Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross review – The Guardian

Posted: September 12, 2020 at 3:51 am


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Wagner gave his name to a movement that is also a contagious malaise and in surveying a Wagnerised world Alex Ross looks far beyond the composers musical legacy. True, the pining dissonance at the start of Tristan und Isolde disrupted tonality for ever, but Wagners sonic sorcery has cast an equally decisive spell on those Ross calls the artists of silence novelists, poets, and painters, as well as on some noisy and unmelodious politicians. The harmonies of Orpheus supposedly soothed emotional distress and kept the cosmos in tune. Wagner achieved the opposite: his operas unsettled the sanity of his disciple Friedrich Nietzsche and later provided the besotted Hitler with a preview of fiery apocalypse.

For more than a century, this music has been a drug or even a poison, a cult with members who are sometimes fanatics, not fans, goaded to overcome humane qualms as they surrender to a Dionysian excitement. Ross likens the overwrought emotional state of the typical Wagner devotees to the Greek agon, a state of conflict or self-contradiction. Casualties abound. Nietzsche, the first of the books antagonists, vaguely blamed Wagner for his headaches, eye strain and vomiting attacks; the poet Stphane Mallarm said that Wagner disgusted but irresistibly enslaved him. The tenor who sang Tristan at the operas premiere dropped dead soon afterwards, then with the intercession of a medium informed his widow, the first Isolde, that the mental strain of the music had done him in.

Mostly, the combat takes the form of cultural contestation, as reverence for the holy German art extolled in Die Meistersinger von Nrnberg has often required other nations to pay homage to Germans as the master race. Once or twice, the agon descends into violence. Ross reports on duels between Wagnerites and non-believers and there is even a boozy altercation with weaponised beer mugs.

The story diverges and digresses and soon gets out of Rosss control. Like Wagner with his repeated orchestral motifs, he tends to go round in circles: I dont mind Nietzsches eternal recurrence in music, but a historical narrative needs to move ahead. In this encyclopaedic book, the plethora of interpreters makes Wagner mean anything at all, which ultimately makes him mean nothing in particular. Decadent enthusiasts such as Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde were thrilled by the orgiastic revels in Tannhuser, yet the nuptial march from Lohengrin became compulsory at sedate Victorian weddings. For Shaw, Wagners Ring exposed the greedy iniquity of capitalism, while for Hitler it unearthed the racial roots cultivated by fascism. Can it do both or is Ross just amassing opposed opinions? At its most undiscriminating, Wagnerism lapses into a game of Trivial Pursuit: if you need to know how many US cities have streets named after Parsifal, the answer is somewhere in here.

On American turf, Ross writes well about the novelists Willa Cather and Owen Wister, who found an equivalent to the raw, wild landscapes of the Ring in the geysers of Yellowstone, the Wyoming prairies and the New Mexico desert, and he uncovers a suppressed tradition of African American Wagnerites. Yet in his desperation to be all-inclusive he straggles off in quest of such exotic aficionados as the Sri Lankan Theosophical leader Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa and Horacio Quiroga, a Uruguayan epigone. Worse, the abstruse rightwing philosopher Martin Heidegger and the structural anthropologist Claude Lvi-Strauss lure him up blind alleys of speculative theorising.

The occasional obscenity adds a much-needed fillip. A poem by Pierre Lous filthily fantasises about the lusty appetite of Senta, the chaste redeemer from Der Fliegende Hollnder, while Aubrey Beardsley places the wayward Tannhuser in an all-male Venusberg where he descends to the passive attitude and is rogered by a priapic servant. Theres even a detour to a Greenwich Village leather bar in which a sign once enjoined patrons to concentrate on having sex rather than loitering in corners to discuss Wagner. However when Yukio Mishima spills his entrails with a samurai sword in his film Patriotism to the rapturous accompaniment of Tristan und Isolde, the effect is merely repellent.

Wagner is finally absorbed by pop culture, that fecund compost heap where the classics are mulched and pulped. The napalm-spewing gunships that blast the Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now remind us that the operas shrieking female warriors are out to scavenge corpses from the battlefield, although the cartoon in which Elmer Fudd pursues Bugs Bunny to the same score while yelling Kill da wabbit! reduces Wagners ecstatic whirlwind to muzak. Ross smiles on such kitschy appropriations: he calls Tolkiens Lord of the Rings a kinder, gentler version of Wagners Nibelungen tetralogy, populated by peaceable garden gnomes, not tragic gods and stricken heroes.

At the end, Ross performs a cleansing ritual. Taking up the spear with which Parsifal closes the wound of Amfortas in Wagners last opera, he uses it to heal his own psychic scars, which, as he somewhat creepily discloses, include being dumped by a boyfriend after a performance of Die Walkre and an ensuing alcoholic slump. My long slog through his book was not so cathartic. After Rosss hungover postlude, I recalled his claim, made 700 arduous, enfevered, over-charged pages earlier, that Wagners influence was actually less extensive than those of Monteverdi, Bach or Beethoven. Its good to be reminded that music does not always leave us with an aching libido and shredded nerves or threatens the universe with extinction.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross is published by HarperCollins (30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over 15

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Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross review - The Guardian

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September 12th, 2020 at 3:51 am

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