IN AN EPISODE OF Curb Your Enthusiasm called “Trick or Treat,” Larry David whistles Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” outside a movie theater. Another patron confronts him about how he must be a self-hating Jew to whistle Wagner so nonchalantly; after all, the Nazis played that music in the camps. Alex Ross describes this scene, in his dense new book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, as a train wreck of political earnestness and comic conceit. Israel has long had a “no Wagner” policy in its theaters and concert halls, but allows broadcasts of his operas on radio and television, and Larry David toys with this history, his response amounting to a classic projection-denial: “I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish.” For revenge, he leads a brass band playing Die Meistersinger outside his antagonist’s window, waking him up in the middle of the night — “[m]uch as Wagner serenaded [his second wife] Cosima with the Idyll,” Ross points out.
In some quarters, you can’t so much as mention Wagner without inviting a hailstorm of derision and defensiveness. And as Ross makes plain throughout his encyclopedic study of Germany’s second-most controversial figure, the composer/writer earns both awe and contempt in spades. His operas stirred minds and hearts across Europe in the 19th century — in the process, according to his critics, laying the groundwork for National Socialism and the Holocaust. In the classical music world, Wagner is an epic shaman of contradictions, a caster of spells that get twisted and bent into new shapes by corrupting minds. If you’re a pianist, you can stick to Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms. Even if you’re an opera fan, there’s so much other good stuff that it’s possible to avoid Wagner — whose music, as Mark Twain purportedly said, is “not as bad as it sounds.” (More on Ross’s account of that quote later.)
With deep-focus detail, Ross compiles and frames all of Wagner’s life and work, from his early efforts prior to his exile in Switzerland (1849–’58), to his rampant philandering and failed marriages, to his sweeping return to Saxony, marriage to Cosima von Bülow (Franz Liszt’s daughter), and triumphant staging of the 17-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle (1876) at his very own Xanadu in Bayreuth. Wagner envisioned himself as the Gigantor of art, someone you had to grapple with if you cared about serious music, someone who prized scale above all things. Wagner’s idea of himself contains multitudes, one aspect of which was an abiding antisemitism. Today, most people know the strains of Wagner via “Here Comes the Bride” (taken from his 1850 opera Lohengrin) or “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which launches the menacing choppers in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
Despite the antisemitism of his 1850 treatise “Jewishness in Music,” where he calls the Jew the “plastic demon of the downfall of humanity,” a long line of Jewish conductors — from Gustav Mahler to Leonard Bernstein to Daniel Barenboim — still performed Wagner, whose aesthetic achievements could be seen as somehow transcending politics. Tortured by his inability to compete with the maestro Beethoven, Wagner reinvented the idea of the Great Composer as something more patriotic and Macy’s-Day-Paradish, cued to Germany’s desperate quest for national identity. The mythos behind his music evoked a united Fatherland amid an array of vassal states. The Franco-Prussian War (1870–’71) sparked a long, tangled unification project that Hitler saw himself completing in the early 1930s. Defenders claim that Wagner’s blind spot wasn’t so much German identity as its offspring, German nationalism, which led to the Third Reich, World War II, and the Holocaust. “I can’t listen to that much Wagner,” Woody Allen once quipped, “it makes me want to invade Poland.”
He held Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer in low regard because of their Jewish faith, and because their popularity blocked what he felt should have been his own early success (Meyerbeer actually helped the young Wagner mount his 1842 opera Rienzi). Like his on-again/off-again friend Friedrich Nietzsche, he strove to have art fill the void left by the collapse of traditional forms of faith. Ross traces this philosophical argument in painful detail, and neither Wagner nor Nietzsche comes out looking very virtuous. “What is modern in [Wagner’s] work is intended to heal modernity’s wounds,” Ross writes, citing musicologist Richard Klein. But Wagner’s personality, which is impossible to separate from his music, ultimately served only to aggravate those wounds: he craved celebrity too much, and his pomposity carried his ideas to the wrong elite. As a political theorist, Wagner writes like a crank; as a melodist, he has a politician’s gift for gas. The fact that the deeply conservative conductor George Szell stands out as a great Wagner interpreter only hints at the larger ironies.
Given the many tin-eared treatises Wagner authored or inspired, Ross struggles to convince skeptics that the composer’s music still holds relevance, that its beauty can still touch hesitant souls. The plots of his operas sometimes scan like feeble Grimms’ fairy tales: “Wotan has fallen victim to ‘the love of power and the love of gold,’” Ross summarizes, quoting children’s book author Constance Maud; “[t]here are few blunter summations of the Ring, for adults or children.” This is presumably intended as a compliment. At another point, Ross observes that “Siegfried’s Funeral Music is more impressive than the man himself.”
Wagner’s fanaticism made for some strange bedfellows. Ross begins with a montage of Wagner’s funeral in 1883, a typically grandiose international affair with commemorative concerts, all-Wagner festivals, and other homages. Perhaps most extravagantly, the Palazzo Vendramin featured an orchestra “arrayed in bissone, Venice’s ornate ceremonial boats, with hundreds of people observing from gondolas.”
One of Wagnerism’s recurring insights involves the globalization of the composer’s music. Around a million Germans emigrated to the United States between 1846 and 1855. “They were often called Forty-Eighters, because many had fled the failed 1848 revolutions,” Ross writes, “and they played a pivotal role in American politics before the Civil War.” That Great American, John Philip Sousa, said that “Wagner was a brass band man, anyway,” and it was as the godfather of brass choirs that Wagner secured his perch in America.
The 19th-century Romantic repertoire divides into two rival schools, with Wagner anchoring one branch with Franz Liszt, who lent his celebrity to his son-in-law’s brand of Gesamtkunstwerk, the modern opera. If you had progressive inclinations after the revolutionary surge of 1848, you could almost hear Wagner carving out the future — imagining a new mythology where art merged with progressive values to create a new world. Wagner firmly believed that art could play a redemptive role where politics had failed; and his great operatic projects included building a monument to himself and his work in Bayreuth, where Wagnerites still flock each year for productions of the Ring, Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and other major works.
The opposing school of Romantic music revered the past and cultivated a more conservative ethic: Wagner’s great adversary, Johannes Brahms, prized the abstract, steered away from programmatic music like opera (which ties musical motifs to text and story), and focused on the symphonic, chamber, and solo repertoire. The late Romantic Gustav Mahler drew on both traditions. A Bohemian Jew who converted to Catholicism to lead the Vienna State Opera, Mahler found success as a leading Wagnerite, and the young Adolf Hitler most likely heard him conduct Tristan in 1906. Mahler’s music straddled worlds: he wrote both “pure” music (such as his Ninth Symphony) and programmatic “song symphonies,” like his Fourth and Das Lied von der Erde.
Ross’s Wagnerism provides a thick and convoluted treatment of a thick and convoluted subject, gathering up so much scattered research that it feels weighted, bogged down. In 1998, Ross published an essay in The New Yorker called “The Unforgiven,” which addressed Wagner’s antisemitism in a way that was bracingly clear — and twice as compelling as this 750-page marathon. Author of a highly celebrated study of modern music, The Rest Is Noise (2007), Ross gives Wagnerites much to chew on in his magisterial new volume. Will the children of Holocaust victims return Wagner to Israel’s stages? Should we favor aesthetics over politics, finally forgiving conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan their Nazi pasts? We don’t censor Richard Strauss, after all, even though he openly cooperated with the Nazi Party.
On the plus side, Ross excels at dismantling many Wagnerian myths. He details how the Wagner-in-the-camps legend remains difficult to verify, making the equation of Wagner’s antisemitism with Nazi atrocities sketchier than one might initially have been led to believe. Many folks who trek to Bayreuth expecting to be unimpressed come away true believers — it’s a snare that has caught some great minds. Mark Twain never actually said that Wagner’s music is “better than it sounds”; the remark was made by one Bill Nye (not that one), and Twain only quotes it in an essay about his “reluctant conversion” at Bayreuth. “Seven hours at five dollars a ticket is almost too much for the money,” Twain laments before falling under Parsifal’s spell. As the pages pile up and Ross travels from Victorian Britain to Czarist Russia to Gilded Age America, canvassing a wide assortment of different Wagners (including, alongside the Nazi Wagner, Jewish and Black Wagners), reading the book comes to seem not unlike the chore of sitting through one of the master’s operas.
In his 1998 New Yorker essay, Ross, acknowledging the composer’s many seething contradictions, pointed out that Wagner resembles the “Dealey Plaza” of the 19th century (“an excess of data [that] can be rearranged to match every theory under the sun”). And indeed, Ross is a sure-handed guide through the knottiest thickets of Wagnerian apocrypha. Take the so-called “Love-Death” (“Liebestod”) from Tristan und Isolde: the composer originally applied the term to the opening passage of the Prelude, but in 1867 Liszt published a piano paraphrase of the opera’s ending, calling it “Isolden’s Liebes-Tod.” Because of the popularity of such transcriptions, Liszt’s title wound up supplanting Wagner’s own.
As Ross at one point understates, “Wagnerism was taking on a life independent of its creator.” When he mentions Timothée Picard’s 2,500-page Dictionnaire encyclopédique Wagner (2010), you breathe a sigh of gratitude for the relative brevity of Ross’s own book. The world of Wagnerism is almost like the Pentagon budget: too much is never enough.
Ross introduces us to two of the unlikeliest Wagnerites, W. E. B. Du Bois and Theodor Herzl (the father of Zionism). Both visited Bayreuth, each having his own worldview confirmed by Wagnerian pomp. As Ross details, Du Bois wove his experience of Lohengrin into the fictional chapter in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “Of the Coming of John,” with Wagnerian myth becoming the model for a heroic new African American spirit, one that would make use of its own legends. “Wagner was a bigot who expended thousands of words vilifying Jews and other races,” Ross says. “Still, Lohengrin represented an ideal in Du Bois’s mind, one that floated above the bloodland of American racism.” This led musicologist Samuel Dwinell to speak of a tradition of “Afro-Wagnerism,” with Du Bois at its center.
As for Herzl, it’s almost a kind of Larry David gag that this “Father of Israel,” while writing his seminal 1896 essay “The Jewish State,” listened to Tannhaüser obsessively, hearing in it “the rightness of my ideas.” And that could be Wagner’s greatest role.
Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. It’s the first college textbook on the music of the Beatles. See his personal website for details.