The Cults of Wagner

by Times Newsroom 1
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Richard Wagner; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

Alex Ross, who has been the classical music critic at The New Yorker since 1996, can make readers feel they’re right next to him in the concert hall or the opera house, sharing his excitement. Whether his subject is a singer in a classic role or a new composition by a young composer, Ross is engaged, informed, even avid. Writing about Ferruccio Busoni’s enormous five-movement piano concerto, he describes this “gaudy, unapologetically over-the-top piece” as “a remarkable feat of controlled chaos.”

He responds to Busoni’s virtuosity with his own virtuosic roll call of sources and inspirations, praising Busoni’s “Lisztian arpeggios, brooding spells of Wagnerian orchestration, delicate Chopinesque interludes, depressive Schumannesque detours, and madcap Rossinian crescendos.” Ross grasps the imaginative daring of Busoni’s wild ride of a concerto. He’s also having some fun: intellectual fun. For Ross—and for many of his readers—that’s part of what concertgoing is about.

More than a dozen years ago Ross published his first book, The Rest Is Noise, a deft, inviting survey of twentieth-century music that built on many of his gifts and became something of a best seller. Although I found it a little too breezy in places, I understood Ross’s determination to give what many regard as modern music’s thorny history a less strenuous presentation. He followed The Rest Is Noise with an essay collection, Listen to This, and has now produced his most ambitious book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. There’s nothing breezy about it. In more than 650 tightly packed pages, Ross explores the impact of Richard Wagner’s art and ideas from his own time down to the present.

Ross has much that’s interesting to say about the responses to Wagner’s controversial, wide-ranging, and widely circulated writings about art, nationalism, anti-Semitism, and any number of other topics; he’s attentive to Wagner’s early anarchist and leftist views; and, of course, he devotes many pages to the embrace of Wagner’s music and ideas by Hitler and the Third Reich. He’s generous when it comes to citing the work of a great many scholars who have explored Wagner’s influence on generations of literary figures and on social and political issues and movements. Ross goes overboard in demonstrating his scholarly credentials; he didn’t need to discuss the plots and themes of quite so many novels, theatrical events, and movies in which Wagner’s operas make some sort of appearance. At times Wagnerism seems not a sustained narrative but an encyclopedia of everything related to Wagner.

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