beauties of the music. Nevertheless, he has set up a situation in which music as music, including Wagner’s music, will inevitably be overwhelmed by everything else. He wants to know what African-Americans, feminists, gay people, aesthetes, nationalists, Jews, anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and just about everybody else has thought about Wagner. But for the purposes of Wagnerism, he has decided that musicians are excluded.

Ross may not believe that music can stand on its own. If so, he’s certainly not alone. But in a historical study as wide-ranging and detailed as Wagnerism, one has to ask whether there are good reasons for the choice he has made. Doesn’t he risk prejudging the case when he rejects—at least within the scope of this book—the possibility that Wagner’s afterlife is at least as much the business of musicians and composers as of writers and politicians? He must recognize that his refusal to discuss musical influences in this book about a musician creates some awkward situations—and even, at times, some gaping holes.

It’s terrific to find Ross including, as part of his exploration of Wagner’s influence on the creative life of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century France, the work of Henri Fantin-Latour, a painter who, although best known for crisp, lucid still lifes, devoted some of his subtlest thinking to beautifully elusive, sometimes almost fog-bound meditations on Wagnerian themes. Ross also discusses Cézanne’s, Van Gogh’s, and Gauguin’s interest in Wagner. But he includes only the scantest mentions of Claude Debussy, who wrote and spoke a great deal about Wagner, both in praise and in blame. In his one completed opera, Pelléas and Mélisande, Debussy offered a riposte to what he sometimes described as Wagner’s symphonic excess, reimagining mythic-medieval subject matter, that Wagnerian standby, as something closer to opera as Proustian chamber music.

Ross’s handling of Serge Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who was a fervent Wagnerian and a pioneer in the theatrical arts through the productions of his Ballets Russes, also suffers from his refusal to discuss Wagner’s musical influence. Ross devotes some space to Vaslav Nijinsky’s innovative choreography. But having decided that the contributions of Debussy and Stravinsky to Nijinsky’s ballets cannot be discussed at any length, Ross fatally cripples his study of the theatrical innovations of the Ballets Russes (although he can’t quite resist sneaking in a few lines about Stravinsky). Diaghilev, to whom Wagner and the Bayreuth experience meant so much, was offering his own radical reconsiderations of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk through the imaginative collaborations he precipitated between composers, choreographers, and visual artists.

For all that is panoramic in Wagnerism, it can feel claustrophobic. As Ross takes us from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf in literature, from Sergei Eisenstein to George Lucas in film, and from W.E.B. Du Bois to Lenin’s Russia in politics, he works mightily to give each portrait an individuality, but because everybody is viewed through the same lens and subjected to more or less the same interrogation, a kind of analytical fog overtakes the book. Those who weren’t Wagnerites, like Oscar Wilde, are corralled as anti-Wagnerites; apparently even the anti- or non-Wagnerites can’t help worrying about his work. Nobody’s art or ideas are allowed to stand apart; everything becomes part of this great murky mass that is Wagnerism.

While no one who reads this book can possibly dispute the pervasiveness of Wagnerism, I don’t think Ross has done enough to situate Wagner among the broader forces that were shaping the cultural and social imagination of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Europe. He was one of a number of titanic creative figures who flourished in that period. It may be, as Ross believes, that no other artist has had a greater impact, but I’m not sure that Wagner’s position, as a prophet who shaped both the artistic and political realms, is as unique or unprecedented as the book suggests. In our disabused age—after a century during which so many hopes were shattered by two world wars, the Holocaust, the gulags, and the atom bomb—it’s difficult to grasp the admiration, if not worship, with which so many people once approached the art and ideas not only of Wagner but also of Leo Tolstoy, John Ruskin, Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, and others. Tolstoyan is an adjective with implications possibly as rich and varied as Wagnerian. In France the notion of the creative prophet may have endured longer than anywhere else, at least in a shrunken form; both André Malraux and Jean-Paul Sartre cut dramatic figures as they moved between literature, the arts, philosophical speculation, and political action.

Wagner was by no means the only one of these giant figures who responded to the routinization and standardization of the modern world by looking to older myths, legends, and modes of behavior. For some, the backward glance was the beginning of a dream about the future—maybe even a plan for the future. Ruskin and Hugo were fascinated by the Middle Ages; Tolstoy embraced a primitive Christianity. While Wagner found his heroes and heroines in a mythological North, there were a great many artists and writers who were looking south, to the arts, myths, and legends of the Greeks and Romans. Friedrich Nietzsche—whose complex relationship with Wagner and Wagnerism naturally occupies quite a few pages of Ross’s book—helped define the modern fascination with the ancient Greeks when he wrote about the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in The Birth of Tragedy.

Whatever Wagner’s posthumous fame, it may well be that in the decades after his death artistic attitudes were as profoundly shaped by Nietzsche’s altogether independent influence. I sometimes wonder if Ross doesn’t confuse Wagner’s influence with Nietzsche’s. Picasso—whom Ross doesn’t catch in his net—was by no stretch of the imagination a Wagnerian, but his shifting moods and modes definitely reflect the influence of Nietzsche’s ideas, which he encountered as a young man in bohemian Barcelona.

While a great many writers felt the power of Wagner’s work, and there are some who will forever be associated with him—Shaw and Thomas Mann come immediately to mind and receive a good deal of Ross’s attention—I don’t think his influence was always as decisive as Ross often wants to imagine. He devotes some pages to James Joyce and the Wagnerian allusions in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. But whatever of Wagner or Wagnerism there is in Ulysses, isn’t it overtaken by the Homeric themes that begin with the title and pervade every aspect of the book? Even the mythomania of Finnegans Wake remains entirely Joyce’s, an Irishman’s Gilgamesh or Mahabharata with the Liffey as the River of Life. Too often in Wagnerism Ross presents his evidence but fails to persuade us of his case.

Ross aims to demonstrate that the novels of Willa Cather, to whom he devotes an entire chapter, exude a Wagnerian spirit. There’s a good deal of evidence that might support this view. In her youth in Nebraska, Cather studied piano with a man whose father, also a musician, had been a strong supporter of Wagner and conducted a number of the operas in Germany in the 1850s. Much later, in New York, she was friends with a well-known Wagnerian soprano, Olive Fremstad. Cather knew and admired the operas. In The Song of the Lark and other works, she wrote brilliantly about the women who sang the great operatic roles. Even fairly casual readers of Cather will remember that one of her finest stories is entitled “A Wagner Matinée.”

Ross believes that Cather’s feeling for the expansive, monumental beauty of the American West—a feeling she shares with more than one of her characters—suggests an “emphasis on sensation [that] is thoroughly Wagnerian” and “a Wagnerian grandiloquence.” Cather herself wrote in a letter that “the cliff dwellings had awakened [in the protagonist of The Song of the Lark] Thea’s ‘historic imagination—so necessary to a great Wagnerian singer.’” But of course that isn’t quite the same thing as saying that the cliff dwellings or the emotions they awakened are Wagnerian. Ross also writes that Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop “is most Parsifal-like in its syncretic religiosity” and that in The Professor’s House the protagonist offers a credo that “comes near to” one of Wagner’s. While all this is impressive in its way, I’m sorry to say that after following Ross’s argument step by step, I’m left feeling about Cather’s magnificent novels exactly the way I felt before. The temper, texture, and power of her particular union of naturalism and romanticism have very little to do with Wagner’s resplendent tall tales.

If Ross’s criticism in The New Yorker often feels celebratory in spirit, his work in Wagnerism, where he aims to drill deeper and deeper into Wagner’s work along with the work of many other creative spirits, leaves me feeling that he’s cutting the artists down to size. “It is never,” he writes at the end of his book, “a matter of beauty proving eternal.” “We may catch glimpses of some higher realm,” he continues, “but it is only a shadow on the wall, an echo from the pit.” Is the experience of art ultimately such a downer? Ross ends his book by writing that after “the curtain falls,” “we shuffle back in silence to the world as it is.” For all that he has to say about the shifting reputation of Wagner and Wagnerism, doesn’t he recognize that the operas remain brilliantly independent, works to be sung and played, admittedly with different interpretations, but all hopefully controlled by the words and notes on the page? I wish that Ross had more faith in the possibility of artistic autonomy, great art, and, yes, genius.