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Alex Ross, renowned New Yorker music critic and author of the international bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Rest Is Noise, reveals how Richard Wagner became the proving ground for modern art and politics—an aesthetic war zone where the Western world wrestled with its capacity for beauty and violence.
For better or worse, Wagner is the most widely influential figure in the history of music. Around 1900, the phenomenon known as Wagnerism saturated European and American culture. Such colossal creations as The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal were models of formal daring, mythmaking, erotic freedom, and mystical speculation. A mighty procession of artists, including Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Paul Cézanne, Isadora Duncan, and Luis Buñuel, felt his impact. Anarchists, occultists, feminists, and gay-rights pioneers saw him as a kindred spirit. Then Adolf Hitler incorporated Wagner into the soundtrack of Nazi Germany, and the composer came to be defined by his ferocious antisemitism. For many, his name is now almost synonymous with artistic evil.
In Wagnerism, Alex Ross restores the magnificent confusion of what it means to be a Wagnerian. A pandemonium of geniuses, madmen, charlatans, and prophets do battle over Wagner’s many-sided legacy. As readers of his brilliant articles for The New Yorker have come to expect, Ross ranges thrillingly across artistic disciplines, from the architecture of Louis Sullivan to the novels of Philip K. Dick, from the Zionist writings of Theodor Herzl to the civil-rights essays of W.E.B. Du Bois, from O Pioneers! to Apocalypse Now.
In many ways, Wagnerism tells a tragic tale. An artist who might have rivaled Shakespeare in universal reach is undone by an ideology of hate. Still, his shadow lingers over twenty-first century culture, his mythic motifs coursing through superhero films and fantasy fiction. Neither apologia nor condemnation, Wagnerism is a work of passionate discovery, urging us toward a more honest idea of how art acts in the world.
The 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner (1813 1883) is all things to all people in this sweeping cultural history. New Yorker music writer Ross (The Rest is Noise) surveys the ongoing influence of Wagner, whose operas wrapped tales of gods, heroes, knights, Valkyries, rapturous loves, and apocalyptic infernos in enthralling music that mixed bombast with sensuousness, spirituality, and psychological complexity. Ross explores how Wagner's protean music and ideology mesmerized "Wagnerians" of many stripes; infamously, his anti-Semitic polemics made him Hitler's favorite composer, but he has also been claimed as an anarcho-socialist revolutionary and as an inspiration by Jews, feminists, gays, and blacks (for W.E.B. Du Bois, Wagner signified ethereal beauty beyond a racist reality). Ross follows Wagner's long reach everywhere: Nietzchean philosophy, high-modernist novels, The Lord of the Rings, cowboy stories, Bugs Bunny cartoons, and such Hollywood epics as Birth of a Nation, Apocalypse Now, and Captain America. Ross manages to tame the sprawl with incisive analysis and elegant prose that casts Wagner's music as "an aesthetic war zone in which the Western world struggled with its raging contradictions, its longing for creation and destruction, its inclinations toward beauty and violence." The result is a fascinating study of the impact that emotionally intense music and drama can have on the human mind.