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Imagine an episode of Billy on the Street in which the game show’s irascible host, the comedian Billy Eichner, hounds New York City pedestrians with questions related to the 19th-century composer Richard Wagner. “Miss, for a dollar,” he booms, interrupting a frazzled accountant in the midst of eating a croissant. “Do gay people care about Richard Wagner?” The woman lowers the pastry, slowly brushing the crumbs from her mouth. “Who?” “Richard Wagner,” Eichner huffs, gesticulating impatiently. “The opera guy? You know, Tristan and Isolde, the Ring cycle, Parsifal?” “Oh,” the woman replies tentatively. “Wasn’t he a Nazi?”
Wagner, who died in 1883, was one of Hitler’s favorite composers. His “Rienzi" overture blared at annual Nazi Party rallies, and his combination of pan-German nationalism, socialism, and antisemitism—well-documented in his 1850 essay “Jewishness in Music,” published initially under a pseudonym—is said to be a precursor to Nazi ideology. A 1940 article in the New York Times deemed him the “first totalitarian artist.”
But as Alex Ross emphasizes in his voluminous new book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, there is a deeper debate over who gets to claim Wagner, politically and otherwise. In his early years, Wagner was affiliated with the left—the anarchists, the communists—and forced to flee Germany for his role in the 1849 uprising in Dresden. “You’re left with this divided legacy,” Ross tells me over the phone. Further complicating the story is the composer’s outsized impact on radical figures: philosophers and Black theorists, Soviet film directors and science-fiction novelists. The anarchist Emma Goldman allegedly remarked that Wagner’s music helped women release “the pent-up, stifled and hidden emotions of their souls.” Late 19th-century gay-rights campaigners construed him as a kind of ally; the author Hanns Fuchs classified him as a “spiritual homosexual.”
Ross’s book, then, is not so much about Wagner as it is his enduring influence on non-musicians: how his legacy has been translated and contested across identities, time periods, and artistic mediums. “He was really perceptive about how culture uses myth, and how the same patterns are replicated in one tradition after another,” Ross says. So while Beethoven or Bach may claim more influence over music, Wagner’s impact on neighboring arts—like novel-writing, architecture, and painting—remains unparalleled. “Wagnerian” is still used as a descriptor for seemingly anything, from Travis Scott surfing on a bird to the quality of Bruno Mars’ sex. The many warring interpretations of Wagner, says Ross, reveal as much about the composer as they do ourselves.
Pitchfork: In your book, you repeatedly return to this proposition from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that Wagner “sums up modernity.” You argue that the composer came to represent “the cultural-political unconscious of modernity.” What does modernity mean when it comes to Wagner?
Alex Ross: First, Wagner played a huge role in the emergence of some basic principles and themes of modern art. He wasn’t a modernist himself, in the sense of [novelist] James Joyce and [poet] T.S. Eliot and [abstract painter] Wassily Kandinsky, but there were tendencies simmering in his work, especially this sense of a stream of consciousness, a dream state. People listen to Tristan and Isolde and go into this erotic trance. Parsifal is very mystical and misty and transcendent. So there’s this idea that in Wagner, everyday reality is melting away into this fascinating nether world, moving toward the abstract, ambiguous and the uncertain. Of course that’s a central definition of modernism in the arts.
There’s also an aspect of Wagner that has to do with the emergence of popular culture, and his creation of these total entertainments that were very deep and ambitious on the one hand, but also were mythic stories of heroes with swords and dragons and magic rings. He took all that mythic material and sent it back into the cultural mainstream. That was hugely influential in the 20th century—C.S. Lewis [author of The Chronicles of Narnia] and J.R.R Tolkien [author of The Lord of the Rings] knew Wagner very well. Later in the 20th century, you see these themes cropping up in Hollywood blockbusters.
Finally, there’s this more ominous theme of 20th-century modern warfare and the modern state—this feeling of force and power in Wagner that ominously points ahead to totalitarianism. So in an odd few ways, Wagner is proto-modern and anticipating the 20th century in ways both constructive and destructive.
This is hard to wrap our heads around now, but plenty of very enthusiastic Wagner supporters were Jewish, and they remained listeners even after “Jewishness in Music” was republished under his own name in 1869. Given Wagner’s rather blatant antisemitism, what did Jewish Wagnerites see in him?
Sometimes they simply loved the music and saw his antisemitism as an ugly facet of his personality that could be ignored. Some of the Jewish Wagnerians were right wing, and sought to purify themselves in a sense, make themselves more German. Sometimes they believed the proper response was to appropriate Wagner for their own ends. We have this amazing fact that Theodor Herzl, while drafting the founding documents of the Zionist state, was listening regularly to [the Wagner opera] Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera, and reported that he felt very inspired.
Thematically, Jewish Wagnerians identified with figures like Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin and Siegmund in the Ring cycle—these solitary figures who are wandering around on this quest trying to find their place, their home. The name Siegmund actually was a very common one in Jewish families around the turn of the early 20th century, and Wagner may have had something to do with that.
Another surprising cohort you explore is the Black Wagnerites. In W.E.B. Du Bois’ short story “Of the Coming of John,” Wagner’s opera Lohengrin temporarily lifts the protagonist away from the ugly realities of American racism. What did Black thinkers like Du Bois get from Wagner?
There was generally this cult of German culture among Black intellectuals like Frederick Douglass, Alain Locke, even Langston Hughes. For them, German culture and idealism stood somewhat apart from the horror of American racism. Du Bois absolutely loved Wagner: he studied in Berlin in the 1890s, went to see Wagner operas, and was transported by them. In Wagner, Du Bois saw a German artist looking back into old Nordic and Teutonic myths and making these grand new stories, and he thought Black people could do the same for their own native traditions.
All of this seems very contradictory, in terms of the assumptions that we make about Wagner. But in this period people felt very free to rework art to their own purpose. In Joyce, Wagner is part of the world of this young Irishman; in Willa Cather’s novels, he’s translated into the experiences of a young woman on the plains of Nebraska. Now we’re more cautious about that—we tend to kind of read art in terms of the immediate world of the artist and artist’s intentions. It’s been healthy to demystify Wagner, but at the same time there’s a loss when you get tied down by the biography, what the history tells you to think.
This ties to a question you raise in the book, about the agency of spectators when confronted with monstrous artists. Our response to them now is basically to jump ship as fans. That’s probably easier to do because we have so many options in the market. To what extent is Wagner’s influence shaped by economic circumstances?
Yeah, the marketplace was much more constricted, so people were stuck with Wagner, whether they liked it or not. In the early years, more than half of performances at the Metropolitan Opera in a given season were Wagner operas. And Wagner was able to undertake the insanely ambitious project of the Ring because King Ludwig II invested unthinkably huge amounts of money in art. Who could imagine being Wagner now, being able to undertake something so complicated and expect us to pay attention to it?
At the same time, Wagner was in a highly commercial marketplace for music, and he was actually really good at branding and merchandising and creating these little slogans and catchphrases.
Yeah, how did Wagner contribute to modern publicity techniques?
When the Bayreuth Festival [an annual festival of Wagner performances] opened in 1876, the propaganda—including the bombastic press releases, essentially, that Nietzsche was writing—was that people would enter into this pure artistic universe and have this incredibly profound experience away from daily city life. Instead, this festival is full of high society people jabbering at each other, people gobbling bratwurst. There was all this merchandising—beer mugs and placemats and cigar boxes. Eventually there was a Rheingold bathtub, where you could rock back and forth like a Rhinemaiden. And he was good at catchphrases as the equivalent of hashtags. You still see the words “Gesamtkunstwerk” and “leitmotif” popping up everywhere—people love to reach for this big Wagnerian word for affirmation. And he knew that the best way to keep his name in circulation is to create controversy.
How much of the wide-ranging application of Wagnerian terminology has to do with Wagner himself not being specific? I’m thinking of this impression that “Gesamtkunstwerk” can just refer to any kind of multimedia art.
He was not very precise. He was emphatic, he was assertive, but he was never precise. Like “Gesamtkunstwerk”—what does the “total work of art” mean exactly? He only used the word five times in two essays. Then he put it to the side, and got a bit impatient when people started focusing on it. Actually, it wasn’t till after his death that people really started focusing on the Gesamtkunstwerk—it was really about the technologies of the 20th century: film, theater, combining different art forms into a single form.
Right, film was theorized as this way of realizing the Gesamtkunstwerk. Can you explain the embrace and subsequent critique of Wagner’s concept in the realm of film?
Wagner was really popular in film right from the beginning. Music from his operas was used in the live accompaniment to silent movies. And then when composers began writing original film scores, Wagner’s idea of leitmotif as identifying tags for characters and situations instantly became a model. Heroic myths that were somewhat derived from Wagner also proved really popular in movies.
But then there was this critical attitude among those like Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno that Wagner is this mass spectacle that lulls people into ignoring the realities around them, and Hollywood adopts that. And then in the Soviet Union, there’s this idea that we can use all of these symbols critically, in an anti-capitalist way. [The father of montage] Sergei Eisenstein, who loved Wagner, went that path with his work.
After the First World War, Wagner would become this signal for German evil: there’s a Nazi officer on screen, you’d hear Wagner in the soundtrack. After the Second World War, there’s a lot of ironic, surreal uses of Wagner. Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Luis Buñuel actually love Wagner’s music and used him constantly but not in a very traditional way.
What can Wagner teach us about the relationship between fascism and popular culture?
Hitler tried to bring Wagner to the people. He wanted to make it cheaper and more practical to see Wagner in the opera house. And during the Second World War, there was a program of sending wounded soldiers to Bayreuth so they could somehow be healed by Wagner. But it only went so far—Wagner just does not have mass popularity on the level of Hollywood movies and pop music. There were a lot of people in the Nazi Party who hated how Hitler was forcing them to attend performances of Die Meistersinger at the Nuremberg party rally.
We’re so accustomed to contemplating this relationship between Wagner, antisemitism, and Nazi Germany. We should also be questioning how American pop culture has served imperialist and hegemonic ends. We still cling to the idea that there’s something innocent, pure, and universal about it. Goebbels learned from American popular culture and knew how powerful it was in terms of binding people together, or distracting them from the ugliness of what was really happening in Nazi Germany. If you look at Trump, you know, Trump is like an emanation of popular culture.
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