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The world according to Wagner

How the composer infiltrated every corner of culture, from Hollywood and literature to architecture and philosophy.

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Is Wagner a man? Is he not rather a  disease?” asked Nietzsche, the first but not the last to balk at the conflict between his helpless love for the music’s “dangerous fascination and sweet, shuddering infinity” and his loathing for the composer’s  political ideas.

Alex Ross, the distinguished music critic of the New Yorker, takes up the question, examining how this musico-political problem has played out worldwide through many facets: Socialist Wagner, Feminist Wagner, Gay Wagner, Black Wagner, Theosophical Wagner, Dadaist Wagner, Sci-fi Wagner, Comic-strip Wagner, Porno Wagner, Hollywood Wagner, Alt-right Wagner, Communist Wagner, et al. The book is at its best when charting the struggle of big figures such as Theodor Herzl, the architect of the Zionist state, WEB Du Bois, the African-American writer and activist of the 1930s, and Martin Luther King Jr, who described listening to Wagner as akin to standing in the presence of the divine.

Baudelaire compared the music to taking cocaine, Nietzsche to taking hashish. James Joyce said it stank of sex. Susan Sontag called it “erotic danger”. Wagner is often called “the Sorcerer”, his sorcery residing in his gesamtkunstwerk, the melding of all the arts into a total work of art that overwhelms each of the senses simultaneously, overcoming rationality while tapping into myth, dream and the unconscious. Through formless form and endless melody, he “ceaselessly returns us towards an ecstasy of pleasure which promises to quench, but never does quench, our thirst” – Baudelaire again.

French culture was the first to be suffused by Wagnerism. It began with a couple of concerts in Paris in 1860 that electrified the avant-garde. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, Rodin, Flaubert, Zola, Van Gogh and more, all saw Wagnerism as the way to modernity, which Baudelaire defined as “the ephemeral… the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable”. Ephemerality characterises the dancing brush strokes of the impressionists. Symbolists such as Odilon Redon and occultists such as Sâr Péladan and Aleister Crowley discovered the eternal and the immutable in Wagner’s use of myth, legend, symbol, quasi-religiosity and magic (Dan Brown inherits their hieroglyph-splattered mantle). The wilder-eyed décadents, like Huysmans, believed Wagner tapped into Devilish sources, and they fastened like vampires on to the liebestod (literally “love-death”), the final scene of Tristan und Isolde when the lovers achieve erotic apotheosis by dying together. The décadents glorified this as the supreme self-mythologising act, while Nietzsche condemned it as self-indulgent nihilism that must be overcome.

Wagnerism came later to Germany than to France. Richard Wagner (1813-83) had taken part in the Dresden uprising of 1849. He had financed the rebels’ supply of hand-grenades, and lobbed quite a few himself. It’s not true that he fled Germany dressed as a woman, but flee he did, and was exiled from Germany until 1862, when he was pardoned. When he returned, the public’s ear was tuned to the much easier music of Offenbach, Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt. Wagner completed much of The Ring in exile, but existing opera houses simply didn’t have big enough orchestra pits to seat the gigantic number of musicians he had composed for, so the cycle remained unheard until 1876, when he completed the opera house at Bayreuth. Opera houses eat money, and Wagner conceived of a news-sheet, Bayreuther Blätter, to publicise and fundraise through a worldwide network of Wagner Societies. He asked Nietzsche to edit the paper, but Nietzsche said no, and so it fell to Hans von Wolzogen, a gold-plated Jew-hating Aryan supremacist who spread his views through the Blätter and the societies.

Enter political Wagnerism, proto-Nazi at birth. There are no Jews in Wagner’s operas, and Ross disputes that Wagner’s work is inherently anti-Semitic. The extreme racism and nationalism now inseparable from Wagner’s name originated with Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who married Wagner’s daughter Eva and took over Bayreuth in 1908. On meeting Hitler in 1923, Chamberlain hailed him as Parsifal incarnate, destined to cleanse and redeem the world – a view that Hitler shared. It is surprising to learn that the number of stage performances in Germany actually declined during the Nazi era, and that Hitler went off Wagner towards the end, when he was more likely to listen to The Merry Widow than Siegfried’s funeral march.

The cliché of the Wagner-loving Nazi apparently originated with two films: Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Escape (1940). The legend that his music was piped through loudspeakers while camp guards massacred Jews is apparently untrue: Primo Levi remembered polkas, and other banal hits. But the music’s association with sadism persists. The playing of lilting music in counterpoint to brutality has become a Hollywood trope typified by Apocalypse Now, when the helicopter gunships obliterate a Vietnamese village to “Ride of the Valkyries”. Coppola intended the scene as a grand indictment of American hubris but the American military, not great on self-awareness, blared out the “Ride” during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the First Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq.

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Each country saw Wagner through its own prism. In Victorian Britain, Prince Albert venerated Wagner as a noble-minded idealist whose industriousness exemplified the Gospel of Work. Dickens, Hardy and George Eliot, on the other hand, took  The Ring as a warning against man’s pollution of both nature and human nature through greed and industrialisation – a view gaining ground again today. Matthew Arnold, William Morris, Alfred Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites fed their mania for myth and legend on the knights-and-maidens operas. WB Yeats followed Wagner into folk sources for his nationalistic Celtic Revival and into loopy mysticism for his secretive Order of the Golden Dawn. George Bernard Shaw wrote The Perfect Wagnerite with two books open on his desk: Das Kapital and the score of Tristan. (Shaw saw Wagner as an anarcho-socialist revolutionary.)

But it is with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf that British Wagnerism reaches supreme importance. Both describe their writing as music and both quote and reference Wagner extensively. The Waves and Mrs Dalloway are steeped in Wagner. Somebody counted that Finnegans Wake contains 178 allusions to The Ring and 242 to Tristan. Both writers were deliberately transposing Wagner’s “endless melody” into the written word as they created the stream of consciousness novel.

Wagner’s music arrived in America in 1848 with Germania, a musical group of revolutionary communists who, like Wagner, had fought on the barricades in the European uprisings of 1848-49. Germania believed the music of the democracy-loving composer would inflame and stimulate all hearts in the Land of the Free. John Philip Sousa, “the march king” in charge of the US Marine Band, said Wagner was “a brass band man anyway”, and thumped out the tunes to great popular delight. But American Wagnerism reached its peak in 1884, when the fledgling and floundering Metropolitan Opera Company decided to switch from an Italian repertoire to a German one. This was such a success that it remained all-German until 1891. The Ring was advertised as the “Greatest Operatic Attraction in the World” and there were proposals to build replicas of the Bayreuth festspielhaus in Milwaukee and on the Hudson River.

Hollywood is the natural home for Wagnerism, as cinema is the medium most capable of realising the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. The movies were deeply rooted in Wagnerism from the start. Wagner was the master of the epic spectacle and the early film-makers DW Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and Fritz Lang aspired to the same scale and power. Griffith played the “Ride of the Valkyries” in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and thousands of films have used Wagner’s music ever since.

Soundtrack composers quickly adopted Wagner’s leitmotif technique: a little musical theme associated with a particular character, pressing an emotional button in the audience whenever it is played. Disney borrowed extensively from Wagner’s leitmotifs, sometimes using them schmaltzily, and sometimes sending up the music to goofy goings-on. Hitchcock and film noir picked up on what Huysmans called Wagner’s “screams of uncontained desires… impulses from the carnal beyond”.  Buñuel, Visconti and Salvador Dalí, strove for the same effect in their sado-erotic films. Visconti uses the liebestod in The Damned (1969), where a stupefying orgy preludes the Night of the Long Knives. The grisliest of this genre is Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism (1966), an ode to seppuku set to the soundtrack of Tristan. Mishima revoltingly described seppuku as “the ultimate masturbation”. Mercifully, he didn’t film it when he ended his own life this way.

Susan Sontag mentions Visconti and Mishima in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism”, which studies the vogue for Nazi chic and pornography within broader culture. Ken Russell nonsensicalises this whole idea in Lisztomania (1975) but the jury’s still out on whether Russell is mocking or endorsing. There is, as Henry James observed, a thin line between nihilism and bric-a–brac.

Quest and fantasy and superhero genres are obvious literary and cinematic heirs, along with Tolkien’s Ring books. But who would have guessed the debt that the cowboy genre owed to Wagner? Owen Wister, whose 1902 novel The Virginian established the principle tropes of Western literature, was a Wagner obsessive who saw Valhalla in every prairie and Siegfried in every cowboy: “Lounging there at ease was a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures. His broad, soft hat was pushed back; a loose-knotted dull-scarlet handkerchief sagged from his throat; and one casual thumb was hooked in the cartridge-belt that slanted across his hips.” Hello Clint Eastwood.

Rolling prairies had no monopoly on the American Wagnerist vision. Gotham City exploded out of Ludwig of Bavaria’s castles-on-steroids, while real-life cityscapes turned Wagnerian through the Chicago school of architecture. When Frank Lloyd Wright was apprenticed to Louis Sullivan, he remembered Sullivan describing Wagnerian productions during the design process and singing leitmotifs from the operas. All sorts of one-horse towns sprouted surprising banks and public buildings modelled on the Bayreuth festspielhaus. When Sullivan got the job of designing Chicago’s opera house, no guessing what he based it on.

With so little of the book devoted to music and so much devoted to sex, it is useful to know that Wagner was heterosexual, promiscuous, completely uninterested in sadism and totally relaxed about same-sex relationships. When accused of overturning the laws of sexual freedom and gender laws in his operas, he simply said: “It is something of which I have an understanding but no inclination.” Fondness for Wagner is a marker in “coming out” literature and the queering of the Meister made much of his proximity to King Ludwig II, a gay icon of the fin de siècle. The topic of same-sex Wagnerism entered the public discourse in 1895 with the writings of Krafft-Ebing, Hanns Fuchs and Otto Weininger, who stated rather startlingly that, “Music can vicariously stand for sexual intercourse – Wagnerising especially is just a better surrogate for coitus.” Papers on erotomania (excessive sexual lust) induced by the music of Wagner became something of a fashion: apparently listeners of all sexual preferences might be affected. Gay men fixed on Siegfried, the young warrior with his muscles and his sword, and/or on Parsifal, with its images of spears and wounds within a closed, all-male order of knights. Brunhilde and Isolde played the same role for gay women. Virginia Woolf attended a suffragette ball as Brunhilde with a winged helmet on her head.

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Once on the subject of gay women, Ross devotes 32 pages to the novels of Willa Cather, which seems a little unbalanced compared to the four pages he gives to Black Wagner and four to Wagner in Israel. This is a serious flaw. The book over-promises on the word “politics” in its title, while spinning a worldwide-Wagner-web of cultural connections, which even the author admits are sometimes over-stretched – Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo is surely a book about a silver mine, not a Wagnerian dragon’s hoard.

The author can be forgiven for losing  the ability to organise the vast amount of material supporting the enormous vision he sees of the world infused by Wagnerism, but not for failing to draw a proper conclusion from the huge welter he has accumulated. The book ends anecdotally on Ross being dumped by his lover after an outing to Die Walküre. This seriously dodges the big question implicit throughout the book: can we talk about the morality of an artwork? If so, does its morality somehow depend on the morality of its creator? Or on the morality of those who receive and respond to it?

The section on Wagnerism and philosophy describes the composer’s influence on various thinkers without confronting this question at all. Given that we are reeling from 700 pages scattergunning us with intensely individual and often ludicrously contradictory responses to Wagner, we might choose to agree with the philosopher Alain Badiou and the painter Edvard Munch and indeed with Nietzsche, all of whom believed that, once created, the artwork is a being-in-itself, its infinity completely independent of both originator and interpreter. Wagnerism’s endless shape-shifting, reflected in the mirror of Ross’s temporal world, only confirms that distinguished triumvirate’s belief that the true artwork itself composes truth as it moves forward through time. 

Sue Prideaux is the author of “I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche” (Faber & Faber)

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music 
Alex Ross
Fourth Estate, 784pp, £30

This article appears in the 02 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union