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.

Wagner has inspired revolutionaries and reactionaries, neomedievalists and avant-gardists, Christians and Satanists. His music has fed the dreams of Nazis and nationalists—but also of gay men, lesbians, feminists, black people, and Jews. Countless film soundtracks feature the “Ride of the Valkyries.” Millions of women have walked down the aisle to the bridal chorus from Lohengrin—despite the fact that in the opera, those chords foretell calamity. Far beyond the opera house and the concert hall, we are living in a world Wagner helped make.

Wagnerism is not an apologia on behalf of the composer. To be sure, Ross evokes Wagner’s music on the page, capturing in silvery prose the overwhelming beauty of the mature operas. He writes, for example, of the Good Friday Spell in Parsifal: “A sinuous melody of grace courses through the strings, then drifts into a harmonic haze.” But the hero of this book is not Wagner. The leonine composer expires on the second page, sending a young Gustav Mahler lurching through the streets in tears, crying, “The Master has died!”

Rather, the secret protagonist of Wagnerism—as of Ross’s previous book, The Rest Is Noise (2007), on twentieth-century music—is the German writer Thomas Mann. The entire book spins out like a spider web from Mann’s blazingly ambivalent statement “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner” (1933). That essay, still probably the most thrilling account of the composer ever written, praised Wagner’s art in equivocal terms, as “dilettantism raised to the level of genius.” Mann noted the artist’s lavish and flamboyant tastes, his androgynous predilections for silk dressing gowns and plush velvet berets. (After delivering this lecture against the Nazification of Wagner, the Nobel Prize winner lived in permanent exile from Germany.)

Ross’s book, like Mann’s essay, is richly conflicted. But along the way, in its quiet and assiduous fashion, Wagnerism mounts a challenge to two reigning pieties about art. The first is the notion that rapturous surrender to a work of art forecloses intelligent critical judgment. The second is the view that art that is “politically suspect” (to borrow Mann’s formulation), whether because of some internal features of the work or because it was created by an artist with heinous views, can only undermine ideals of justice, equality, and freedom, or injure the dignity of oppressed people. Ross is aware of how, in the darkened theater of Bayreuth, Wagner “nurtured dreams of future freedom among oppressed members of the population, even as he emboldened their oppressors.” Which do we think really matters?

Wagner offers an extreme, possibly decisive test case for both of these claims against the primacy of the aesthetic in our evaluations of art. This is because his artistic methods are unusually domineering and his views unusually abhorrent. Frequently likened to a hypnotist capable of mesmerizing his audience into submission, Wagner does not invite surrender so much as demand it. And no other artist of his stature has propounded such poisonous ideas (ones widely denounced in his own period) or served as a mascot for a regime synonymous with evil.

For many critics, Wagner stands as the emblem and pinnacle of overpowering aesthetic experience. Some have compared his art to opium (Charles Baudelaire), alcohol (Friedrich Nietzsche), or even disease (Nietzsche again). Almost uniquely in the operatic repertoire, Wagner’s music dramas elicit responses so visceral that they resemble states of arousal associated not with high art but with the “body genres” of pornography and the horror film. Wagnerian lore is filled with stories of singers and listeners destroyed by sensation: audience members fainting at Bayreuth, involuntary orgasms triggered by the bars of Tristan und Isolde.

Wagner’s theater of dream-vision and spectacle—along with Bertolt Brecht’s critique of Wagner’s art as a stupefying narcotic—are key points of reference behind today’s view, dominant in academia and the art world, that total surrender to an artwork is a naive or dangerous practice. In his prose writings, Wagner was adamant in his belief that listeners should feel rather than think in the presence of his works. The most legendary moments in the operas—Isolde singing over Tristan’s corpse before collapsing lifeless; Brünnhilde spurring her horse into the flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre—are scenes of ritual death and self-sacrifice that dramatize submission to the very point of death. These set pieces, exalting dissolution and annihilation as sensually ravishing moral achievements, suggest something of the unthinking faith Wagner seeks from his audience.

It would be reasonable, then, to urge suspicion and critical distance when approaching this seductive oeuvre. When facing an avowed enemy of criticality whose music stages an assault on the senses, listeners would be well advised to keep their wits about them, to avoid the dangers of enchantment.

Yet in Ross’s study, a curious pattern emerges: The critics who understand Wagner best—Nietzsche and Mann—are precisely those who once fell most deeply under the spell. Such yielding seems to generate insight, not conformity. And the ecstatic listeners who experience sublime self-loss do not, once the lights come up, forgo the pleasure of strategic or irreverent response.

The history of Wagner’s reception suggests that the immersive enchantment long seen as suspect is more often freeing than oppressive. Ross identifies countless artists consumed by Wagner who, in turn, consumed him. Despite the cultishness surrounding the composer, Wagnerism is a story of selective appropriation—of artists, thinkers, and cultural entrepreneurs reworking Wagner’s ideas, finding what they needed in him. Sometimes Wagner appears as fragment, as when the Rhinemaidens wail—“Weialala leia / Wallala leialala”—on the Thames in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Elsewhere he appears as merchandise: Bayreuth paperweights, Siegfried schnitzel. The music dramas are refashioned as heroes-and-dragons tales for children, and as pornographic sonnets for the lecherous literati. If we ever believed, as Susan Sontag once argued, that Wagner is immune to camp, Ross’s book puts that claim to rest.

If Wagner’s work is a paragon of art that seeks to dominate and overwhelm, so too is it a paragon of art that is politically suspect—inextricably tethered to a hateful man’s vision of life, with debatable elements in the operas themselves. (Are the dwarves in Der Ring des Nibelungen, for instance, Jewish caricatures?) Ross avoids pointed claims about how we ought to deal with politically suspect art in general. But certain conclusions follow from the story he tells.

The first is a warning that complex artworks do not align with political fault lines in any straightforward way. Insofar as artworks attach themselves to a certain politics (or are seized upon by political factions), those affiliations tend to be unstable and historically contingent. Wagner’s first fans were leftist revolutionaries and decadent artists who saw him, Ross writes, “as a fellow combatant in the war against bourgeois taste.” And around the turn of the century, the composer—who was ridiculed in the press in his lifetime for lounging in pink satin robes, and who addressed his patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria, as “my most beautiful, supreme, and only consolation”—posthumously became a gay icon.

Apart from King Ludwig, whose tastes for soldiers and stable boys reached the newspapers soon after his death, countless gay men and lesbians saw themselves reflected, shimmering, in Wagner’s music. A self-diagnostic questionnaire, dated to the early twentieth century, that was supposed to enable respondents to identify whether they were homosexuals, included the question “Are you peculiarly fond of Wagner?” One gay Wagnerite, quoted by the psychiatrist Richard Krafft-Ebing in the 1892 edition of Psychopathia Sexualis, remarked that he had noticed a love of Wagner “in the majority of us; I find that this music is perfectly in accord with our nature.” The openly lesbian American writer Natalie Barney found love in the darkened theater of Bayreuth. As she recalled, “First our eyes then our hands met in the shadows.” Gay men often gravitated to Parsifal, with its imagery of phallic spears and gaping wounds, and its hero who rejects female seducers in favor of the all-male order of the Grail. Lesbians, meanwhile, entertained an affection for boyish, athletic Brünnhilde.

Second, Ross’s study reminds us that marginalized people tend to be extraordinarily resourceful, capable of finding richness in cultural objects not created with them in mind. Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, offers a case in point. Every evening while writing The Jewish State (1896), he would listen to Wagner. His favorite opera was Tannhäuser—the same work that, far in the future, YouTube Nazis would claim as their own. Wagner’s art offered solace to many of the Jews he hated. The reflexive and infantilizing rejection of politically suspect art discounts the ingenuity and imagination of vulnerable minorities. We cannot predict in advance the political effects of an artist’s work, even if the artist’s views are pernicious.

Third, Ross’s book suggests that beauty itself can be not merely pleasurable but liberating. The history of Wagner’s reception is filled with testimony about the emancipatory power of beauty. A fictional chapter in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) describes a Black man’s experience at a concert hall listening to the prelude of Lohengrin. The high, thin, glistening strings send the man into another sphere of consciousness. For just one instant in a life of vicious subordination, the veil of race lifts, and the man finds himself swimming in a world of freedom. At the end of the story, just before he is murdered by a lynch mob, the man recalls that one sweet moment of bliss. Du Bois wrote elsewhere, “The musical dramas of Wagner tell of human life…no human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life.” Martin Luther King Jr.—who knew something about God, and whose wife, Coretta Scott King, trained as an opera singer—said in a 1957 sermon that Wagnerian opera could approximate the presence of the divine.

Wagner’s politics were, on the whole, idiosyncratic. Alongside his rancorous anti-Semitism, he expressed sympathy for Native Americans and support for the abolition of American slavery; he condemned vivisection and endorsed vegetarianism; he disapproved of standing armies and warned, more than half a century before the advent of nuclear weapons, that military technologies could destroy the planet. He is probably best described as a utopian anarchist.

The Nazification of Wagner, then, required the erasure of ambiguities in Wagner the man, as well as a highly selective engagement with the music dramas. Although troubling continuities between Wagner and the Nazis are indisputable, the composer’s presence in Nazi culture, Ross relates, was “less pronounced than many accounts let on.” A few scattered reports tell of Wagner being played in the death camps. But his difficult—and frequently mournful—music did not suit the Nazis’ purposes. Bouncy polkas, waltzes, and marches were more common fare. Light dance tunes established a surreal and mocking discordance between the auditory environment and the torture that was being inflicted, deepening the prisoners’ desperation. Although the Nazis brandished Wagner as a cultural ornament of Teutonic greatness, the cultural regime administered by Joseph Goebbels was in the main a pop culture–driven, American-style media landscape. Wagner’s presence on the German stage actually declined during the Nazi era (and surged in America). Ceding Wagner to the Nazis, Ross judges, hands Hitler “a belated cultural victory—exclusive possession of the composer he loved.”

Ross has written a sweeping and erudite book. In his hands, Wagner becomes a master key that unlocks innumerable facets of modern culture. Ross moves with grace and sophistication across many national contexts and artistic movements, bringing the same careful attention to literature, painting, architecture, and film as he does to music. And he never lets his enormous learning get in the way of the fun.

In 1886, the French musicologist Georges Servières observed, “The definitive book on Richard Wagner is still unwritten.” That may still be true. But with Wagnerism, Alex Ross comes as close as any mortal is likely to get.