America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Book Reviews

The Wagner Effect

The paradoxes that surround a paragon of art.

Charlie Tyson

Richard Wagner at the piano; mccool/Alamy Stock Photo.

A few years ago, I was listening to a recording of the Tannhäuser overture on YouTube. Whether out of glazed torpor or instinctive masochism, I found myself scrolling down to read the comments.

Now, the adage “Don’t read the comments” is, as ever, a wise rule—though increasingly difficult to implement as our digital public sphere turns into one large acidic comments section. But the corner of YouTube devoted to sharing recordings and performances of art music and opera is a gentle, sometimes genteel, subculture. Go to nearly any video of Bach, Schubert, Vivaldi, or Mozart, and you will find hundreds of comments that would strike any jaded young online American as ludicrously heartwarming. Classical Music Land is an unlikely utopia where listener-viewers from around the world, writing in dozens of languages, passionately and unironically extol the glory of music and the beauty of the human spirit.

A rather different community had assembled around Tannhäuser. “Hail our people, hail Wagner!” one commenter cheered. “Brothers…we must defend Europe!” sounded another. “A lot of Bad Goys on here,” a third remarked. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. But when you are journeying through Classical Music Land and end up at a Nazi convention, you have to ask whether you need a new map.

Disgust for Jews was hardly uncommon among nineteenth-century European artists, but Richard Wagner (1813–83) stands out for his vehemence and cruelty. Writing to Franz Liszt about his unnervingly powerful hatred of the Jewish people, Wagner reflected, “This rancor is as necessary to my nature as gall is to the blood.” In his 1850 essay “Jewishness in Music,” initially published under the pseudonym K. Freigedank (“Free Thought”), the composer described Jews as cultural parasites and denounced the “Jewification” of modern art. Decades after Wagner’s death, this ugly term would reappear. The concept of the Jew as parasite is central to Mein Kampf (“My Struggle,” 1925), which Adolf Hitler wrote in prison after his failed 1923 attempt to overthrow the German government. While Hitler was imprisoned, the Wagner family sent him care packages, including records and a phonograph. After his release, the future Führer visited the Wagner estate regularly, flirted with Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred, and bounced the composer’s grandsons on his knee. The Nazi movement, Hitler pronounced in a 1923 speech at Bayreuth, was “anchored in the works of Richard Wagner.”

Alex Ross’s new study of Wagner’s far-reaching influence and troubled afterlife is in part a probe into whether we should take Hitler at his word. The appropriation of Wagner by the Nazis, however, is just one thread in this sprawling and ambitious book. Ross, a music critic at The New Yorker, has set out to trace Wagner’s reception not by musicians but by artists in different fields. He finds shadows of the composer everywhere—in dreamy Symbolist paintings by Odilon Redon and Henri Fantin-Latour; in the revolutionary choreography of Isadora Duncan; in the films of Terrence Malick; in the grandly ornamented exterior of a bank in Columbus, Wisconsin. Most of all, he finds echoes of the composer resounding through literature, from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) to the decadent works of fin-de-siècle writers and (across the Atlantic) the novels of Willa Cather, whose visions of the Great Plains offer a verbal correlate to Wagner’s musical renderings of mythic landscapes.

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