Mastering the Master

An 1865 photograph of a scene from the original production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” with Ludwig and Malwine Schnorr von Carolsfeld in the title roles.

Photo: Public Domain.

Can enough ever be said about Richard Wagner? Half a century ago, one admirer said that more words had been written about only two other individuals: Jesus Christ and Napoleon.

Since that assessment, the flood of academic studies, personal reflections, philosophical insights, documentary collections, and other publications has rushed on unabated. Most recently, Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, completed an eight-year project: painstaking, dense assessment of Wagner’s legacy. Ross’s sprawling, 660-page tome is a treatise on the phenomenon of “Wagnerism”: the various cultural responses to the composer and his works that began in his lifetime and continue down to our own era, now 137 years after his death.

Since Ross is best known as a music critic, the most notable feature of the book is that it excludes virtually any discussion of Wagner’s musical legacy. Every country that has a classical music tradition has encountered Wagner and has produced passionate and revelatory debates about how his innovations in subject and composition should be approached, and about how he responded to broader cultural wants and needs. But in this book, we hear nothing—to take only the fertile example of France—of Chabrier or Chausson, Debussy or d’Indy, Massenet or Messiaen. Ross’s music criticism is replete with erudite commentary on Wagner’s influences, but for reasons he never explains, such a vital musical vein as the French is absent from a study that seeks to be comprehensive in tracing Wagner’s footprint across all media of human creativity.

It is the realms of literature, visual art, and later, film that most capture Ross’s attention. He has clearly read, contemplated, and watched a great deal of Wagner-infused masterpieces in many national traditions, and we can congratulate him on this time-consuming if rather curatorial exercise. Some of his most original discussions present cutting-edge or little-known scholarly work—such as his discussion of Wagner’s influence on James Joyce, whose writings are apparently a subject of lifelong interest for Ross. These passages are among the book’s most insightful.

I did occasionally wonder, however, if the overall presentation lacked proportion. Willa Cather is the subject of an entire chapter, most of which is devoted to her decidedly secondary novel The Song of the Lark, about a middle-American woman who finds self-realization in pursuing a career as a Wagnerian soprano. But Marcel Proust’s seven-volume A Remembrance of Things Past, arguably the most Wagnerian of all literary efforts, whose elaborate structure includes (by my count) 62 direct references to the composer or his works, merits only eight pages.

The encyclopedic approach sometimes descends to rote lists of creators and their “Wagnerian works,” but even here there are notable gaps. The final chapter, which addresses recent films, mentions Luchino Visconti, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terrence Malick, but leaves out Douglas Sirk and Lars von Trier. Ross’s discussion of French post-structuralist approaches to Wagner—approaches now in disrepute—is precise, but we hear nothing about the late Sir Roger Scruton’s three insightful and far more popular books on the composer. Joseph Campbell’s enormously influential appreciation of Wagner and myth, which begat Star Wars, gets a mere three sentences.

There are times when the book would have benefited from a clearer definition of “Wagnerism.” Ross never explains that for a generation after Wagner’s death the adjective “Wagnerian” was a metonym for practically anything in the cultural sphere that was radical, innovative, or experimental. This was not always a compliment. Ross spends more time than he should on the people who opposed or were merely indifferent to Wagner. Did the unconvinced Mark Twain or the Pre-Raphaelite painters who regarded Wagner as an intruder into the medieval mythological idiom in which they were already working really count as “Wagnerians?” At the risk of trivializing my point by invoking the most polarizing individual of our era, people who oppose or are indifferent to Donald Trump might well resist the notion that they are “Trumpian.”

Ross’s examinations never quite account for why the people he writes about were so drawn to Wagner, then or now, but he observes that marginalized or emotionally isolated listeners found some form of transcendence in him. What they needed to transcend, and why, is left vague, leaving the impression (to paraphrase Wagner’s quip about Meyerbeer’s facile opera plots) that there was no cause of this particular effect.

Ross instead delights in the ambiguity of a composer who could appeal equally to communists and fascists, emperors and revolutionaries, gay activists, and Russian mercenaries. This ambiguity does have the welcome effect of rescuing Wagner from damning identification with the Nazis, a theme that remained very much alive in scholarly and popular consciousness as late as the turn of the millennia, but is now fading. This move forward from the tedious old reductio ad Hitlerum debate may be the book’s greatest achievement.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

An earlier version of this review was published in October 2020 on ConcertoNet, a music news industry website based in France.


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