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From the same author of The Rest is Noise, one might expect a mammoth read, and Alex Ross’ third book Wagnerism is indeed of Wagnerian proportions. Like the work of Der Meister himself, though, its length is something of an illusion. Just as Wagner’s music can seem to bend time, so Ross’ Wagnerism is, in a sense, short: Ross gives so many avenues of exploration, many of them tantalisingly, that one feels the continual urge to explore further, to dig deeper. If the book is huge, how gargantuan must have been the research! There are times one has to take the direction of the argument on trust, and allow Ross to take you by the hand; and inevitably, one does sometimes wonder if we have wandered a little too far off-piste.

The book starts with a ‘Prelude’ on the death of Wagner, including a conspectus of obituaries. ‘This is a book about a musician’s influence on non-musicians,’ Ross says, the musician in question capable of eliciting ‘certitude and ambiguity in equal measure’. That ambiguity is linked to the Greek concept of agon (conflict). From investigating the later novels of Philip K Dick to an informed reading of the influence of Wagner on Theosophy (revealing deep knowledge of Helena Blavatsky’s allegedly channelled writings and Theosophy, before inviting in Mondrian and Kandinsky), the concept of Wagnerism/ Wagnerei/Wagnérisme seemingly extends everywhere.

Fitting, too, that the first chapter proper, ‘Wagner, Nietzsche and the Ring’ begins with Rheingold’s chthonic opening. The term ‘The Sorcerer of Bayreuth’ seems particularly fitting in the hands of Ross’ remit: the impact of Wagner Zauberer extends out in a multiplicity of directions, like an exploding supernova.

From Nietzsche, Ross goes on to explore Baudelaire and the Symbolists, Victorian Britain, ‘Satanic Wagner’, the Kaiserreich and fin-de-siècle Vienna, Jewish/Black Wagner, Feminist/Gay Wagner, writers such as Willa Cather and Joyce, Hitler (inevitably), film, and Wagnerism post-1945. The ambition is vast. The feeling of satisfaction when one finishes the book is almost that which one feels after experiencing a complete Ring; but with Ross it is wedded to an impulse to go forth and watch, say, Herzog films, or to read further (luckily a copy of Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, a short but influential text Ross refers to several times, lay within reach...).

Determined that one should not ‘backshadow’ – the act of blurring our experience of Wagner with what happened afterwards, most notably Nazi appropriation – Ross acts as an ever-lucid guide, referencing such disciplines as gender studies (including Wagner’s own gender fluidity) and semiotics via Jean-Jacques Nattiez. Of course, Wagner himself is a sign that can be interpreted infinitely.

Ideas vital to Wagner are explained (the Leitmotif system, for example), as are core ideas of influential thinkers about him: Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and as we venture into French ‘Wagnérisme’ we meet Baudelaire, Monet, Cézanne, Verlaine, Mallarmé. Ross’ fundamental strength is a vital one in the context of this book: he can explain concepts and influential artists’ Weltanschaungen concisely and lucidly – a case in point being the ideas of Lévi-Strauss.

As Ross says, ‘Each country saw Wagner through a self- fashioned prism’. So in America we meet, among others but most fascinatingly, Willa Cather. Ross waxes particularly lyrically in her direction in ‘Brünnhilde, Willa Cather and the Singer Novel’; his examination of Joyce in relation to Wagner is just as much a tour de force, while Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf are both viewed through a Wagnerian filter, an activity that can lead to significant, illuminating reframing of our experiences of those authors.

Ross is unafraid of the usual elephant in the room, the Nazification of Wagner, something tackled head-on and in detail. One’s own proclivities will inevitably shape one’s preferences: the film aspect was, for me, magnificently done, from Hitchcock to Eisenstein, from Visconti to Ken Russell. Staging is also considered, with Regietheater and its complexities explored in some detail.

As we the readers are taken on this Wagner-fied walk through history, one realises this is 660 core pages of how others riffon Wagner, some more consciously than others. A pity some of the many black- and-white reproductions do not reproduce well; but no-one will fail to come away enriched by this book.

Colin Clarke Read the full review on Agora Classica


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