THE PHRASE cancel culture does not appear in Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, a new survey by Alex Ross of Richard Wagner’s uniquely multidisciplinary impact across two centuries. The term is too loaded for use in such an evenhanded treatment, but Ross nonetheless details a pitched battle over cultural cancellation whose paradoxes are as instructive as they are vexing.
Dispersed throughout this account are the stories of Jews who opted to champion rather than cancel one of history’s most notorious antisemites. We see American Jews funding Wagner’s festival in Bayreuth, European Jews performing for a rapt Adolf Hitler, Theodor Herzl binge-watching Tannhäuser while writing The Jewish State, Otto Weininger hailing Wagner as “the greatest man since Christ.”
I recently found myself accused of Jewish Wagner sympathy after asking on social media if anyone could recommend a production of Tristan und Isolde for my college seminar “Music for Masochists: Five Centuries of Difficult Listening in Western Classical Music.” Tristan gave tonal music a hard shove toward a sheer cliff and as such plays a pivotal role in the story of difficult music.
In response to my query, amid a few recommendations, someone deposited the hashtag #wagneriscancelled and assigned me to watch the Sarah Silverman music video about Jewish people who drive German cars. This stung: my first and most beloved car, the gift of my Jewish mother’s Jewish second husband, was a blue 1967 Volkswagen Bug. When you turned on the radio the windshield wipers activated; it was too human to be a Nazi.
I responded with a defense of Tristan that was heartfelt but also dishonest in a sense: I’d already canceled Wagner, at the age of 14. I needed help choosing a Tristan because I barely knew the opera, and that’s the Wagner opera I knew best.
The trouble started in 1985 when the San Francisco Symphony gave its first performances of Metamorphosen, the Richard Strauss requiem written in the twilight of World War II. The work hypnotized me at first hearing. I mentioned it to my violin teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory, Mr. Tinkleman, a gruff taskmaster in a wheelchair whose lessons had left me in tears on more than one occasion. His response was a sharp and graphic Holocaust lecture. Now that I think of it, the lecture covered Volkswagen, a car Mr. Tinkleman said the Nazis created for the German Volk to crush Jews with. Strauss had collaborated with these fiends and written their requiem just as Wagner had written their script. I never mentioned either composer to him again.
But I didn’t stop listening to Strauss. He became a guilty pleasure, not in the effervescent way of joints and tequila but in the way of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Perhaps I tried to appease this guilt by canceling Wagner and by shaming George Dusheck, a retired San Francisco newsman and father figure who had shaped my musical tastes and prejudices; now I would shape his.
“Did you know that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf slept with a Nazi general?” I asked him. George had a wall-length record collection heavy on Strauss opera, and Schwarzkopf was his idol.
“I did not know that,” the old reporter said. “But I’ll tell you something. For Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s performance in the last act trio of Der Rosenkavalier, I would forgive her that. I would forgive her anything.”
I’ve never quite gotten the amoral sting of that Holocaust-adjacent anything out of my ear, even after I understood it as the delivery mechanism for a lesson about nuance, and about stridency. With old men at each ear whispering death camps and spinning Schwarzkopf LPs, I turned against cancellation, following George deep into Strauss, and learning along the way that, whatever his moral frailty or careerist opportunism in cooperating with the Nazi regime, the composer resisted both its antisemitism and its nationalism and celebrated its demise.
Wagner’s antisemitism, by contrast, was fanatical, and he remained more or less canceled until Week 4 of my music course. Feeling too new to the opera to be quite up to the task of teaching it, I scheduled a Zoom classroom visit with Ross, whose The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century was our textbook, and whom I had met when we were both on the 2008 Messiaen centenary circuit, and my film about Messiaen was making the rounds.
Wagnerism is a compelling and surprisingly funny tour de force with its procession of geniuses, fiends, divas, and eccentrics battling over art and politics. But I found that my interest peaked when the subject turned to Tristan and leveled off when the still-canceled operas took center stage. My solution was to spend a month of COVID-19 lockdown screening all 11 major operas — in order of composition except to keep the four Ring operas together — and to resume reading on the other side.
Wagnerism is primarily a book about the composer’s influence on nonmusical spheres. “Wagner’s effect on music was enormous,” Ross writes, “but it did not exceed that of Monteverdi, Bach, or Beethoven. His effect on neighboring arts was, however, unprecedented, and it has not been equaled since, even in the popular arena.” This struck me as overstated before getting through the book — not after. The cumulative effect of Ross’s survey is to suggest a kind of key to all modern mythologies: no significant political or aesthetic movement in the West seems to have escaped Wagner’s influence. Another effect is to confirm Ross’s status as a virtuoso generalist, equally at home in the harmonic thickets of the score as in the most unexpected corners of the literary fin de siècle. “Writing this book,” Ross declares in his introduction, “has been the great education of my life.”
What follows is a reading diary superimposed on a listening diary in the shadow of a public confrontation over values — and a comparably contentious internal one.
PART I — NAZIS
1840 Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes
In which a cabal of corrupt oligarchic senators dupe a low-information populace into revolting against a center-left government and sacking the Capitol.
Rienzi is an ideal starting point for a discussion of canceling Wagner for two reasons. First, Wagner canceled it. He came to think it sounded too Italian, and the opera has never been performed at his festival.
Second, this is the opera Hitler said inspired him to get into politics.
But maybe starting with Hitler is getting off on the wrong foot. If this is a trial — and at five hours and change without cuts, Rienzi is nothing if not that — let’s yield to the defense for a brief look at the neighboring arts Ross claims Wagner so powerfully influenced.
Let’s say you were interested in quarks. You’d be calling them something else if it weren’t for a James Joyce reference to Tristan. Joyce’s works are lousy with Wagner — Finnegans Wake refers several hundred times to the Ring cycle and Tristan alone. Moreover, that self-consciously musical poem is only comprehensible in Wagnerian terms with its 1,000-plus leitmotifs, often the reader’s only clue to a character’s presence.
Not a Joyce fan? Shake another modernist writer and out comes Wagner, whether it’s Woolf, Forster, Conrad, Proust, Lawrence, or Thomas Mann, whose “entire oeuvre is a kind of aftermath of Wagner.” Wagner, Ross concludes, is “the unavoidable beast at the heart of the modern labyrinth.”
But it’s one thing for a critic to suggest an influence. What did those allegedly under this influence have to say about it?
Nietzsche wrote that “Wagner sums up modernity. It can’t be helped, one must first become a Wagnerian.” Mallarmé called him le dieu Richard Wagner and said, “What a singular challenge Richard Wagner imposes on poets, whose duty he usurps with the most candid and splendid bravura!” Claude Lévi-Strauss called Wagner “the incontestable father of the structural analysis of myths.” Woolf compared him with Shakespeare; the Comte de Villiers called him “a genius such as appears upon the earth once every thousand years.” Mann said he was the “greatest talent in the entire history of art,” leaving Jean Verdenal, writing to T. S. Eliot, just enough room to top him: “I went the other day to the Götterdämmerung, conducted by Nikisch; the end must be one of the highest points ever reached by man.”
So much for the defense. Hitler never quoted Wagner’s antisemitic writings directly, but he might have. Wagner wrote poisonously about Jews, most famously in “Jewishness in Music,” an attack on the older contemporaries Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, to whom he was indebted both musically and materially — add them to the list of Jewish artists driving Wagnerian cars. By way of thanks, Wagner urged that the Jews undergo a process of Untergang, which with some controversy may be translated as annihilation.
While the literati and anthropologists were crediting Wagner with fathering modernism, antifascists were blaming him for the Third Reich. He was “perhaps the most important single fountainhead of Nazi ideology,” diagnosed US historian Peter Viereck in 1939. Hitler himself affirmed that the National Socialist movement was “anchored in the works of Richard Wagner.”
Ross attempts to disentangle composer and dictator, pointing out that while the Nazis found much to like in Wagner’s hatred of Jews and glorification of the German Volk, they often found the rest of his belief system indigestible and embarrassing: Wagner called patriotism madness, a cause of perpetual war. In the revolutions of the late 1840s, Wagner the man was canceled, insofar as he was exiled and very nearly executed for his activities as a leftist insurgent.
His politics bolstered opponents of the Nazi regime, including the composer’s granddaughter, Friedelind, one of the Allies’ prize defectors. “Richard Wagner, who loved freedom and justice even more than he loved music itself, could not have breathed in Hitler’s Germany,” Friedelind said, introducing a 1942 Met broadcast.
Indeed, the political battle over Wagner began long before the fateful night Hitler settled into his seat for his first Rienzi. Walt Whitman worried the point in Wagner’s lifetime, asking, “Do you figure out Wagner to be a force making for democracy or the opposite?” Every point on the ideological spectrum has claimed him with at least some plausibility, from 19th-century American anarchists to the Nazi regime itself, whose “Operation Valkyrie,” a continuity of government plan, laid the groundwork for Claus von Stauffenberg’s botched attempt to assassinate Hitler and overthrow his government.
At this point, 208 years after his birth, the tug-of-war over Wagner has subsided along with the cultural relevance of Western opera, leaving the composer’s reputation in shreds. “Whatever the merits of the ‘proto-Nazi’ framing, Wagner’s afterlife assumes a tragic shape,” Ross writes. “An artist who had within his reach the kind of universality attained by Aeschylus and Shakespeare was effectively reduced to a cultural atrocity — the Muzak of genocide.”
I wouldn’t call Rienzi Muzak, though it does have a distinctly recycled sound. You hear glimmers of what is to come: brass fanfares with slippery chord progressions, triumphal choruses, stupefying length. “Wagner has beautiful moments,” Rossini decided, “and awful quarter hours.”
At the beautiful moments, I find myself swept away; I experience the emancipated dissonance of the Jew in his Volkswagen, the stain of the composer’s hatred along with the related trouble that Willa Cather identified: “[S]o much of Wagner has been rather spoiled for us by being boisterously played for very un-musical purposes.” I approach a possibly spiritual realm in which anything may be forgiven and fend off Walter Benjamin’s warnings about the proximity of fascism and aestheticism. Schiller, Ross notes, wrote that communities find unity through shared aesthetic experience; so, one might add, do cults. Sitting rapt a few rows up from besotted Hitler, I feel the threatening proximity of the Mann essay titled “That Man Is My Brother.”
PART II — LEITMOTIFS
1843 The Flying Dutchman
In which a woman leaves her fiancé to elope with a cursed sailor who promises her death.
Dutchman is the breakthrough, Wagner becoming Wagner. Here, the leitmotifs are pressed into service for the first time, an innovation that divided composers the way populism divides societies and cilantro divides families. Stravinsky, lecturing at Harvard a century after Dutchman, was still complaining of
the monumental absurdity which consists of bestowing on every accessory, as well as on every feeling and every character of the lyrical drama, a sort of check-room number called a Leitmotiv — a system that led Debussy to say that the Ring struck him as a sort of vast musical city directory.
I attempt to find a Dutchman leitmotif key online, if only to irritate Stravinsky, who went on to lament the “little guides that make the neophyte attending a presentation of Götterdämmerung resemble one of those tourists you see on top of the Empire State Building trying to orient himself by spreading out a map of New York.” But soon I abandon the effort; let the leitmotifs work their magic subconsciously or not at all. Like navigating Manhattan without a map, you can only get so lost: eventually, like the Dutchman and his bride, you reach the water.
PART III — SEX CRIMES
1845 Tannhäuser and the Song Contest at the Wartburg
In which a singer-songwriter leaves his fiancée for a sexed-up goddess in the woods and is subsequently canceled by his community, his singing group, and the pope.
Recent headlines make for a complicated viewing experience. We go without pause from Tannhäuser’s sexual shaming at the end of Act II to James Levine  taking his third-act bows. Levine was fired from the Met in 2018 after The New York Times detailed his alleged long-term sexual abuse of four men, as young as 16. Juilliard undergraduates traded stories about Levine when I was there in the early ’90s, but apparently it took another quarter-century and the efforts of The Times for the news to percolate up to the management of the opera house.
My viewing of Tannhäuser is interrupted. I am visited by a man who resembles the shape-shifting demon of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and introduces himself as the Ethicist. He offers me the opportunity to go back in time and expose Levine on the first alleged offense. Every subsequent alleged victim will go unharmed, their careers and their emotional lives undisturbed; Levine’s own career will be immediately and irrevocably canceled. Troyanos, Norman, and Battle will never assemble for the 1988 Ariadne George Dusheck and I watched so many times, one of the most thrilling things that ever took place in a theater — no that; no this; no nothing; all canceled.
And everyone will know my decision, the Ethicist goes on to explain: either that I silenced the four glorious decades of music Levine directed or that I consigned his alleged victims to trauma and stunted opportunity. In the presence of the Ethicist, these men become a Wagnerian chorus asking to be spared. I hear his Ariadne, the superhuman voices and the gleaming gutsy orchestra he built, the best in New York, maybe anywhere; and George is there too, goading me over the music, saying, “Go ahead. Forgive him. Forgive him anything!”
“Turn him in,” I tell the Ethicist. “Nobody should be sexually humiliated for the sake of my bourgeois entertainment. Let someone else conduct the Met.”
“Who, Charles Dutoit? He has 10 accusers. Or maybe you’d prefer Plácido Domingo?”
“Cancel them too.”
“What about Lenny Bernstein?”
“What about him? He was never accused of anything like this, at least not in The Times.”
“He habitually stuck his tongue into his daughter’s mouth,” the Ethicist counters. “She wrote about it in her book.”
Now I’m in trouble: I have to cancel West Side Story. Also, I see where this is going; I see who’s next.
I ask the Ethicist if I can have a minute to think it over.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian “would sit in his box at the opera, either alone or with Lord Henry, listening in rapt pleasure to ‘Tannhauser’ and seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.”
Perhaps it is the tragedy of my soul that I will always need another minute to think it over.
PART IV — GOD
In which a princess falsely accused of murdering her brother agrees to marry an anonymous knight who’s just stepped off a boat pulled by a swan, at which point a pagan witch intervenes.
There are two benefits to watching so many Wagner operas in chronological order. First is the astonishing development from one to the next; each seems richer, more daring, more harmonically and psychologically penetrating. The second is that the earworms come in such rapid succession that none really has a chance to burrow in. Leitmotifs are breeding grounds for earworms; Stravinsky might have mentioned it. Another problem is overexposure. I may not have seen Tannhäuser, but boy have I heard it, and now I am hearing it in my sleep. A lot is riding on tonight’s screening of Lohengrin.
As a bit of an experiment, I decide to pair the opera with hash. Nietzsche compared listening to Wagner with being high on this very drug. “Baudelaire likened it to opium,” Ross writes, “others to alcohol, morphine, and absinthe.” Elsewhere Ross calls Lohengrin “the gateway drug for Wagnerites.”
The results of the experiment are in: you should drop what you’re doing, call your dealer, and park yourself in front of the first-act prelude of Lohengrin, and you will find yourself very shortly touring the mind of God. The trick — what Messiaen took from Wagner — is in the music’s shameless distention of time. The awful quarter-hour becomes the beautiful moment, the representation via extreme slowness of the scale of divine thought. Modernism took much from Wagner, but the way his sense of scale dismantles realism feels to me even more modern than the tonal vagrancy of Tristan. For Nietzsche, Strauss, and countless others, modernism meant that God was dead; for Wagner, as for Messiaen, it permitted the distortion they used to portray divinity. It’s in this period that Nietzsche calls him “an oracle, a priest, indeed more than a priest, a sort of mouthpiece of the ‘in itself’ of things, a telephone of the beyond.”
The curtain has not yet risen, and already I’ve seen God, so it’s hard to imagine who else we’re going to meet over the next three and a half hours. Ask a stupid question: here comes the Ethicist. He’s sporting a yarmulke and peyot and wielding Ross to introduce me to a fellow worshipper: “Of the Wagner operas, Lohengrin caught his attention first,” Ross writes of Hitler, who recalled in Mein Kampf that he was “captivated at one stroke.” Both conductors in Linz at the time were Jews, incidentally, along with the heldentenor who sang the lead.
Maybe the clearest fingerprint of God here is the contrivance of such a moral glue trap for the Jewish people. We haven’t just tolerated Wagner: Hermann Levi conducted the Parsifal premiere; Wagner called him his alter ego, even after failing to persuade him to get baptized. Boris Thomashefsky produced a Yiddish Parsifal on the Bowery. Herzl claimed that the only time he felt any confidence in his ideas while writing The Jewish State was after nights spent in the theater with Tannhäuser. At an 1898 concert in Basel honoring the Second Zionist Congress, music from that opera was on the program.
Perhaps nothing crystalizes the problem like “Mendele Lohengrin,” an 1898 short story by the Austrian Jew Heinrich York-Steiner, whose protagonist asks on his initial encounter with the first-act prelude,
What were they playing down there? And why had it taken hold of him so powerfully? He got up, stretched his little head upwards, stood on his toes, as if he wanted to come closer to the notes. They quivered through the air like the wistful prayer of angelic choirs, like the quiet sobbing of God, like the music of cherubs, trying to soothe God’s pain.
There’s something very Romeo and Juliet about this glue trap: two tribes, searing passion, a death count. Is this what Bernstein was working out in West Side Story? It doesn’t end well for Mendele the Wagner-loving Jew, a wedding musician who proceeds to abandon the traditional repertory in favor of Lohengrin numbers until an irate villager hands him some light reading: “Jewishness in Music.” After digesting this, our hero shreds it, then repents, swears his allegiance to Wagner, and smashes his fiddle.
“I hate Wagner,” Bernstein said. “But I hate him on my knees.”
PART V — THE RING
1854 Das Rheingold
In which a dwarf steals enchanted gold from river nymphs in order to create and subsequently curse a ring that winds up figuring into a real estate development dispute between gods and giant independent contractors involving a hostage situation and golden apples that are the source of the gods’ eternal youth before a magic helmet turns the dwarf into a toad, prompting the gods to free the hostage, regain the youth apples, and move into the new construction via a rainbow bridge as one of the giants, now in possession of the cursed ring, kills the other.
Ross’s subject is the neighboring arts, but all I can think about as I listen to Rheingold for the first time is that canceling Wagner prevented me from understanding much of my beloved Strauss and even my liked Philip Glass. You don’t have to trim much from this and you’re left with a lot of stirring arpeggiated chord progressions — Einstein on the Rhine. Once again the point is scale: the relentless repetition of small units meant to represent the eternal flow of water here — or, in Ross’s hearing, “the nebularly cohering galactic systems theorized by Immanuel Kant” — is the minimalist trick of repeating tiny structures to conjure vast ones. As for Strauss, it’s back once again to Naxos as Ariadne’s Naiad, Dryad, and Echo are exposed as a bit of plagiarism by the earnest young Composer of the opera-within-the-opera: fully (if anachronistically) under Wagner’s spell, he has given us the upcycled Rhinemaidens of Naxos.
In Robert Lepage’s 2011 Met production, the Rhinemaidens dangle by Peter Pan wires from what appears to be a giant switchblade with 40-foot thresher spikes that reconfigure into streams and chutes and a giant screen for projections. This appliance is so interesting and apparently hazardous that I go for minutes at a time paying no attention whatsoever to the music.
1856 The Valkyrie
In which long-lost twins Siegmund and Sieglinde meet, fall in love, conspire to kill her husband with a sword left in a tree for Siegmund by Wotan, their god/illegitimate father, who erroneously thinks Siegmund will use the sword to protect the gods’ new construction if the dwarf repossesses the ring from the surviving giant who is now a dragon; but Wotan’s wife, Fricka, cancels the plan on grounds of incest and adultery, so Wotan destroys the sword, and Sieglinde’s husband kills her brother/lover before Wotan kills him (his illegitimate son-in-law), and despite the intervention of Wotan’s illegitimate daughter Brünnhilde, the title valkyrie, who ends up banished to a mountaintop in a ring of fire but not before tipping off her illegitimate half-sister, Sieglinde, that Sieglinde is pregnant with her own nephew.
The Ring won the admiration of Lévi-Strauss and Joseph Campbell, and yet amid all the dragon breath and jewelry powers, I can’t quite shake the feeling that these dramas aren’t quite for grown-ups, even if the music is. “All art,” Walter Pater wrote, “constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” and Wagner’s audience in particular has affirmed the constancy, which is to say the futility, of this aspiration.
Mark Twain in Bayreuth calls the music “exquisite” and “delicious.” “The problems start with the singing,” Ross reports. “Twain wishes that he could listen to Wagner with the vocal parts omitted, so that he could bask in the orchestration.” Cather, likewise, “wonders whether it would be better for the singers to stay silent and ‘let the eternal conflict of the flesh and the spirit go on in the orchestra, let that never-to-be-satisfied German conscience work out its destiny in music.’”
This conundrum underscores the wisdom of Puccini, who dragged the music down to the level of the libretto, and of Strauss, who hired real librettists — Jews, no less; it drove Hitler up a wall. But Wagner was not content to confine himself to the music, which he considered subservient to the visual: the orchestra was merely a “technical apparatus for bringing forth the picture.” The trouble is that his music so often evokes better pictures than the ones he puts onstage.
Words are one of opera’s dirty secrets. “Opera theory tells us that words master music, but we, in our secret hearts, know music’s superiority,” Wayne Koestenbaum writes in his seminal book The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. “[A]nd this destruction of language, this reversal of hierarchy, makes opera a fit object for the enthusiasms of sex-and-gender dissidents.” One suspects Koestenbaum has Wagner in mind when he argues alongside Twain and Cather, if only speculatively, for the cancellation of words altogether. “Do you blame music for erasing words? Libretti are so mythic and vague that erasure seems justified.”
In which the dwarf’s brother has raised Sieglinde’s son, Siegfried, from infancy with the plan of using him to slay the dragon before poisoning Siegfried and stealing the ring, but having tasted the dragon’s blood, Siegfried can understand birdsong and read minds, so he kills his adoptive father and finds Brünnhilde in her ring of fire and kisses her awake, whereupon she renounces immortality so they can die together.
The scenes in which Siegfried and his adoptive father bang at length on metal in their forge count as one or more of the awful quarter hours Rossini warned you about. Tolstoy called Siegfried “a stupid puppet show not even good enough for children,” so imagine how an opera queen suffers. The beautiful moments are there, and in fact there’s nothing wrong with this show that couldn’t be fixed by making Siegfried a trouser role written by Richard Strauss; you would have 50 percent less toxic masculinity and a sensational lesbian duet at the end. As it stands, I’m perfectly comfortable canceling this one on grounds of homophobia. The gays have kept this art form in business for centuries and should not be made to sit in a theater for this length of time without hearing so much as a contralto.
Eventually Brünnhilde is let onstage, Hildegard Behrens in this case, early ’90s when I used to go, and it all comes back to me now. In some sense, she manifests Koestenbaum, Twain, and Cather’s fantasy opera: her voice is so exquisite and ethereal, you can’t make out a word of it. Koestenbaum invokes “the unspeakable marriage of words and music” — Behrens might represent an amicable divorce. She’s not the fiercest Brünnhilde, and the sight of her with sword and shield and helmet summons Michael Dukakis in his tank. Too good for the job, both of them.
1874 Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
In which Siegfried is drugged into cheating on Brünnhilde, so she cancels everything with a torch, including him, herself, her horse, her father, his family, and the new construction.
I’m back to the Lepage switchblade, and plucky Deborah Voigt is the ideal Brünnhilde. She got a late start, ascending on the strength of my favorite opera; for years she referred to her career as “Ariadne, Inc.” Then the Royal Opera House canceled her in the role because she couldn’t fit into what became known as the “little black dress.” Are you kidding me? That character is a send-up of a Wagnerian soprano; Ariadne should be huge. Voigt subsequently underwent gastric bypass — risky for a singer — lost 100 pounds and kept the voice. She says it all worked out for the best, and now at least everyone knows what soul-canceling smallness passes for artistic direction at the Royal Opera House. Who do they think they are, the Windsors?
In the pit, Levine is gone. This is still a few years before his scandal broke; dramatically speaking it’s a foreshadowing. Twilight is nigh.
What is wrong with men? Every time I look up from my book the governor of New York has a new accuser. Does the achievement come to seem meaningless unless it can be used to coerce people sexually? Or is the very point to fall? I remember the jump cut from Tannhäuser’s disgrace to Levine’s third-act bows and wonder how much of it is sadism, how much self-harm?
Dalí thought Hitler “secretly wished to lose the war so that he could experience it as a masochistic Götterdämmerung,” Ross writes. “‘The end to which Hitler at heart aspires is to feel his enemy’s boot crushing his face.’”
PART VI — LOVE
1859 Tristan and Isolde
In which an Irish princess is drugged into falling in love with the killer of her old fiancé; the killer is the son of her new fiancé; she and the killer are on the same drugs; they die.
My violin teacher at Juilliard, Robert Mann, explained the difference between musical romanticism and classicism in the following way: romanticism exhibits greater inhibition in coming to climax. Compare anything by Mozart or Haydn with anything by Wagner or Bruckner: the sober Apollonians achieve climax every four to 16 bars, the drug-addled Dionysians need four to 16 hours, and by the time Tristan gets around to it everyone’s dead already.
“While composing Tristan,” Ross reports, Wagner “worried that he would drive people insane.” What makes you crazy is the romantic aversion to climax: dissonance never yields to the little death of resolution but instead to further dissonance, extended yearning, upending the narrative logic of harmony. “Tristan set the course,” Ross writes, “for an avant-garde art of dream logic, mental intoxication, formless form, limitless desire.”
“The music is about sex — eroticism — voluptuousness,” Susan Sontag wrote. “That’s why one goes on loving Wagner.” English didn’t suffice for Joyce’s verdict: Wagner puzza di sesso — he reeks of sex.
The sex-and-gender dissidents Koestenbaum locates at the opera picked up the scent immediately. Thirty years after The Queen’s Throat spilled the beans of opera’s homosexuality, Ross provides a vivid sequel focused on the queer fin de siècle and it all puzza di Wagner.
Even without verbal messages, the texture of Wagner’s music — its uninhibited sensuality, its androgynous merging of opposites — intimated new ways of living in the world. Small wonder that in certain circles it served as a kind of password. The Intersexes, a 1908 treatise by the gay author Xavier Mayne, includes a self-diagnostic questionnaire whereby a subject can identify himself as a “Uranian,” or homosexual. One question is “Are you peculiarly fond of Wagner?”
The phenomenon is documented also by Richard Krafft-Ebing in 1892; by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1914, observing that Bayreuth had become something of a gay Mecca; and most notably in 1903, when the book Richard Wagner and Homosexuality identified Wagner himself as “a spiritual homosexual,” citing his mannerisms and the passionate same-sex relationships among the characters. One could add to this his penchant for pink house robes and the intensity of feeling between him and his patron, the young, gay, Wagner-mad, and probably just plain crazy Ludwig II of Bavaria.
In terms of erotic delirium, the Uranian Wagnerians face stiff competition from the Rosicrucians, particularly the “performance artist avant la lettre” Joséphin Péladan. His novel The Victory of the Husband, sixth in the Decadence series, features the love between Izel and Adar, who “speak ‘in Wagner’” and call one another Siegmund and Sieglinde. Ross reports: “When they honeymoon at Bayreuth, one of the more stupefying Wagner Scenes in literature ensues. During a performance of Tristan, the newlyweds cannot restrain themselves and begin making love.” In The Gyanders, Péladan’s hero replicates himself in order to seduce, convert, and marry the maximum possible number of lesbians. At the concluding mass wedding, the brides prostrate themselves before a giant phallus to strains of Lohengrin and Walküre.
Perhaps these are some of the very un-musical purposes Cather had in mind.
PART VII — MORE NAZIS
1867 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
In which the winner of the Nuremberg Song Contest gets to marry a local woman; the contest’s rules are explained and debated.
Wagner wrote this one under the influence of Schopenhauer’s idea that art, particularly music, is meant to relieve human suffering, and the result is essentially a counterexample. Meistersinger is Wagner’s only comedy, another mystification — Schopenhauer has better gags. It is said to be the longest opera in the standard repertory, and on that point I’m not giving anybody an argument. I’m reminded of Twain at Bayreuth after a shorter work: “Seven hours at five dollars a ticket is almost too much for the money.” The Nazis loved this one, and still they couldn’t get through it — Ross describes Hitler sending out patrols to pull his minions out of beer halls to fill a sparsely attended Meistersinger attached to a Nuremberg rally. The following year, attendance was mandatory. “They appeared bored,” Albert Speer recalled, “and many were visibly overwhelmed by sleep.”
Reputable composers and conductors nonetheless hold this opera in high esteem, and I resolve to appreciate it on a musical level — another dead end. One quarter-hour after another of neo-pious kitsch, relieved only by more onstage hammering — shoes this time. It turns out opera singers are not uniformly gifted percussionists. In another pivotal scene, we hear insistent scraping on a blackboard, a freebie of sorts for critics. There’s one bright spot, musically. It’s a quote from Tristan.
“I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s,” says Lady Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. “It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage” — never more so than when the music is Meistersinger and the subject is Adolf Hitler. Music from this opera introduced his rallies as early as 1922. Hitler’s friend Ernst Hanfstaengl would play it for him at the piano. “He knew the thing absolutely by heart,” Ross quotes Hanfstaengl, “and could whistle every note of it in a curious penetrating vibrato, but completely in tune. He started to march up and down the hall, waving his arms as if he was conducting an orchestra.” If I get one of the Ethicist’s questions wrong, this is the scene that will greet me in hell.
“All of Wagner’s operas have political dimensions,” Ross writes, “but Meistersinger is the only one that makes its politics unavoidable.” Late revisions to the speech “Habt Acht” (“Beware”) transformed it from a homily about musical tradition to a xenophobic defense of the German Volk und Reich presumed to be under attack by foreign elements. “Habt Acht” made Meistersinger a Nazi favorite; if Wagner wrote Muzak for genocide, this is it.
Adorno and others identified Meistersinger’s villain as a crypto-Jew, but none of Wagner’s characters is explicitly Jewish. Wagner left Jews and sympathizers with at least the veneer of plausible deniability, at least as far as the operas are concerned. Jews were no small part of his audience from the beginning, and by the time Bayreuth was draped in swastikas, sales were dropping faster than 2016 orders for Ivanka handbags. “Foreign and Jewish visitors […] grew scarce,” Ross writes. “[I]n 1933, thousands of tickets remained unsold within weeks of opening day.” Hitler had to buy them up and once again coerce minions to attend.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Wagner cancellation during the Nazi regime is how inverted it appears to have been. Wagner performances declined markedly from 1932 to 1940, while Verdi and Puccini saw gains. Why? Perhaps because it was plain to the average Nazi how poorly most of Wagner’s politics and worldview aligned with fascism: one young party member attacked the composer as “a typical agent of liberalism.” In the United States, by contrast, his popularity surged; Wagner was the Met’s most played composer in the 1941–’42 season. The Met at least put a wartime hold on productions of Meistersinger — a cancellation compromise that deserves a fresh look.
PART VIII — LIFE
Philip K. Dick “conjures the unlikely image of Wagner at the gates of heaven. ‘You have to let me in,’ he says. ‘I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity, and healing. Right?’ And they answer, ‘Well we read it and it makes no sense.’ SLAM.”
Parsifal is the representative Wagner opera in that it has a way of variously mesmerizing and alienating everyone who encounters it for any number of diametrically opposed reasons. Parsifal is either Christian propaganda or a Black Mass, a White-nationalist parable or Nazi kryptonite. The plot would seem to hinge on the virtue of chastity; still one critic called it “spiritual nourishment for pederasts.” “In the seventies,” Ross reports, “strains of Parsifal are said to have wafted through the New York gay club the Mineshaft, which specialized in extreme sexual practices.”
The opera’s emphasis on compassion discomfited the Nazis: Goebbels, Rosenberg, and Himmler all wanted to cancel it. Hitler tolerated the ideological dissonance, perhaps as a Tudor king endures the provocations of his fool; he told Wagner’s grandson Wieland that he wanted “to have Parsifal performed so to speak against his own party.”
Watching Parsifal, I experience déjà vu that I can’t immediately articulate. Is it that James Levine is once again presiding over a drama that hinges on a man getting into trouble with a soprano in the woods? I’m riveted to the problem of King Amfortas’s shame, and only once does the spell slip long enough for me to remember that this Church-promulgated sex-shame has condemned countless sexual outlaws to scaffolds and stakes, dungeons and psych wards. In a less tolerant time or place, I might have died for this shame, but as a dramatic element in Parsifal, it is giving me life.
In the theater, I not only suspend my disbelief but often also my beliefs. Every minority confronting the majority culture executes this suspension so regularly that it’s second nature, though we may be equally practiced at resisting it. Not too many people in my social circle would subject themselves to Parsifal’s ascetic pieties for the sake of the music. I learned that tolerance on the strength of George’s lesson about nuance, and it allowed me to spend 10 years and more on Messiaen, a Christian mystic who was no ascetic but whose church remains an alienating force long since I’ve reconciled with his other difficulties. But Messiaen let me access his ecstatic experience of God and the extremes of beauty that graced his life of faith. Parsifal touched me in much the same way.
After encountering it as a teenager, Dick said Parsifal ruined everything. “Nothing,” he wrote, “satisfied me in life thereafter.”
Discovering the 11 operas in succession, I’ve come to understand le dieu Wagner as more than just bardolatrous hyperbole. It has equally to do with his ability to stimulate a religious response through music. Wagner is godlike in two senses, and in acknowledging that, I find myself once again fending off Benjamin who slammed bourgeois art worship as a pillar of fascism. But listen also to the salvation narratives of Bayreuth: “I am certain that people who are disappointed in themselves and their lives, and see no point in living,” Sergei Diaghilev wrote from the festival, “people who have been put in a difficult situation by life’s misfortunes and finally people who despair to the point of bringing their life to an artificial end — all of them should come here.”
“You returned me to myself,” Charles Baudelaire wrote to Wagner, a sentiment echoed repeatedly in estimations of the composer-dramatist’s power. “My inmost self,” wrote poet Alfred Forman in his Wagner elegy, “has ceased to be unknown!”
To others, he reveals the life we might aspire to, or one that injustice withholds. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois includes a story, “Of the Coming of John,” which turns on the protagonist’s being ejected from a performance of Lohengrin following the complaint of a White patron. Before that racist aggression,
[a] deep longing swelled in all his heart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled. If he could only live up in the free air where birds sang and setting suns had no touch of blood! Who had called him to be the slave and butt of all? And if he had called, what right had he to call when a world like this lay open before men?
I’m grateful for having canceled Wagner most of my life in one narrow sense: I was able, at 50, to approach him fresh, or as fresh as is possible after the half-century of Bugs Bunny and Apocalypse Now and violin lesson Holocaust lectures. To experience the Lohengrin prelude, the conclusion of the Götterdämmerung, and the whole of Parsifal for the first time after absorbing so much, musical and otherwise, that was made in response to those works has had a fairy-tale aspect of its own, like Parsifal or Siegfried learning their origins as grown men.
After this immersion in Wagner and Wagnerism, I feel much as Du Bois did after his trip to swastika-draped Bayreuth in 1936. Du Bois knew perfectly well where he was; he subsequently wrote that German antisemitism surpassed “in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much.” But he did not let that bar him from the operas. “No human being, white or black, can afford not to know them,” Du Bois wrote, “if he would know life.”
 Editor’s note: The listening and reading diaries cover the weeks just prior to Levine’s death in March 2021.