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On “Wagnerism” by Alex Ross


In this weekend’s “Wall Street Journal” I review Alex Ross’s important new book “Wagnerism.” I write in part:

Great works of art are so powerfully imagined that their intent and expression mold to changing human circumstances. But the operas of Richard Wagner are arguably unique in this regard: No other creative genius in the Western canon so unerringly holds up a mirror to time and place. . . . Thomas Mann’s claim that Wagner “was probably the greatest talent in the entire history of art” cannot be dismissed as hyperbole.

Alex Ross’s “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music” takes up Wagner’s protean impact with unprecedented scope. In other writers’ accounts, Wagnerism ends with World War I in Europe and America and, slightly later, in Soviet Russia . . .  But in Mr. Ross’s wide-ranging chronicle, Wagner’s influence outside the world of music keeps on going . . . No previous writer has so copiously chronicled the sheer ubiquity of Wagner in important novels, poems and paintings. The result is an indispensable work of cultural history, offering both a comprehensive resource and a bravura narrative.

While the existing Wagner literature is vast and defies generalization, the best-known studies range from passionate advocacy to equally impassioned denunciation. Mr. Ross, who came late to Wagner, is a centrist—a circumspect, at times even diffident, Wagnerite. He writes: “The behemoth whispers a different secret in each listener’s ear.” Mr. Ross . . . is able to become many listeners. Relatedly, there are limits to his degree of engagement—and Wagner is about commitment, however dangerous or misguided. These limits frame and modulate Mr. Ross’s extraordinary book. . . . 

The author upon whom Mr. Ross lavishes the most attention is Willa Cather, whose Wagnerism—in her life as in her fiction—was an explicit leitmotif. . . . Cather’s achievement, [he] summarizes, “was to transpose Wagnerism into an earthier, more generous key. She offered grandeur without grandiosity, heroism without egoism, myth without mythology. Brünnhilde stays on her mountain crag, hailing the sun: no man breaks the ring of fire.” 

But is that all? In the early 20th century, most American Wagnerites were women, for whom Wagner was an antidote to lives marginalized in a man’s world of work and money. And so it was with Cather, whose most insightful Wagner commentary diagnoses Kundry, in “Parsifal.” One of Wagner’s most original creations, Kundry oscillates between extremes of submission and domination. Cather’s Kundry, at the Met, was Olive Fremstad, a Wagner soprano, Callas-like in veracity and intensity, with whom Cather became friends. Of Fremstad’s Kundry, Cather writes that it “is a summary of the history of womankind. [Wagner] sees in her an instrument of temptation, of salvation, and of service; but always an instrument, a thing driven and employed. . . . She cannot possibly be at peace with herself. . . . A driven creature, [she is] made for purposes eternally contradictory.”

Mr. Ross cites this commentary without comment. But read Cather, and read about Fremstad (who twice married abortively, identified with Ibsen’s women and chopped wood in Scandinavian forests), and it all fits together. Wagner, for Willa Cather, was more than an inspirational artistic model: He was a therapist, a medium for self-understanding and empowerment. 

This dimension of the Wagner experience is equally inescapable in considering the vexed topic of Wagner and the Jews. . . .

The peculiar intensity of affinity Wagner could arouse in Jews was perhaps most notably evinced by Hermann Levi, who conducted the premiere of “Parsifal” at Bayreuth. To his father, a rabbi, Levi wrote: “The most beautiful thing that I have experienced in my life is that it was granted to me to come close to such a man, and I thank God daily for this.” 

Or take the case of Gustav Mahler, who, as Mr. Ross observes, once argued that the devious dwarf Mime, in “Siegfried,” was “intended by Wagner as a persiflage of a Jew.” Mahler then added: “I know of only one Mime, and that is me.” There is, however, more to this aside. Mahler also said: “No doubt with Mime, Wagner intended to ridicule the Jews with all their characteristic traits . . . the jargon is textually and musically so cleverly suggested; but for God’s sake it must not be exaggerated and overdone. . . . You wouldn’t believe what there is in that part, nor what I could make of it.” For Mahler, Wagner exquisitely understood the Jew in Mime.

Mr. Ross ventures in a useful direction in considering the “special appeal” of “Lohengrin” for Jewish listeners: “The opera romanticizes the figure of the itinerant outsider who stands apart from the ‘normal’ community, much as many Jews perceived themselves within German society.” 

As a lifelong Jewish Wagnerite, I would go the distance: Wagner is the supreme poet of homelessness, the master musical portraitist of marginality. He is Siegmund, an orphan of ambiguous parentage, who exclaims: “I am always unpopular. . . . Misery is all I know.” He is Wotan and Tristan, who drop out. He is Hans Sachs, a lonely philosopher of pessimism. He is the cerebral Loge, whose irony is quick and irredeemable. As for Wagner himself, he suspected his actual father to have been Jewish. He fled the law as a political exile. He was always in debt. His enemies were numerous and powerful. His health was poor. 

That he was himself a paradigmatic outsider explains many of the most impassioned, most therapeutic manifestations of Wagnerism, beginning with his appeal to gays and women, to whom he seemed, as to so many Jews, “one of us.” And so he is also Parsifal, who may be read as androgynous; or Senta, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde, driven to flout convention because of oppressive circumstances—because of a brutish husband or clueless father. . . .


  1. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    A provocative article this on Wagner, bold and given JH’s ethnicity, courageous in its way.

    It certainly made me reflect on Wagner’s music and Wagnerism — which no one needs to tell this readership

    is very different in what it defines and engenders aesthetically.

    Still, and this is no non sequitur, the music of Verdi (his direct contemporary also born in 1813) is

    so much profounder, broader and more direct in painting and evoking the wide spectrum of human

    thoughts, emotions and terrors even. That he, unlike Wagner, spawned no school (reliance on chromaticism or

    Wagnerian aesthetics) and remains truly sui genesis is equally thought-provoking, meriting a similar analysis.

    • Robert Berger says

      While a have great admiration for Verdi’s operas, I could not disagree more with your statement that Verdi’s music is “so much profounder , broader and more direct in painting and evoking a wide spectrum of human thoughts, emotions and terrors even
      On the contrary, I would say that Wagner’s music is far more profound and emotionally powerful than Verdi’s , as effective and stirring as it is . Wagner’s music evokes just as wide a variety of emotional states as Verdi’s, if not more so .

  2. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    Obviously, it’s fine, good to disagree. Healthy, even! Especially at this particular moment in our American

    history where dialogue has all but vanished. I would put it to Mr. Berger that my unconditional love and awe of

    Verdi can perhaps best be seen NOT in his operas (marvelous as they ALL are), but in his Manzoni Requiem.

    Here, we discover emotions from gloomy mourning to humble supplication, thru the dread of the Dies Irae and

    TubaMirum, and finally concluding with a contrite entreaty to the Almighty. This perhaps more than any other

    composition illustrates how all-encompassing Verdi’s music can become and with economical means (the latter

    not a virtue of Wagner’s Mr. Berger would concede). Overwhelmingly powerful and yet of the deepest spirituality,

    well, this Requiem is something unique to Verdi and music adumbrated in his earlier works and brought to

    completion in operas and compositions following it. I refer especially to the Quattro Pezzi Sacri.

    • Elliott Michael Tessler says

      I agree completely with Dr.DiLuzzio, whose commentary and varied assessments consistently maintain the highest levels of probity, insight, and musical sensitivity.

  3. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    An interesting coincidence: I happen to be rereading Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” this very minute. As I peruse

    this and her other worthy novels in future, the Wagnerism (with emphasis on Kundry) that Mr. Ross

    examines will make my reading of her that much richer, that much more nuanced.

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