As befits one of history’s great megalomaniacs, Richard Wagner worried deeply about his posthumous reputation. “He believes,” his wife Cosima lamented, “that after his death they will drop his works entirely and he will live on in human memory as a phantom.”

In a sense, Wagner’s fears were understandable. The acceptance of his music, particularly in Paris, took many difficult years. Rienzi, Forbidden Love, and The Flying Dutchman, despite Giacomo Meyerbeer’s generous help, went nowhere, and the spectacular failure of Tannhäuser in 1861 infuriated him for the rest of his life. He never understood how much he impeded his progress by his outlandish behavior and matchless talent for irritating people. “His life,” wrote one biographer, “resembles a ship steering with incredible recklessness among every sort of shoal and rock.” Today, though, Wagner’s concerns seem almost laughably misplaced. Even by the late 1860s, he had secured the international reputation and stature that he never relinquished. Today, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, Tannhäuser, and the Ring operas still play to awed and overwhelmed audiences.

“His life,” wrote one biographer, “resembles a ship steering with incredible recklessness among every sort of shoal and rock.”

Wagner’s writings anticipate and complement his music. As is generally known, Art and Revolution and Opera and Drama explain the synesthetic concept of the Gesamtkunst (“totality of art”) that he thought gave his operas their cumulative power. Believing that society could be reformed and saved through a quasi-religious approach to art, Wagner advocated for theatrical reforms that he believed would lead to a better and happier world. He shows himself as a political and musical revolutionary, a utopian even, formulating his artistic legacy, the “artwork of the future.” On a darker note, his “Judaism in Music” essay reveals him as a nasty anti-Semite, madly jealous of Felix Mendelssohn and furious with the likes of Meyerbeer and the critics that in his estimation did little to promote his music. While his rebarbative views on race made it easy for the Nazis to co-opt him, Alex Ross’s new book dryly notes that even with that huge negative, Wagner successfully “survived the ruination of Hitler’s love.”

Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music describes Wagner’s influence on the other arts: literature (Willa Cather, George Eliot, Thomas Mann), poetry (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, T. S. Eliot), painting (Van Gogh, Cézanne, Klimt), sculpture (Arno Breker), and architecture (Louis Sullivan, Josef Hoffman). In many cases, however, “influence” is perhaps a misnomer. For non-musicians, Wagner tended to be all things to all men, and Ross shows how many artists and writers identifying as Wagnerites actually projected their different styles onto him—creating a god in man’s own image, as it were. “You returned me to myself,” wrote Baudelaire, and “We found ourselves in Richard Wagner,” said Edouard Dujardin. Though his acolytes cover an impossibly large field, the thing they had in common was wanting to be revolutionary, willing, in Wagner’s words, to “[d]o something new! New! And again new!” And they took to heart his admonition that “[i]f you hang onto the old, the devil of unproductivity has you, and you will be the most unhappy artist!”

Drawing on hundreds of bibliographical sources and copiously end-noted, Ross’s Wagnerism is exhaustive, a clear labor of love but one structurally weakened by the diffusiveness of its subject matter. Ross claims too much and admits as much: “[d]ialogues between genres,”—i.e. between music and other arts—“are not always persuasive or coherent.” The consequence is a blurred narrative in parts and a sense that points are being stretched. The set designer Adolphe Appia explained the central problem: “any attempt to transfer the Wagnerian idea into a work not based on music is a contradiction of that very idea.”

The book’s strengths lie in its early chapter accounts of the development of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and the English, American, and French responses to Wagner’s music. “Each country saw Wagner through a self-fashioned prism,” Ross writes. In England, Wagnerism replicated the Pre-Raphaelites’ search for a bucolic, Arthurian past. In the United States, Wagnerism had similarities to the “national love of wilderness sagas, frontier lore, Native American tales and stories of desperadoes searching for gold.” France, though, was another story. There, Wagnerism was modernism personified, and Ross’s accounts of the radical personalities and violent controversies churned up by the Wagner cult are colorful and occasionally disturbing. His explanation of Wagner’s magpie philosophy that drew from (and discarded when convenient) a string of thinkers including Hegel, Feuerbach, Prudhomme, Schopenhauer, and many, many others is clear and enjoyable. Ross’s description of Wagner’s dealings with Friedrich Nietzsche is another strength.

Wagner and Nietzsche first met in 1868, the year before the latter, younger man took up his professorship at the University of Basel. A talented pianist, Nietzsche worked his way as a teenager through a piano score of Tristan and was mesmerized. “Every fibre, every nerve in me is quivering,” he later wrote after hearing the Tristan prelude, and he spent much of his life wondering how Wagner did it.

Within two years of their first lunch, Nietzsche had his own bedroom in the house (King Ludwig II, Wagner’s great benefactor, had the other room).

Shortly after his start at Basel, Nietzsche traveled cross-country to Tribschen, where Wagner and Cosima lived. Within two years of their first lunch, Nietzsche had his own bedroom in the house (King Ludwig II, Wagner’s great benefactor, had the other room). For the first few years, the two enjoyed each other’s company, going for day-long walks in the nearby hills talking philosophy and music. Ross describes how each profited from the friendship: “Nietzsche seized on the chance to align himself with a star of European culture. Wagner, who lacked strong support in the academic world, knew the value of having a gifted and impassioned scholar at his side.”

Of course, there was more to it than that. Nietzsche agreed with Wagner’s view that culture and society could be rejuvenated through the transformative power of art. Nietzsche’s 1872 book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, expanded on Wagner’s ideas in Art and Revolution. Nietzsche claimed that Greek tragedy arose out of the “spirit of music” by balancing the creative Dionysian impulse with the rules of Apollonian order. The balance, achieved in the plays of Aeschylus, was upset by the rationalist influence of Socrates and Euripides, while the corrective was a “gradual awakening of the Dionysian spirit”—an outcome which, not least because of its references to The Ring, flattered the Dionysian Wagner. The good feelings, however, did not last forever. Nietzsche had begun to chafe, in part because he was treated like a menial (being sent on occasion to town to collect caramels or Wagner’s silk underwear), in part because of Wagner’s rampant anti-Semitism and Francophobia, and (we surmise) in much greater part because of Wagner’s impossible personality.

In the early 1870s, the Wagners moved to Bayreuth, 350 miles away from Tribschen, where construction was starting on the Festspielhaus, Wagner’s shrine for the performance of his later operas. Ross describes how in 1876 Wagner dragooned Nietzsche into writing puff pieces for the first Bayreuth Festival. They did little to save the Festival from financial losses. Nevertheless, as Ross shows, in addition to exhibiting Wagner the composer and theorist, it led to Wagner’s pioneering of modern techniques of mass dissemination and publicity. Ross quotes Nicholas Vazsonyi’s remark that “Wagner’s special skill was the ability to preserve the artistic integrity of his towering works amidst the blaze of commodification to which he in the first place had subjected them”—an observation that would undoubtedly have amused Nietzsche who, by this point, was having second thoughts about Wagner’s motives and intentions.

As their relationship deteriorated, it was but a short step for Nietzsche to reconsider Wagner’s philosophy. In 1876, Nietzsche published Human, All Too Human, the work that brought about their permanent estrangement—though Wagner’s astonishingly malicious letter to Nietzsche’s doctor (in which he wrote that Nietzsche’s chronic ill health could be due to masturbation) could have played a part. Anticipating the “Fascist Wagner” that he covers later in the book, Ross sums up the philosophical differences between the two:

What Wagner disliked in Nietzsche—the pitilessness, the exaltation of power—and what Nietzsche disliked in Wagner—the Teutonic chauvinism, the antisemitism—added up to an approximation of the fascist mentality. Once the better angels of their natures are set aside, Wagner and Nietzsche darkly complete each other in the Nazi mind.

Even after Nietzsche published a host of other anti-Wagner writings, however, the spell of Wagner’s music lingered. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche alluded to him as the “old sorcerer,” a reference to the bewitching power of his music. And in his “ultimate act of apostasy,” The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche confessed that he understood perfectly when a musician says, “I hate Wagner, but I cannot stand any other music.”

Ross shows how, over time, the English response to Wagner, moving from hostility to acceptance, was the reverse of his relationship with Nietzsche. For Wagner, nineteenth-century London was a real-life Nibelheim, the subterranean hellscape in The Ring representing everything he loathed about modern society. “[W]orld domination, activity, work, and everywhere the oppressive feeling of steam and fog,” he described it. London was enemy territory in other respects, too. The Times’s critic vigorously disliked Wagner’s music, describing Lohengrin as “rank poison.” The predominant value of English music at the time was moral uplift, art that was “exempt from the trail of the serpent” and divorced from England’s rapid social change. For open-minded listeners, though, Wagner’s music eventually provided a place where they “could contemplate tensions between an idyllic past and an industrial present.”

An early lifeline came from the brilliant Mary Ann Evans—George Eliot—who wrote an admiring article about Wagner around 1854. In what must be a reference to his leitmovic construction, she wrote that opera should be “an organic whole, which grows up like a palm, its earliest portion containing the germ and prevision all the rest.” Not yet converted to his music, Eliot nevertheless praised Wagner’s dramatic construction, rejecting the “cheap ridicule” directed against him. Later, she based her own works on Wagner’s principles of organic unity. As she explained about Daniel Deronda, “everything in the book [was meant] to be related to everything else there,” and she would speak of the “roar which lies on the other side of silence”—the unspoken feelings of her characters.

Two decades after Eliot’s article appeared in England, the anti-Wagner climate there had softened considerably. The Lohengrin-hating critic at The Times had been replaced by a student of Nietzsche’s, Francis Hueffer. He and Edward Dannreuther, another transplanted German, not only did much to change English attitudes towards Wagner’s music but were also connected to the English Pre-Raphaelites. They, like Wagner, were dismayed at the spiritual erosion caused by the pace of change. “The leading passion of my life,” wrote William Morris, “has been and is a hatred of modern civilization.” Despite their similar outlooks, Morris could not bear Wagner’s music.

Ross describes how the Pre-Raphaelites took an interest in the Tannhäuser legend, in which the eponymous hero is torn between the erotic Dionysian, Venus, and the saintly Apollonian, Elisabeth. In 1861, the same year as Tannhäuser’s Parisian failure, Edward Burne-Jones painted his Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus), Swinburne wrote a poem with the same name, and Morris began the even more explicitly titled poem Hill of Venus. Although the Pre-Raphaelites never joined the Wagner cult, Ross says, their aims and effects were largely similar.

Ross’s detailing of Wagner’s 1877 visit to London as well as his analysis of Swinburne’s and Morris’s neo-Wagnerianism make for interesting reading, but even more engaging—on an entirely different subject—are his remarks on the sanitized plot summaries that enterprising publishers prepared for the Victorian “young adult” market. Though they mostly dwell on Wagner’s “heroes and dragons” aspects, it is hard not to smile at the Cartlandesque description of the soon-to-be adulteress, Isolde, as “tall and very fair, with hair of a deep brilliant gold” and Tristan as “deeply tanned.” As the Liebesnacht begins, Ross reports, the two are “satisfying themselves and each other with assurances and proofs of their love and fidelity,” and he goes on to provide other droll examples (like Brunhilde’s live cremation in Gotterdämmerung) of the bowdlerizer’s art.

Much to Cosima’s horror, Wagner seriously considered uprooting himself from Bayreuth and moving to Minnesota.

America had been considerably more receptive to Wagner’s music than some European countries, largely because of an émigré population that created “peak Wagnerism” there during the Gilded Age. Wagner reciprocated those warm feelings. Much to Cosima’s horror, he seriously considered uprooting himself from Bayreuth and moving to Minnesota. Upset by the low attendance and poor returns at the 1876 Festival, Wagner persuaded himself that the purest German stock had immigrated to the upper Midwest. These folk, he believed, were more capable of appreciating his music dramas than his unenthusiastic fellow citizens that stayed home. Ross tells us how Wagner worked with his dentist on a plan that would resettle the Wagner family somewhere with a propitious climate—so how Minnesota made the short list remains a mystery.

Wagner influenced American artists for good and for bad. After a performance of Gotterdämmerung, the artist Albert Pinkham Ryder spent two sleepless days painting his eerie Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens (1891), a picture that did much to influence Jackson Pollock. The Siegfried legend also influenced Owen Wister, the author of the archetypal Western The Virginian (1902)—a work containing, in Ross’s view, the elements of white supremacy, racism, and social Darwinism “that underlay so much of the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny.” In architecture, Ross describes how Paul Rosenfeld saw Wagner as providing theme music for America’s “vastness, its madly affluent wealth, and multiform power and transcontinental span,” and Ross expands on this with references to the work of John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham, and Louis Sullivan. He finishes the section by discussing the similarities between Wagner’s music and Walt Whitman’s poetry. For Whitman, the operas “attach themselves to the same theories of art that have been responsible for Leaves of Grass.”

Of Wagnerism’s various benign strains, the French variety was surely the most contagious and engulfing. “You cannot imagine the impression that this music made on those of my age,” said Alphonse Daudet to his son, “It truly transformed us.” Even though Wagner had spent a few years in Paris twenty years before, French Wagnerism really started in 1860 when he conducted three concerts at the Théâtre Italien that included the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, his dreamlike opera of love and death.

As was the case in England, admiration for Wagner grew slowly and attracted few admirers at first. Berlioz was in the nay camp, disparaging the prelude as a “sort of chromatic moaning.” Baudelaire, however, was an early devotee. Similar to how George Eliot defended Wagner in England, Baudelaire stood up for him after the Tannhäuser flop in late 1861 and helped turn public opinion against the “convocation of imbeciles blocking progress” and towards a new Wagner partisanship. But Baudelaire made an even longer lasting contribution. When the critic Paul Scudo heard “the qualities and defects of an epoch of decadence” in Wagner’s music, Baudelaire adopted the term, likening “decadence” to the synesthetic shocks of recognition that the music provoked in his own creative processes. By the end of the century, Ross tells us, the Wagnerian revelation had influenced scores of visual artists, writers, and poets. It contributed to the Symbolist movement and led to “dream logic, mental intoxication, formless form, limitless desire.”

As the Wagner circle grew, it attracted a number of highly original (and often, at least by current standards, daft) characters. These included Théophile Gautier’s gifted daughter Judith (whom Wagner, behind Cosima’s back, called his “Beloved Amplitude”); her husband, the handsome and perverse Catulle Mendès (whom Maupassant called a “lily in urine”); and the cackling Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, author of the mystical oddball drama Axël and the unsettling Contes Crueles. In the visual arts, Renoir, Monet, Rodin, Fantin-Latour, Cézanne, and others claimed to be Wagnerites. Conductors like Pasdeloup and Lamoureux kept the flame burning, and in due time the Rosicrucians (Péladan), Les XX (James Ensor), and Satanists (Huysmans, the disturbing Camille Lemonnier, and the even creepier Marcel Batilliat) all claimed lineage from Wagner. Whether we want to believe them is another matter.

Wagnerism is a huge work, “the great education of my life,” writes Ross, and it is a claim easy to accept. After leaving the French Wagnerites, he pushes on with analyses of the composer’s influence on the Kaiserreich, modernism, Cather, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, Mann and Nazi Germany, film, and other subjects. Despite its accumulated learning, however, Wagnerism tells only half the story. We see the effect of Wagner but not a persuasive cause. The explanation that Wagner is “a blank screen on which spectators project themselves” raises questions: Why did they want to project themselves? How did Wagner attract them? By what means did he create the astonishing sounds that won him so many distinguished converts? The explanation surely lies in the power of his music, and it is surprising that, for a music critic, the author does not better develop this seemingly fundamental element. Reading Nietzsche’s late-life admission that Wagner showed him “the fifty worlds of foreign ecstasies that only he had wings to reach” makes us all the more curious. As it stands though, Wagnerism rather mimics Gioachino Rossini’s wry description of Wagner’s work: “beautiful moments and bad quarter hours.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 1, on page 63
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