THE RULE OF INFLUENCE: ALEX ROSS’S ‘WAGNERISM’

I have recently finished reading Alex Ross’s epic tome Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (London: Fourth Estate, 2020, x + 769 pp.). The New Yorker’s music critic has produced a remarkable volume indeed, part life of Wagner and part catalogue and analysis of the composer’s influence in and beyond his time, mainly outside his own realm of music and in such disparate fields as literature, philosophy, visual arts, theatre, dance and cinema.

The reader is shown how Wagner – as bearer of what was everywhere proclaimed as ‘the music of the future’ – looms large in the work of a massive swathe of artistic creators of the period, across a span of names including not only an obvious case like Friedrich Nietzsche, but also Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Willa Cather, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Bernard Shaw, Wassily Kandinsky, Aubrey Beardsley, Isadora Duncan, Rudolf Nureyev, Sergei Eisenstein … the list goes on. Ross ably summarises the well-worn political and ideological controversies surrounding Wagner, and examines the Bayreuth phenomenon and concepts such as the Leitmotiv and the total artwork, but the main thrust of his argument centres on the question of influence: quite simply, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century arts in the Western world would not have been the same without the informing presence of Richard Wagner.

The book is also a monument to the encyclopaedic capabilities of our time. It was twelve years in the making: the usual acknowledgments are of course there, but the book as a whole bears above all the stamp of its author – illuminating a heritage that is collective, but from a research angle marked by the persistent, overriding vision of an individual committed to his subject. The author’s research has clearly been both meticulous and passionate, the product of a fine-comb exploration of both print and online sources (the latter logged in the notes), in search of Wagnerian allusions and parallels across the cultural heritage. The book would have been possible without the internet, but would inevitably not have been so all-embracing.

Since I read it, Alex Ross’s volume has impacted directly on my own cultural choices, already sending me to the classic Wagnerian essays by Baudelaire and Shaw, both of which I owned but had never read, and impelling me to devote an attentive hearing to Lohengrin (my choice since, years ago, it was the first Wagner opera I swallowed whole) – and appreciate it as never before.

Alex Ross concludes, in response to the complexity of the Wagnerism phenomenon, that  Wagner ‘requires the most active and critical kind of listening’ (659). Such a claim is justified by the breadth and depth of his book. All in all, I would call Wagnerism a major cultural event, as well as a demonstration of the continued possibilities of traditional research in the internet age.

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