Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

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Author: Alex Ross
Category: Biography, Social History
London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2020
ISBN 978-0-00-713908-4
Reviewed by

“Wagnerism is a book that is not satisfied with replaying simplistic historical or ideological tropes, or falling back on comfortable certainties that nobody is willing to criticise, but few actually believe in. Although Ross has an encyclopaedic command of the fact base, he leaves ample room for readers to make their own decisions about the man-myth that is Wagner. That is its strength.”

 Wagner sums up modernity. It can’t be helped, one must first become a Wagnerian. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

It was as a young music student in the late 1970s that I first came into substantive contact with the music of Richard Wagner. Even as a 19-year-old I was at best a grudging fan and remain ambivalent to this day. I found it difficult then and now to weigh up the relative merits of Richard Wagner the artistic revolutionary, the larger than life romantic-era giant who changed the face of music, boldly penning operas that were epic in scope and length, with Wagner the flawed human whose feet were heavily mired in clay. Back then, on learning of his deep anti-Semitism, for reasons I still do not understand, I sought out a copy of his infamous essay, Das Judenthum in der Musik, which is generally translated to English as Judaism in Music. I sat in the Sydney Conservatorium library for a couple of hours and tried to read through this loathsome tome which is replete with attacks on Jews including their alleged inability to speak European languages:

‘Although the peculiarities of the Jewish mode of speaking and singing come out the most glaringly in the commoner class of Jew, who has remained faithful to his father’s stock, and though the cultured son of Jewry takes untold pains to strip them off, nevertheless they shew an impertinent obstinacy in cleaving to him.’ (Richard Wagner)

Richard Wagner

In addition, Wagner makes specific racist comments about Jewish composers Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, often undermining them with faint praise and nasty backhand compliments.

‘Mendelssohn has shown us that a Jew can have the richest abundance of talents and be a man of the broadest culture…but still be incapable of supplying the profound, heart-seizing, soul-searching experience we expect from art.’ (Richard Wagner)

Alex Ross

Wagner initially wrote under a pseudonym, K. Freigedank (“K. Freethought”), in 1850. To reinforce his stance, he was after all a man of conviction, he released an expanded version of Das Judenthum in der Musik under his own name in 1869. In the later version he added the following:

‘Remember that one thing alone can redeem you (the Jews) from the curse which weighs upon you: the redemption of Ahasverus – destruction!’ (Richard Wagner).

There is no evidence that Wagner believed Jews should be wiped from the face of the earth, as the Nazis attempted to do. But as Alex Ross details, some, including Hitler, were happy to take this and other anti-Jewish invocations literally as support for their cause provided by a great German artist.

I am hardly the first and nor will I be the last to grapple with the profound, the ugly and the confounding in Richard Wagner. The towering achievement of Wagnerism is author Alex Ross’s refusal to excuse the enormous flaws of Wagner the man – his gigantic ego, explicit racism, sexism, self-absorption and endless need for praise – while at the same time cataloguing his immense and genuinely revolutionary talent and ongoing impact as a writer, composer, theorist and entrepreneur. In his own lifetime Wagner was worshipped by the great and the humble while being mocked relentlessly by his foes. Some hated him while others found him to be a firm and inspiring friend. Wagnerism is not a biography, rather it combines elements of a social history and even anthropological exploration of a mythologist who morphed into his own myth. Across 650 pages Ross catalogues 150 years of Wagner’s influence on everything from philosophy – Nietzsche, for example, had a love/hate relationship with the composer – to French symbolist poetry, drama, film, left and right politics, stage design, theology (debates still rage as to whether his opera Parsifal is a Christian or neo-pagan work, or both), lighting and stage design, novel-writing, fantasy and myth, the occult and sexuality. Even architecture is not immune from Wagner’s ideas. The Catalan architect, Gaudí, was wont to launch into reveries on The Ring. Wagner was an early gay and lesbian icon AND a pin up boy for Nazi thugs. Hitler, for example fell in love with Wagner operas as a young man when trying to make his way as an artist in Vienna. As Fuhrer he insisted Nazi leaders and recuperating Wehrmacht soldiers alike would benefit from full immersion Wagner experiences and provided free tickets to Bayreuth Festival performances during World War II. Yet Wagner was an explicit supporter of the progressive, liberalising political reforms trumpeted by the 1848 revolutionaries. Ever the chameleon, later in life he shamelessly sought out financial and social support from the aristocracy in the form of the 18-year old King of Bavaria, Ludwig II. The latter put Wagner up in a villa and financed performances of his operas.

Bayreuth, Festival Opera House

In holding an unremitting mirror to the good, the bad and the indifferent in Wagner, his life and works, Ross forces readers to face up to some deep and discomforting truths about art, artists, human strengths and frailties. He draws attention to our tendency as a species to simplify the complex, to airbrush what we do not want to see and to magnify in others what we admire or detest. Wagner disliked and despised Jews and looked down on the Negro race. Jewish musicians worked on his productions during his lifetime, however, and many were avowed fans and promoters of his music – the Jewish-Catholic composer/conductor Mahler being a prominent example. I was astounded to read that the great Afro-American advocate and reformer, W.E.B. Du Bois, was a lifelong Wagner-ite and even attended the Bayreuth Festival in 1936 amidst the years of Nazi ascendancy. As an author Du Bois once penned a fictional story about a young Afro-American, John Jones, who goes to New York and by chance hears the Wagner opera, Lohengrin, which sends him into a state of transformative rapture. Of his pilgrimage to the high temple of Wagnerism at Bayreuth, Du Bois wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier that German antisemitism circa 1936 ‘surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much.’ He also wrote of his time in Nazi Germany: ‘I have not suffered from race prejudice…I can go to any hotel which I can afford; I can dine where I please and have the head-waiter bow me welcome.’ Ross ruefully notes that the fact the Afro-American Du Bois felt less hostility in Hitler’s Germany than in Roosevelt’s America was a devastating comment on American race relations.

Bayreuth, Festival Opera House

Yet to focus only on politics and race does not do justice to the breadth of Richard Wagner’s impact, or the spread of Wagnerism across the globe. The French 19th century poets Verlaine and Mallarmé were both influenced by Wagner’s idea of endless melody. Each penned sonnets to the Master published in a homage issue of the journal, Revee wagnérienne. (How many opera composers have had a journal named in their honour?) The young Queen Victoria prodded no doubt by her consort, the German Prince Albert, attended a Wagner concert in London in 1855. She met the Master in 1877 and wrote in her journal: “…the great composer Wagner, about whom the people in Germany are really a bit mad, was brought into the corridor…He has grown old and stout, and has a clever, but not pleasing countenance’. The wedding march for Wagner’s opera Lohengrin was incorporated into English royal wedding protocols.

Bayreuth production of Tannhauser

Different countries came to see Richard Wagner through what Ross calls a self-fashioned prism. ‘For the French, he was a torchbearer of the modern; for the British, a messenger of Arthuriana. In the United States, Wagner harmonized with a national love of wilderness sagas, frontier love.’ New York critic Henry Krehbiel contended that US opera goers saw themselves reflected in the ‘rude forcefulness’ of Wagner’s heroes. Wagner’s exploration of myth resonated in nations from England, Germany, and France to the Spanish province of Catalan where the architect, Gaudí, and his great sponsor, the businessman Güell, were fans. The latter saw Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1891. Even a Sri Lankan Theosophical leader called the opera Parsifal a true picture of the ‘struggle of the soul to the Light’. The hard-headed Lenin was not immune to Wagnerian wiles. His wife recalled that Lenin liked Wagner greatly, ‘but he usually left, almost ill, after the first act’.  (Not the first and likely not the last, some would say!)

Ross catalogues the impact Wagner had on novelists, film and even on popular culture. American loony tunes cartoons lampoon the iconic figure of the female opera singer, Viking hat on head and spear in hand, screaming her lungs out in competition with an orchestra conducted by a mad rabbit. Even Walt Disney was not immune to the Wagner magic. Fantasy novel pioneers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis once spent the evening reading aloud the libretto of Wagner’s Walküre which led, according to Lewis’s brother, to a long, late night conversation about religion. Lewis was subsequently quite open about his love of Wagner although Tolkien, a bona fide expert on myth, and master of several ancient languages including Old Icelandic, was more circumspect. Nobel prize winning novelist Thomas Mann and his author brother were also bit part players in the traveling show that was early 20th century Wagnerism. Even film directors who did not know the music of Wagner in any detail often dictated that Wagner-like music should be composed as soundtrack to their epics. Wagner evokes, how he evokes! At times it might appear that Ross is pushing the point about Wagnerism and its impact, but I only felt this at the extremes – and there are hard to imagine extremes. Wagnerism is a labour of love that in itself relates the passion and rejection Wagner conjures up. The French composer Debussy, for example, was one of many of his generation who set his music up against everything that the all-conquering German opera master stood for. Who am I? I am French and I am NOT a Wagnerian!

In closing, I would like to return to some of the important themes, issues, and conundrums that Ross raises in and through the labyrinth that is Wagnerism. Firstly, artists greater and lesser, can be complex figures. In the case of some artists, complexity and nuance of character are attractive, rounding out and enriching their artwork and our understanding of their oeuvre. In others, we may find our love for the art is lessened or even smudged by the personality flaws of the artist. Picasso was, or could be, a misogynist. Miles Davis similarly treated many of his girlfriends very poorly. Patrick White had the capacity to suddenly shut out and ‘hate’ life-long friends, confecting make believe arguments against them. Richard Strauss was a Nazi sympathiser. Richard Wagner is the ultimate, ‘up in lights’, billboard poster figure of the flawed artist, the real-life caricature of a caricature: hugely gifted, hugely influential, hugely productive, and hugely imperfect. But as Ross points out, the fact that the Nazis virtually took over Bayreuth Festival, and used his music for brainwashing the population, is not Wagner’s fault. He was long dead, although his heirs eagerly courted the Nazi regime. Spooky photos exist of Hitler with Wagner’s young grandsons.

Just how do we rationalise the reality that the famed ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ (from the opera Die Walküre, the second of the four operas that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen or The Ring Cycle) was a Nazi theme song AND blared from speakers mounted on US helicopters as they bombed Vietnamese peasants in Francis Ford Coppola’s anti-war film, Apocalypse Now? Yet there is more. In a bizarre instance of life imitating art, Ross points out that American Blackhawk helicopters broadcast the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ during the real life invasion of Grenada in 1991, and speakers mounted on Humvees did the same during the second US war in Iraq in 2004. As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up! In its original opera context, ‘The Ride’ carries no such apocalyptic, chauvinistic, militaristic baggage. Is it fair and reasonable to load onto the long dead Wagner the sins of those who appropriated his legacy? Perhaps if Richard Wagner were a more likeable, winsome, self-deprecating fellow we would be more forgiving of him and cast more blame on the appropriators than the originator. But as Ross relates, the reality of the appropriation of Wagner by the Nazis and their lesser ilk means that the music and the man inevitably come to be seen in the light of Hitler’s monstrous actions. Despite several attempts by famed Jewish musicians, Wagner is still not performed in Israel. The scars run deep in Western Europe too. Pascal Quignard, the French author of the book that became famous art house film, Tous les matins du monde about the life of viola da gambist Marin Marais, wrote in The Hatred of Music (1996): ‘The Nuremberg tribunal should have ordered Richard Wagner to be beaten in effigy once a year in the streets of every German town.’ An admonition that takes ‘cancel culture’ to a new level!

Secondly, humans tend to magnify our own strengths and flaws in a man such as Wagner. We are selective and extract what we want to extract from the man and his works. Christians see the Christian in Parsifal; lesbians and gays see tolerance and liberality in Wagner the straight, somewhat sexually abstemious man who dressed in silk and flounces; socialists find socialism while Fascists carve out fascism in their own image. More prosaically, film composers have ripped off his innovations to orchestration!

How ironic that the leftist music critic and playwright, George Bernard Shaw, saw no conflict between Wagner’s Romantic, high art mythology and Marx’s communism. Shaw was once spotted in the British library, Ross recounts, with a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital and the score of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde both open on his desk. Shaw went on to scribe ‘The Perfect Wagnerite’, an anti-capitalist reading of The Ring! Wagner had, after all, written in Art and Revolution that society’s god had become money. One of Wagner’s original hopes for his Bayreuth Festival was that cheap or free tickets would be available for the less well off. Freud noted the tendency of his patients to protect their egos by denying the existence of positive and negative attributes and impulses in themselves, while projecting those same attributes onto others. The chronic gossip denies his own gossiping but readily identifies the behaviour in others. Wagner, Ross argues, is a case study of the human drive to project evil and good onto others. Contemporary examples of such difficult to comprehend projection are not hard to find. Christian moral conservatives found it all too easy to embrace the thrice-married Donald Trump, a man who seems to exhibit few Christian virtues. Similarly, the poor and economically exposed white working and lower middle classes hitched their wagons to the Trump cavalcade, showering accolades on the Ivy League educated son of a multimillionaire. They see Trump as an authentic, truth talking leader who understands their concerns and who will protect their rights. Right wing, gun-slinging patriots also jumped on the bandwagon, eventually climbing the very walls of Congress early in January this year in support of their Patriot President. Wagner similarly has the capacity to attract a broad church of supporters who find nothing but goodness and greatness, counterbalanced with truckloads of naysayers identifying little or nothing redeeming in the man, and endless muck in his overly long operas. No one should talk about Wagner without using the word ‘perhaps’, Nietzsche once said. As an enthusiastic and reluctant Wagnerite who sat at the feet of the great man, and also wrote critically of him and his music, Nietzsche knew his subject matter.

Ross goes on to state ‘the accumulated files of Wagnerism permit no clear verdict about the mark that this staggeringly energetic man left upon the world…He revolutionized theatrical architecture and practice, showing a way beyond naturalism. He mobilized forces across the political spectrum from the left to the far right, and if the latter ultimately made the more persuasive claim on him it is a result that can always be contested…In the story of Wagner and Wagnerism, we see both the highest and the lowest impulses of humanity entangled. It is the triumph of art over reality and the triumph of reality over art; it is a tragedy of flaws set so deep that after two centuries they still infuriate us as if the man were in the room.’

Finally, on a human level, I would observe that Wagner’s life and art illustrates, and Ross’s book teaches us, that to love, to give oneself to anyone or anything of value, brings great reward, joy and personal enrichment. Yet that same act of unselfconscious embrace opens us up to disappointment and even to hurt. Wagner the composer and librettist lifts us to great heights; in the same breath, Wagner the tarnished human deeply disappoints. The man is his works, and the works are an expression of the man.

In reading this book one has to wrestle with Richard Wagner’s many facets, and his profound influence for good and ill. But in dealing with the text we must be prepared to call into question our pre-existing assumptions and prejudices. Ross works hard to present the facts and counter facts; to not take sides, to live with the unresolved tensions and blazing contradictions that Wagner embodies. In everyday parlance, the man is simultaneously a Prince and a Prick – which is my language, not the author’s. Wrestle with Wagnerism and you will wrestle with Wagner the man and Wagner the artist. In doing so, I also found myself wrestling with what it is to be perfectly and imperfectly human. In the final analysis, I was wrestling with myself, what I do and don’t hold to be true and even how truths come to be held. I have a suspicion this is an outcome Alex Ross would be happy to have provoked. Wagnerism is a book that is not satisfied with replaying simplistic historical or ideological tropes, or falling back on comfortable certainties that nobody is willing to criticise, but few actually believe in. Although Ross has an encyclopaedic command of the fact base, he leaves ample room for readers to make their own decisions about man-myth that is Wagner. That is its strength.

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