“Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music” by Alex Ross— The Influence of Richard Wagner

Ross, Alex. “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music”, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020.

The Influence of Richard Wagner

Amos Lassen

Alex Ross reveals how Richard Wagner became the proving ground for modern art and politics in “an aesthetic war zone where the Western world wrestled with its capacity for beauty and violence.” Wagner is one of the most widely influential people in the history of music. In about 1900, Wagnerism became part of European and American culture. His compositions “The Ring of the Nibelung”, “Tristan und Isolde”, and “Parsifal” were regarded as models of “formal daring, mythmaking, erotic freedom, and mystical speculation.” He impacted such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Paul Cezanne, Isadora Duncan, and Luis Bunuel,. He was seen as a kindred spirit by anarchists, occultists, feminists, and gay-rights pioneers. Adolf Hitler incorporated Wagner into the soundtrack of Nazi Germany, and Wagner was defined by his strong antisemitism. Many today see him as synonymous with artistic evil. 

In “Wagnerism”, Ross explains the confusion of what it means to be a Wagnerian. We see the battle raged over his legacy and Ross extends this over a variety of artistic disciplines including the architecture of Louis Sullivan, the novels of Philip K. Dick, the Zionist writings of Theodor Herzl, the civil-rights essays of W.E.B. Du Bois and contemporary literature.

Unfortunately this is not a happy story because Wagner became defined by an ideology of hate. Nonetheless, he is felt throughout the music and culture of the twenty-first century culture with his themes seen in superhero films and fantasy fiction. The research is amazing as are what we learn from literature, philosophy, the visual arts, musicology and cinema.

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