I’m ending 2020 with a pair of complementary book reviews. No they’re not in any way similar in their topics, yet they frame the transition to a new year rather well. Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-pandemic World, (the next review you’ll see in this blog) would dare to predict the path ahead, while Alex Ross’s book about Wagner & Wagnerism offers the look in the rear-view mirror, in its massive summary of cultural influences.
Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music is a big book, 784 pages in the hardcover edition. But in a study of the phenomenon of Richard Wagner how could it be otherwise? “Wagnerian” is an adjective that connotes weight and massive size.
Yet the pages flew by. I will read it again soon.
I won’t subject you to a long preamble before saying that I think Ross’s book is worth reading. Trust me, it’s important if you can find time to read it.
I’m fascinated thinking about who should be reading this book and why.
There are those for instance who think opera is dead, irrelevant, a museum piece in the 21st century that has long outlived its importance. They probably represent the vast majority, readers who won’t even give Ross’s book a second thought, and so might wonder why I would insist on its importance. They may have trouble imagining why one would bother reading about something (opera?) so peripheral and insignificant.
But that’s not really what Ross’s book is about. Such a reader would be in for a colossal surprise, at the unexpected connections, the influences. Because Wagner matters far beyond the realm of opera. Indeed it doesn’t feel like musicology.
Are you a student of film? While I am fascinated by film music and its connections to Wagner, I did not expect to be reading about DW Griffith or Eisenstein in Wagner’s shadow.
Or are you simply interested in the history of Western Europe in the 20th century? Wagner is the bedrock upon which the culture has been built, long before Hitler reared his head.
And then there are the opera-lovers, especially the Wagnerians. The latter represent a curious subset that I mention with a fraught mixture encompassing love & hatred: because in other words I’m looking into a mirror. Yes I’m also one of them. For Wagnerians reading Ross’s book, they will not only get the connections Ross makes between operas and the operatic allusions by poets & painters & novelists & film-makers, but will not need persuading.
We’ve already swallowed the Kool-ade. But wait a minute… that metaphor is just a modern version of a magic potion plot-twist in the first acts of Tristan und Isolde and in Götterdämmerung.
I need to revisit an allusion I made at the beginning of my review of Sky Gilbert’s Shakespeare book last month.
I recall hearing that there were more books about Jesus, Napoleon Bonaparte & Richard Wagner than anyone else: a factoid likely composed by a musicologist. But when I googled the question I see that it’s now 1-Jesus, 2-Napoleon and, 3- (you guessed it): William Shakespeare.
I remember the shock of seeing Jacques Barzun’s title Darwin, Marx and Wagner (1941) a study that I first read way back around 1970, when I was in high-school. I never dreamed that a composer could be important. At one time Wagner was understood to be much more than just an opera composer. I remember that feeling now all over again in coming to Ross’s study. As messy as the topic can be (given Wagner’s anti-semitism & his association with Nazism), as disgusting as I sometimes find Wagner the man & his beliefs, it’s a surprisingly positive experience, to once again see the affirmation of the centrality of Wagner, important both for sublime beauty & disgusting horrors.
I recall too the shock of my classsmates in my modern drama seminar back in the 1990s, when Professor Domenico Pietropaolo had Richard Wagner on our reading list. Yes he was a composer. But he was also a dramaturg in the original sense of the word, namely a theatre theorist & scholar.
That is just a small part of what Ross is after in his book.
I don’t think it’s an accident that I’ve come to the end of the year with these two books before me, like the two heads of Janus, the god from whom January takes its name. Ross might suggest that Wagner’s influence is universal, as pervasive as COVID-19; I’m perversely remembering Thomas Adès suggestion in his analysis of Parsifal that Wagner is “a disease”.
There’s a word Ross keeps using. Everyone thinks that they know what they mean when they say “modern”; “modernist” is not so well-known. One of the great joys of reading Wagnerism has been the chance to see Ross confirm suspicions I’ve long held. If I were to reduce Ross’s huge book to a single sentence –which may sound crazy—it would be that “Wagner is the most influential artist of the last 200 years”, a viewpoint that I share.
The chapters of such a big book vary greatly. At times I was reading something that more or less confirmed my beliefs, while I nodded along. So while Ross writes about Nietzsche or Baudelaire, yes it’s right, although at times I was surprised. And sometimes the chapter takes me entirely into new territory. I now have a desire to explore the novels of Willa Cather, not having suspected that she reframes Wagnerian materials in an American context. I want to look again at Bunûel & Eisenstein, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf & Thomas Mann just to name a few.
I need to explore what William Blissett wrote, seeing that Ross has quoted him multiple times, a Toronto Wagnerian (and former professor at U of T) whose presence I’ve enjoyed seeing regularly at opera performances in town (I’m just another former student, nodding to him in the lobby). Ross makes me want to re-read and think again about what I’ve seen and heard. And Ross echoes my own suspicion, that for Brecht the dramaturgy of Wagner was the elephant in the room that everyone in his time knew & loved or loathed: now missing from the education of those who might want to understand the context when Brecht felt he needed to wake up a sleeping audience.
I thought I would be doing a disservice to readers if I didn’t somehow capture the breadth of the book: but I can’t possibly do so, not when my word count (somewhere between 800 & 1000) barely exceeds the number of pages in Ross’s book… The size of the volume reflects Ross’s enthusiasm for the subject, an unmistakable passion.
I must re-read it.