Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music 
by Alex Ross.
Fourth Estate, 769 pp., £14.99, September 2021, 978 0 00 842294 3
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In​ 1975 Angela Carter published a withering review of a star-studded production of Die Walküre, staged in the Roman amphitheatre at Orange. The classical setting was not Norse-friendly; the acoustics were horrible; the evening temperatures plummeted; and the wind wreaked havoc on the singers’ voices (Carter thought it was ‘probably blowing directly from Israel’). Of course, she reasoned, Wagner never intended his audiences to ‘come to the theatre in order to merely enjoy ourselves’. But the staging problems showed the difficulty posed by Wagner’s music for those trying to shape it into an intelligible public spectacle. ‘The perfect theatre for Wagner,’ Carter wrote, ‘might be the private opera house of the individual sensibility, where the music itself, with the curious, opiate quality that Baudelaire recognised, can create visions just as exotic as Xanadu.’ This was a far cry from the ‘muted, magi-coal effect’ of the pile of bricks on which Brünnhilde reclined in Orange, or the ‘silver rabbit’s-ears helmet’ worn by Wotan.

Wagner’s music-dramas placed impossible demands on theatrical machinery. The Festspielhaus created at Bayreuth in 1876, dedicated to the performance of his works, developed an array of novel special effects – clouds of steam shrouded the changes of scenery and electricity gave the Holy Grail an eerie glow. But the theatrical illusion was always in danger of breaking down. Wagner shuddered to think how his works, especially Parsifal, would be mangled, beyond Bayreuth, in the hands of ‘our municipal theatre audiences, with their latecomers, early leavers, with their banging of seats and air of boredom’. It would be ‘as sinful as the desecration of the Eleusinian mysteries’. One day, he hoped, his works might assume ethereal new forms, freed from the constraints of the bourgeois stage. ‘Now that I have created the invisible orchestra,’ he told his second wife, Cosima, ‘I would also like to invent the invisible theatre!’

Wagner’s fans quickly learned to inhabit this invisible theatre, transposing whatever was happening on stage into Carter’s ‘private opera house of the individual sensibility’. In an essay from 1911, Vernon Lee described the knack of seeing past the individual production: imprisoned in her seat, the spectator could allow her mind to ‘divagate from the music only to the stage; not the literal stage of indifferently painted lath and pasteboard, with its stout, bewigged heroes and heroines brandishing spears and drinking horns, but the inviolable stage of your own emotions, secretly haunted by the vague ghosts of your own past and your own might have been, by the vaguer fatamorgana figures of your own scarce conscious hopes and desires’. The protagonist in Henry James’s story ‘The Velvet Glove’ feels ‘held down as by a hand mailed in silver’ while listening to a Wagnerian tenor. Hours of suffocation and reverie in the dark created a sense of initiation in a Wagnerian cult.

‘Wagnerism’, Alex Ross claims, has become a ‘synonym for grandiose, bombastic, overbearing, or, simply, very long’. His analysis of Wagner’s reception attempts to pinpoint the origins of these associations and interrogate their legitimacy. He is not concerned here with what Wagner has meant for later composers, or the pieces, such as Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande or Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, in which Wagner’s musical language was refuted and refined. Nor does he offer much on the history of playing, singing or conducting Wagner’s music, despite noting some influential 20th-century productions. Rather, his subject is Wagner as cultural phenomenon, his pervasive (and sometimes surprising) influence on other arts. The depth of this influence reflects Wagner’s own versatility, and modest self-perception as an Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Beethoven rolled into one. At the start of the 20th century, as Ross puts it, Wagner ‘was like a massive object in space, drawing some entities into its orbit, making others bend just a little as they moved along independent paths’. Over time, this force drew in architects (Louis Sullivan), choreographers (Isadora Duncan), scenographers (Adolphe Appia), philosophers (Theodor Adorno) and filmmakers. Our Jedi, hobbits and hammer-wielding superheroes are his distant progeny.

Among composers, only Wagner can be said to have secured an ‘ism’ (following her trip to Weimar in 1855, George Eliot referred to the ‘propaganda of Wagnerism’). The closest precedent might be Byronism, a similar conflation of radical politics, sex and celebrity that overwhelmed existing artistic divisions. By the late 1800s, Wagnerism had become a pervasive cultural mood, in concord with many of the preoccupations of the age. For Max Nordau, in Degeneration (1892), the Wagner cult was ‘the most widespread, and therefore the most significant, of all present-day aberrations’. Not everyone was seduced: Rimbaud was indifferent; Tolstoy denounced the Ring cycle as ‘counterfeit art’; a discombobulated Ruskin left a performance of Die Meistersinger claiming the music was ‘clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded … sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless’. Matthew Arnold and William Morris thought their own engagement with Arthurian and Norse literature far superior to this tedious Teutonic competitor.

But rivalry and resistance can also be modes of reception, and the most astute Wagnerians were those who grappled agonistically with his work. By translating Wagner into new genres and new media, his admirers also made him their own. This is particularly true for his followers in France – after crowd disturbances in 1861 forced Tannhäuser to be withdrawn after just three performances, Baudelaire wrote that the few who admired the score felt a sense of ownership (‘this music was mine’) – but it also had wider resonance, as he became a model for avant-garde experimentation. The French Symbolist poets aspired to a universal poetry, at once imitating and surpassing the qualities of music. Post-Impressionist painters and critics believed that Wagner heralded a new era in representation, whose promise was theirs to realise. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, in June 1888: ‘What an artist – one like that in painting, now that would be chic. This will come.’ Wagnerites across Europe brimmed with millenarian expectation; George Bernard Shaw compared their sectarian struggles to the Wars of Religion.

What Wagner stood for was continuously reimagined by those working in his shadow. Their engagement can be measured not just in quotations, but also in deliberate mistranslation, parody and inversion. Ross is diligent in his excavation of the Wagnerian strains running through the modernist corpus. Sometimes Wagner bubbles up in metaphor (the theme of tainted wealth in the silver mines of Nostromo) or emerges in sustained analogies (Septimus Smith’s fevers, ‘like a drowned sailor on a rock’, in Mrs Dalloway); sometimes snatches of Wagner’s original verse surface and his mythic characters appear, sad and stranded, as in The Waste Land (‘Down Greenwich reach/Past the Isle of Dogs./Weialala leia/Wallala leialala’). In Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930), strains of Tristan accompany the very public copulation of a middle-class couple, delighting in having murdered their children. It is not always easy to gauge the sincerity, or specificity, of Wagnerian allusions, but the delicious Wagnerian puns and echoes in Finnegans Wake – Tristy (Tristan), Isolade (Isolde), ‘mudheeldy wheesinkdonk’ (Mathilde Wesendonck), Boyrut (Bayreuth), ‘gttrdmmrng’ (Götterdämmerung), ‘purseyful’ (Parsifal), Mildew Lisa (Mild und Leise) – tell us something of the simultaneous ubiquity and banality of Wagnerism.

Wagner’s most fervent acolyte and antagonist was Friedrich Nietzsche. After their first meeting in November 1868, Nietzsche wrote of his exhilaration at this ‘fabulously lively and fiery man, who speaks very rapidly, [and] is very funny’. For his part, Wagner, then aged 55, seems to have been rejuvenated by his new interlocutor, writing to Nietzsche in 1872: ‘You are, aside from my wife, the one prize I have received in life.’ Within two years of this letter, however, the cracks had begun to show. Nietzsche came to despair of Wagner’s histrionic affectations, his popularity among German nationalists and his attraction to Christian and Buddhist doctrines of resignation and compassion. Such attitudes were, Nietzsche thought, a betrayal of the barbaric, Dionysian energies he discerned in Wagner’s music. He went on, as he put it, to ‘avenge myself on Wagner for my deceived expectations’. In Human, All Too Human (1878), he mocked Wagner’s pomposity and apostasy, while he also borrowed from Wagner’s archetypes to round out his own mythological fictions, notably Zarathustra and the Übermensch. Rejecting the errors of the ‘old sorcerer’ was an act of self-defence, and self-definition. As he told his friend Köselitz, ‘as far as the real Wagner is concerned, I intend in good measure to become his heir.’

It wasn’t only Nietzsche who found it difficult to reconcile his frustration at Wagner the human being with continued reverence of the iconoclast-prophet. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the French Decadent poet and pioneer of science fiction, wrote that ‘he is a genius such as appears upon the earth once every thousand years.’ Having ventured to Tribschen for an audience, Villiers had to strive to preserve his idol’s mystique (‘He is cubic!’). Asked if Wagner was a good conversationalist, he retorted: ‘Do you imagine, sir, that the conversation of Mount Etna is pleasant?’ Was this oracular volcano the same man whom German readers knew for his love of pranks, dogs, soft furnishings and other people’s money? In 1877, the Neue Freie Presse got the scoop of publishing Wagner’s letters to his costumier Bertha Goldwag, outlining his precise instructions for flouncy dressing gowns, ribbons, floral lace and yards and yards of pink satin. The mockery of ‘Frou Frou Wagner’ was so merciless that Wagner seriously contemplated a new life in Minnesota.

The contradictions of the man were also laid bare at the festival he created at Bayreuth. The orgy of Teutonism that nauseated Nietzsche was bankrolled by international creditors including the Ottoman Sultan and the Khedive of Egypt, and the guest list was cosmopolitan. Not everyone went to be enveloped in mystery. ‘Cutlets, baked potatoes, omelettes – all are discussed much more eagerly than Wagner’s music,’ Tchaikovsky noted in 1876. Shaw wrote that idolatry and snobbery spurred ‘a desire to see and be seen in a vortex of culture’ (even if the scores sounded better in London). But Wagner didn’t entirely mind the commercialism that multiplied around his site of spiritual and aesthetic communion. After his death, the shops of Bayreuth were packed with trinkets and tat. In Claudine s’en va (1903), Colette itemised ‘the postcards, the Grails in red glass, the colour lithographs, the wood carvings, the table mats, the beer mugs, all bearing the image of the dieu Wagner’.

There​ was nothing inevitable about Wagner’s eventual capture by the Völkish reactionaries. The proclamations of ‘Holy German Art’ in the closing minutes of Die Meistersinger shouldn’t be mistaken for any fondness on Wagner’s part for German princes (doting Ludwig II excepted) or for the German state. He was a veteran of the Dresden barricades of 1849, and never entirely lost his anarchist streak or exile’s sensibility. ‘It is with horror that I contemplate Germany and my plans for the future there,’ he wrote to Liszt in 1860. ‘May God forgive me, but all I can see in Germany is small-mindedness, boorish behaviour, pretence and arrogance … If I am a German, it is because Germany lives within me.’ He was, in turn, deplored by some on the radical right, including the ferocious antisemite Julius Langbehn (‘He out-Meyerbeered Meyerbeer’ – a slur against Wagner’s credentials as a German composer) and the mystical poet Stefan George (no fan of the ‘Valhalla swindle’). The founding fathers of German socialism, meanwhile, Ferdinand Lassalle and August Bebel, admired the Ring cycle for its attack on the corrupting effects of gold, and its celebration of female heroism. Above all, they clung to the liberation foretold in Wagner’s youthful essay ‘Art and Revolution’ (1849), where he wrote that after the coming upheaval ‘every human being will, in some way, truly be an artist.’

Wagner’s status as an icon of the right resulted from the convergence of two forces: the intellectuals known as the Bayreuth Circle, who were pivotal in interpreting his works in relation to the awakening of the Teutonic races (a particular obsession of his biographer and son-in-law, the British botanist turned racial theorist Houston Stewart Chamberlain); and the outbreak of the First World War, which shattered the cosmopolitanism of Bayreuth and saw Wagner’s characters enlisted on behalf of the ‘Holy German War’. Soldiers deployed under Operation Alberich in 1917 scrambled for control of the Siegfried Line, while the desperate counteroffensive in 1918 was referred to as the Hagen Plan. Wagner’s oversized heroes fed delusions of German victory, as Walter Rathenau complained: ‘There is always someone – Lohengrin, Walther, Siegfried, Wotan – who can do everything and beat everyone, who can redeem suffering virtue, punish vice, and bring universal salvation, in a sweeping pose, with fanfares, lighting effects and scenery.’ For the Entente powers, the German war machine was a sort of Wagnerian nightmare.

Hitler’s obsession with Wagner’s music seemed to settle the matter. Gustav Stresemann, chancellor of the Weimar Republic, despaired at the way the Bayreuth clique had managed to ‘touch up the old democrat Wagner as a modern swastika-type’. Hitler’s friendship with the British-born Winifred Wagner ensured the festival was annexed as an annual propaganda exercise after 1933, its audiences boosted by excursions organised under ‘Strength through Joy’. As Ross points out, we should be careful to avoid ‘backshadowing’, or creating a false determinism. The number of Wagner performances actually declined in the Nazi period (there were 1837 performances between 1932 and 1933, compared with 1154 performances between 1939 and 1940) as programming at Bayreuth contracted. Many of Wagner’s core ideas were at odds with Nazi doctrines, not least the critique of power in The Ring, and the sermon on compassion in Parsifal. Contra claims peddled in Hollywood movies such as The Boys from Brazil, Wagner was not played in the death camps; only ninety seconds of Meistersinger appears in the soundtrack of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, although everyone remembers it as much longer. In a gesture of reclamation, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll was conducted in 1939 by Arturo Toscanini at the second Lucerne festival, founded in the town known to Wagner from his exile wanderings, and whose orchestra featured many refugee musicians from Central Europe.

The boldest bid to claim Wagner for anti-fascist purposes was Thomas Mann’s lecture at the Concertgebouw in February 1933. For Ross, Mann’s ‘entire oeuvre is a kind of aftermath of Wagner’, with Hanno Buddenbrook and Gustav von Aschenbach avatars of intolerable Wagnerian desire. The lecture emphasises much of what is camp about Wagner, not least the flouncy sartorial foibles so embarrassing to his Nazi fans. He was, Mann said, ‘charged with life and stormily progressive’, an innovator, with one foot already ‘on atonal terrain’, a ‘cultural Bolshevik’ (Kulturbolschewist) ‘man of the Volk who all his life fervently rejected power, money, violence and war’ and intended his festival for ‘a classless society, whatever the age made of it’. In conclusion: ‘No spirit of reaction and pious backwardness can claim him – he belongs instead to every future-directed will.’

Events in the Soviet Union seemed at first to confirm the music’s emancipatory promise. If Wagner had enthused the artists of the Silver Age, Alexander Blok rejoiced in 1918 that ‘Wagner is still both alive and new. When the Revolution starts sounding in the air, Wagner’s Art answers back.’ The Monument for the Third International grew out of Vladimir Tatlin’s geometric designs for a ship’s rigging in a production of The Flying Dutchman, just as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Meyerhold strived to translate Wagnerian aesthetic ideas onto the screen and the Mariinsky stage respectively. Siegfried’s funeral march was played at a concert marking Lenin’s death. It took Operation Barbarossa to kill off Wagner’s operas in Stalinist Russia.

Progressive readings​ of Wagner have foundered on some ugly truths. Most notorious is his contribution to the literature of antisemitism with ‘On Jewishness in Music’, published under a pseudonym in 1850, and reissued under his own name in 1869. In it, he pictures Jews as parasites responsible for the commercialisation, and corruption, of European cultural vitality. Many hear antisemitism in the shrill and tuneless stuttering of Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, and in the cupidity of Mime in Siegfried (‘a persiflage of a Jew’ was Gustav Mahler’s verdict on the scheming dwarf. ‘I know of only one Mime, and that is me’). Antisemitism wasn’t simply a strand of Wagner’s political beliefs: it structured his creative imagination. He told Liszt that such ‘rancour is as necessary to my nature as gall is to the blood.’

Wagner’s hostility to Jews was bound up with a revolutionary attitude to Christianity, as it was for other German thinkers of the 1840s. While sketching out Siegfrieds Tod in 1848, Wagner was working on a prose work titled Jesus von Nazareth, a riff on the myth of a hero’s betrayal by his father/god. As much as he called for the disappearance or downfall (der Untergang) of the Jews, and the mercantile values they supposedly incarnated, he left open the possibility that this might be achieved via radical assimilation and conversion. His odious writings about the Jewish people existed alongside close relationships with individual Jews, such as the kappellmeister of the Bavarian Court Opera, Hermann Levi. In 1882, Levi was entrusted with conducting the premiere of Parsifal, Wagner’s fantasy of a redeemed, ‘de-judaised’ Christianity. Levi shrugged off Wagner’s request that he convert for the occasion, but still told his father that Wagner was ‘the best and noblest of men … I thank God for the privilege to be close to such a man.’ The operas may have been laced with antisemitic caricatures, but that didn’t stop them winning many Jewish admirers, including Theodor Herzl, and a Yiddish-language version of Parsifal was even performed in the Bowery. Houston Stewart Chamberlain, in his 1895 biography of Wagner, summed it up with an unpleasant compliment: ‘The Jews themselves, with their gift of astuteness, were almost everywhere among the first to divine Wagner’s immense artistic significance.’

The subject of Wagner and race grew more complex with the emergence of what Samuel Dwinell has called ‘Afro-Wagnerism’, captured in the dream of post-racial brotherhood that W.E.B. Du Bois discerned in Wagner’s music. Du Bois had studied in the 1890s at Friedrich Wilhelm Universität in Berlin, and his short story ‘The Coming of John’ features an episode in which the protagonist is intoxicated by a performance of Lohengrin. This rapturous feeling is only shattered when a white childhood friend arrives and asks him to vacate his seat – an experience that Du Bois compared to the Veil of Separation descending. ‘The musical dramas of Wagner tell of human life as he lived it,’ he insisted, ‘and no human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life.’ Du Bois visited Bayreuth when it was decked out in Nazi colours in 1936, and found it more hospitable to a Black intellectual than the American South. His faith in Wagner withstood D.W. Griffith’s use of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ for the galloping Klansmen in Birth of a Nation. (Although often forgotten, this early outing provides an interesting foil to Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the same musical citation to reveal the US army’s lust for destruction in Apocalypse Now.) ‘Wagner’s cultural and political influence,’ Ross writes, ‘gyrated in so many different directions that no one ideology could possess him.’

‘Gyrated’ seems an apt verb. The regressive characteristics of Wagner’s heroines – whose carnality and curiosity can spell disaster, and who rarely survive without the intervention of the male hero – doesn’t entirely detract from the audacity with which he championed stories of untrammelled passion and adulterous, especially incestuous, couplings. Everyone knew that Wagner meant sex: ‘Wagnerising … is often just a better surrogate for coitus,’ Otto Weininger wrote. The most compelling sections of Ross’s book consider the place of Wagnerian themes in the work of early 20th-century women writers, among them Willa Cather (devotee of Wagner soprano Olive Fremstad). With its exploration of celibacy, guilt, castration and androgyny, the psychiatrist Oskar Panizza called Parsifal ‘spiritual nourishment for pederasts’, inciting furious rebuttals. Panizza was carted off to an asylum near Bayreuth in 1905, but he wasn’t wrong in spotting something queer afoot (especially with regard to Wagner’s son, Siegfried). In The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914), the gay rights reformer Magnus Hirschfeld described Bayreuth as ‘a very popular gathering place for Uranians from all over the world’. A century later, not much has changed.

Reception histories tend to be long on anecdotal evidence and short on original arguments. That the work of a major author, painter or composer meant different things to different people at different times is both true and obvious. The same piece of work might mean different things at different times to the same person, as Oscar Wilde wrote of the Tannhäuser overture, which on one occasion summoned up images of ‘that comely knight treading delicately on the flower-strewn grass’ and the next ‘the poison of unlimited desire’. Ross’s book goes beyond description or inventory thanks to the breadth of his reading and the range of genres discussed, as well as the fact that his subject had been saddled with an unusual number of toxic preconceptions.

Wagner’s afterlives add up to a counter-history of modernity. Documenting them means ditching some of the ways we have been conditioned to listen to his music. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche referred to Wagner as the ‘Orpheus of all secret misery’, able to illuminate psychological states through the smallest glance, gesture or turn of phrasing. The composer whose name has become a byword for the bloated and the hyperbolic was in fact ‘our greatest miniaturist in music, who can urge an infinity of meaning and sweetness into the smallest spaces’. In a piece for the LRB in 1987, Susan Sontag also commented on Wagner’s ‘extraordinary delicacy’, his willingness to be ‘overwhelmingly intimate with audiences’. The underrated English-language Valkyrie staged at English National Opera last year exemplified this trend. A fresh translation by John Deathridge replaced the hoary Victorian phrasing of William Ashton Ellis (founder of the Wagner periodical, the Meister), restoring much poetic and dramatic interest. The staging was sparse, and the focus domestic; the night that I was there Loge’s Magic Fire failed to ignite. But what it lost in mythic swagger it gained in immediacy: the vindictiveness of Fricka, humiliated wife; Siegmund the warrior’s refusal of his fate; the agonies of Wotan, a father compelled to abandon his only child. This is music in which the fantastical and the mortally vulnerable collide.

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