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1 june 2021

In my late-life delve into opera fandom, Wagner was the last frontier. I still have never seen a Wagner opera in person, and I have thrown my hands up at quite a few on video, unable to sit through them even in the comfort of my own futon. For all his insistence on the fusion of the arts, Wagner seems to me to have had little clue about how to construct a drama. Scene after scene in Wagner involves characters filling each other in on what happened awhile back, recriminating with each other over their actions in the recent past, or speculating about what will happen in the future. Characters have fates but rarely motives; they ruminate but rarely take action. "Time becomes space," as Gurnemanz says in Parsifal, and the singers, instead of seizing it, just mill around. This is of course the famous Wagnerian subtlety, but it's subtlety in the service of ponderous fantasy and it can be punishingly boring to watch.

As a composer, though, Wagner may be the most viscerally attractive of all the wall-of-sound German composers in the tradition between Beethoven and Richard Strauss. Orchestral passages from, or adjacent to, his operas can slam you in the gut and deposit you in the back of an auditorium. The Spinning Chorus; the preludes to Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; the slow-burn opening of Das Rheingold, the ride of the Walküre, the Siegfried-Idyll – again a paradox: the guy who wrote operas that consist of endless talk with no songs also wrote some of the most appealing pure music in the classical repertoire. The single most frequently played opera melody is by Wagner: the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin.

One of the most interesting observations in Alex Ross's Wagnerism is how so many people developed obsessions with Wagner without seeing his work fully staged. In the 19th century, Wagner circulated in the form of piano arrangements and printed librettos; touring orchestras would play pared-down arrangements of instrumental excerpts, and he became familiar to many people who had no chance of seeing one of his operas (some of which, like Parsifal, were seeable only in Bayreuth). Ross cites Owen Wister, author of The Virginian (whose hero is a type of Lohengrin). While the young Wister was making his initial, fateful tour of the Wild West, he took time out to ask "his mother to send him his four-hand piano score of Meistersinger and also the music for 'Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire,' which, he said, should be lying around the drawing room" (145). I remember that at my dissertation defense, almost 40 years ago, a committee member asked if Emily Dickinson was familiar with avant-garde artists, like, say, Wagner. "She never left her house" was my terse and correctish answer. But for all that she might have known his work in some form, if a Wagnerian guest stopped by Amherst and banged out some Tannhäuser on the family piano.

For many, the attraction of Wagner was sexual. Gay artists and audiences flocked to Bayreuth, and the composer's disdain for conventional family life became a rallying point for many a hetero bohemian as well. Ross agrees with Susan Sontag that Wagner's "music is about sex—eroticism—voluptuousness" (622), but despite many examples (Tannhäuser and Venusberg, the siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre, their son Siegfried and his aunt Brünnhilde later in the Ring, Tristan and Isolde passim … the operas seem to me to get their sexual energy from repression, or from a looming consciousness of the forbidden – which can certainly be titillating, but not always liberating. I'm not sure that Wagner, for all his representation of libido, was very sex-positive. Nietzsche noted (in Anthony Ludovici's translation): "Throughout his life [Wagner] rattled 'resignation,' 'loyalty,' and 'purity' about our ears, and he retired from the corrupt world with a song of praise to chastity!" – Parsifal. But this "decadent" deployment of thwarted sexuality, as Nietzsche terms it, was of its time and place. There were all kinds of loves that, during Wagner's lifetime and his Germany, could not speak their names. He gave those voices some amplification.

In Wagnerism, Alex Ross studies many cases of Wagner fascination from cultural history: Charles Baudelaire, George Eliot …

I wasn't expecting George Eliot. Ross suggests that the massive scope and elaborate architecture of her novels owed something to Wagner, though the Victorian novel had embarked in that direction before anybody'd heard of Wagner. And certainly the author of "Jewishness in Music" wouldn't have found much to align with his views in Daniel Deronda. But Eliot was fascinated with Wagner's fervent and contrarian spirit, and the example shows how Wagnerian influence could range very far afield intellectually.

… Friedrich Nietzsche, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Stéphane Mallarmé, Joséphin Péladan, W.B. Yeats, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, W.E.B. DuBois, Isadora Duncan, Willa Cather …

Ross devotes an entire chapter to Willa Cather. Here too I did not see the connection coming; I am ignorant of Cather's 1915 novel The Song of the Lark, an exploration of Wagner and the opera world that points to her fascination with the composer's themes – and to the high degree of musical culture obtainable even on the Nebraskan prairie back in the day.

… Wassily Kandinsky, Ford Madox Ford, Paul Valéry, G.B. Shaw, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Adolf Hitler …

Yeah, you had to figure that Hitler would make an appearance. Adolf Hitler himself, says Ross, was basically a Wagner fanboy. Hitler loved the operas and had a pedantic knowledge of them; he loved hanging out with the Wagner family in Bayreuth and inflicting productions on his underlings. "As Julia Timpe notes in her book Nazi-Organized Recreation, some attendees slept through the proceedings or sold their tickets in exchange for alcohol—the same problems that had surfaced at the Nuremberg rallies" (554). But other Nazi leaders were wary of the "decadent" Wagner. Goebbels was careful to appreciate the Meister but preferred to energize the masses with pop music. Other Nazi thinkers, like Alfred Rosenberg and Martin Heidegger, disapproved of the Christian inflection of Parsifal and its theme of compassion. For all our impression that Wagner provided the score for Nazism, his operas actually declined in relative popularity under the Nazis and were almost certainly not heard in any prominent way in the concentration and extermination camps (where, again, pop tunes like the polka "Rosamunde," recalled by Primo Levi, were the incongruous background music).

Which is not to say that Wagner is wholly innocent of Nazi associations; but I agree with Ross that the connection is exaggerated. (Exaggerated but now indelible.) Of the repertoire operas, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal aren't even particularly Germanic myths, though the last has a German literary source (from Wolfram von Eschenbach). The Flying Dutchman is set in the Germanic world but it isn't about nationality or politics. The Ring is deeply Germanic, and provided models of martial heroism for Germans in both world wars; but at heart the Ring is deeply ambivalent about power and violence. Nor are any of them anti-Semitic. One can identify the villains Mime in the Ring and Klingsor in Parsifal as Jews, but that seems looking for trouble: whatever Wagner's personal hatred of Jews, he kept anti-Jewish imagery out of his work.

That does leave Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger. Both are neutral on Jewishness; Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger has evil qualities that Wagner also ascribed to Jews, but at the end of the day, he's not a Jew, and Gentiles can have evil qualities. Both Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger are concerned with Germanness and the purity of German culture. I think it's possible to bracket Wagner's tiresome opinons on that issue insofar as it doesn't pervade the other operas – and for that matter, to stop listening to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg immediately after the prelude, because the rest of it is boring as hell.

Ross argues cogently that tying Wagner to Nazism is a facile, retrospective move that can be easier than thinking things through. He adduces

the habit, widespread in the Anglophone world, of treating nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German history as an extended preamble to the Nazi calamity. Wagner would seem to be the supreme case study in that dynamic. I came to believe, however, that the backshadowing narrative was too simplistic. (656)
At the very least, we should try to sort through Wagner's music to see what may be related to later developments and what seems extraneous to them.

… filmmakers D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel …

And many more: the movies, including silents, cartoons, propaganda, surrealism, and noir being perpetually fascinated with Wagner. The very concept of movie music is inseparable from Wagner. Richard Wagner didn't invent opera – he might happily have taken credit for it, but he was over two centuries too late – and still less invented incidental and accompanying music for drama, which is ancient (think of Shakespeare, where music, some of which survives, is threaded through the plays; for that matter, think of the Greeks) – he didn't even invent the kind of thematic score that plays under unsung or low-verbal scenes in opera itself: Gluck is an important and distant precursor, as were Berlioz and (Wagner would have been stung to admit it) Meyerbeer, and others. But Wagner, as I've said, wrote some of the catchiest and most insistent scores for dramas, and the system of leitmotifs, Ross argues, became the great convention for movie scoring in the 20th century.

… Salvador Dali, Theodor Adorno, J.R.R. Tolkien …

Yes, Tolkien's One Ring, Ross notes, has "no plausible antecedent" (640) except in Wagner's Ring. There is no Ring in the Nibelungenlied or other Norse tales that both Wagner and Tolkien drew on. Throw in a sword that was broken, invisibility, a mighty river, and the Untergang of an entire era of the world, and The Lord of the Rings reads like quite the ripoff. Yet as Ross notes, there are key distinctions. Women are present in Tolkien's mythography but distinctly adjunct to it; Brünnhilde is the central character of Wagner's Ring, and numerous other Ring women are a match for the corresponding men. And there are no Wagnerian models for Tolkien's hobbits, who "as a counterweight to Germanic pomp, have no territorial demands to make in Middle-earth and wish simply to resume their gardening" (641).

… Anselm Kiefer, Philip K. Dick, George Lucas, and Terrence Malick.

And David Hockney. My favorite Wagnerian appropriation, of the hundreds that Ross catalogues, is Hockney's Wagner Drive:

In the eighties and nineties, Hockney regularly took friends on sunset drives along twisting Southern California roads, playing carefully timed excerpts from the Ring and Parsifal on the car stereo. Vistas of canyons, mountains, and ocean aligned with the shifting contours of the music. (631-32)
I don't know if Hockney is still doing the Wagner Drives, or whether increased traffic has made the synchronization a dicey proposition. But I would love to go on one.

Ross, Alex. Wagnerism. New York: Farrar [Macmillan], 2020.