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 Posted:   Oct 23, 2020 - 8:28 AM   
 By:   Rozsaphile   (Member)

John Adams's NY Times review of Alex Ross's book on the influence of Richard Wagner. Although the review contains nothing about film music, I'm sure that Ross's 769-page book will have something to say about the figure who created the model for traditional movie scoring.

By John Adams
Sept. 16, 2020

WAGNERISM
Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
By Alex Ross

For Friedrich Nietzsche he was “a volcanic eruption of the total undivided artistic capacity of nature itself.” For Thomas Mann he was “probably the greatest talent in the entire history of art.” H. L. Mencken considered his operas “the most stupendous works of art ever contrived by man.” The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss credited him as “the incontestable father of the structural analysis of myths.” For Paul Valéry, exposure to his operas was so overwhelming as to make him “reject, with the sadness of impotence, everything that was literature.” Adolf Hitler, after first encountering his music, found himself “captivated at one stroke. … My youthful enthusiasm … knew no bounds.” For Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son who endured his most scabrous anti-Semitic attacks and who led the premiere of “Parsifal,” that “most Christian of all artworks,” he was “the best and noblest person.” W. H. Auden considered him as a human being utterly contemptible.

Richard Wagner: composer, conductor, dramatist, poet, polemicist, anarchist, Teutonic nationalist, anti-Semite, feminist, pacifist, vegetarian, animal rights activist — the man was the walking, talking definition of “protean genius.” His life and his legacy was and remains to this day a continuum in which enchantment, even ravishment, comes hand in hand with provocation and controversy, adoration and loathing. Contemplating Wagner, trying to sum up what his art means, puts one in mind of the ancient Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant: The object itself is so huge and strange that each person groping to comprehend it comes to a radically different conclusion of what it is. Wagner, like his American contemporary Walt Whitman, contained multitudes. And he contained contradictions — enough to fuel in the decades after his death a popularity and influence the scope of which no other creative artist, with the possible exception of Shakespeare, has ever achieved.

“Wagnerism” eventually became the term to describe the manifold characteristics of his art, his philosophy and his politics, all of which dominated — “penetrated” might be a more apt term — European and American cultural life for a period lasting roughly from 1880 through the end of World War II and that even today, albeit at a lesser intensity, can stir the waters of our collective psyches. Words, concepts and images that pervade his work have become commonplace signifiers in contemporary discourse: Valhalla, Liebestod, Valkyrie, Gesamtkunstwerk, Flying Dutchman, Nibelung, Brünnhilde, Götterdämmerung, Siegfried, Leitmotiv, endless melody, to name just a few.

Just in the period between 1901 and 1910, Wagner’s music was performed more than 17,000 times in Germany alone. It’s safe to say that in today’s world no serious artist, not least a composer of classical music, could even begin to approach that level of notoriety.

“Wagnerism” is also both the title and the all-absorbing subject matter of Alex Ross’s new book, a work of enormous intellectual range and subtle artistic judgment that pokes and probes the nerve endings of Western cultural and social norms as they are mirrored in more than a century of reaction to Wagner’s works. The book has its own “Wagnerian” heft and ambitiousness of intent, being nothing less than a history of ideas that spans an arc from Nietzsche and George Eliot to Philip K. Dick, “Apocalypse Now” and neo-Nazi skinheads.

“Wagnerism” was incontestably a labor of love for Ross. As he says in his introduction, “Writing this book has been the great education of my life.” And it is easy to understand why, because his strategy is to use Wagner as a kind of ur-source out of which spring a multitude of artistic, social and political movements that include everything from the hectic musings of obscure bohemian poets and novelists to the opportunistic appropriation of the composer’s music and iconography by Nazi propagandists. In so doing, Ross has dug deep into some of the most fertile (and occasionally most bizarre) terrain of Western culture, examining and bringing to light the struggles for individuation and self-discovery of a host of reactive minds — poets, novelists, painters, playwrights, filmmakers, politicians and more.

In his formative years Wagner spoke constantly of “revolution,” in both its political and its artistic sense. His involvement in the 1849 Dresden uprising almost earned him a death sentence, forcing him into exile. He eventually came under the adoring patronage of the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a morbidly aesthetic man-boy who remained spellbound by Wagner’s art for the rest of his short life. And “revolution” is even more apt a term to describe the sea change in music that Wagner wrought. The radical harmonic language he employed in “Tristan und Isolde” and “Götterdämmerung” changed irrevocably the course of European music. Were it not for him we would have neither Mahler nor Debussy, nor for that matter Gershwin or Richard Rodgers.

But Wagner’s music itself is not Ross’s topic here. Instead, this is “a book about a musician’s influence on non-musicians — resonances and reverberations of one art form into others.” Music is of course omnipresent in its overwhelming sensual and emotive force, but Ross’s purpose is rather to examine the effect it produced on highly sensitized listeners when combined with the stagecraft, poetry, iconography and deep psychological intuition that constitute Wagner’s unique wizardry. As Ross notes in his introduction: “The chaotic posthumous cult that came to be known as Wagnerism was by no means a purely or even primarily musical event. It traversed the entire sphere of the arts. … It also breached the realm of politics.”

Why can we speak of Wagnerism but not of “Beethovenism” or “Bachism”? The reason is that in the case of Wagner the constellation of ideas, images and themes that inform his art ranges far beyond the musical, and it is always employed in the service of myth. What Ross terms Wagner’s “manipulation of myth” enabled him to arouse in the collective unconscious reactions that no individual art form alone could stimulate. “The incomparable thing about myth is that it is always true,” Wagner wrote in one of his speculative essays on music and drama, “and its content, through utmost compression, is inexhaustible for all time.” His genius was to tap our mythological subconscious in a manner that for each of us is “always true” and yet different for the next person. “The behemoth whispers a different secret in each listener’s ear,” Ross so wryly but perfectly sums up the “near-infinite malleability” of his art and the “interpretive pandemonium” over what exactly these operas mean.

The “chaotic posthumous cult” that came to be known as Wagnerism was well underway even before the composer’s death in 1883, and Ross charts how differently Wagner was embraced in different countries. In Bismarck’s newly unified “blood and iron” Germany, the composer’s conjuring of Nordic myths in his “Ring” tetralogy and the glorification of German “Kunst” that is the subject of “Die Meistersinger” played perfectly to the nascent intimations of Teutonic strength and superiority. (“I am the most German person, I am the German spirit,” Wagner proclaimed in 1865.) British listeners experienced the medieval myths on which he based his operas “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” as mirroring their own Arthurian legends. American operagoers predictably saw themselves reflected in the “rude forcefulness” of Wagner’s heroes. The French, including Baudelaire, who was one of the first to understand him, found in his operas not the rude and the violent but rather the erotic, the dreamlike, the otherworldly and the deeply psychological. Out of this spin came a whole literary movement, the Symbolists. It was “Tristan,” in Ross’s description, that “set the course for an avant-garde art of dream logic, mental intoxication, formless form, limitless desire.”

Ross takes a deep dive into the psyches of Joyce, Proust, Mann and T. S. Eliot and returns with revelations, particularly in the case of “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake,” that may surprise even the most ardent scholar for the extent to which each of them was influenced by Wagner. His moving essay on Mann’s “Death in Venice,” framed by what he terms “gay Wagnerism,” reaches an emotional high point worthy of the inner turbulence of that epochal novella.

These names — Joyce, Proust, Eliot, et al. — are already familiar darlings for analysis, and encountering them yet again in a work of cultural history can at times feel like literary Groundhog Day, but Ross’s exegesis is nonetheless immensely valuable. And there are those we might not expect to have fallen under the composer’s spell, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Theodor Herzl, Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf.

“Just as Herzl looked to ‘Tannhäuser’ to fortify his Zionist vision, Du Bois took Wagnerian myth as a model for a heroic new African-American spirit.” Both Cather and Woolf had their own “shock of recognition” encounters with Wagner and wove their responses intricately into their fiction in ways more cleareyed and less besotted than many of the men. Wagner figures intimately in Cather’s 1915 “The Song of the Lark,” about the rise to fame of a small-town Colorado girl, Thea Kronborg, who, through her natural talent and resolute ambition, becomes the great Wagnerian soprano of her era. The trope of humble beginnings, innate gift, self-determination and ultimate triumph mirrors the composer’s own life story.

Virginia Woolf blew hot and cool. An encounter with “Parsifal” rendered her in tears: “It slides from music to words almost imperceptibly.” And most acutely, she observed, “Like Shakespeare, Wagner seems to have attained … such a mastery of technique that he could float and soar in regions where in the beginning he could scarcely breathe.” But four years after this she was finding Wagner oppressive: “My eyes are bruised, my ears dulled, my brain a mere pudding of pulp.”

Wagnerism assumes an increasingly sinister guise as the 20th century progresses. The Nazis exploit both the music and the mythology. Wagner is played at Nazi state occasions and is heard regularly on propaganda newsreels. Wagner’s heirs effusively welcome Hitler’s frequent visits to Bayreuth. With the war underway, “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” is the favored music for national mourning. Most damning is the revolting Goebbels-commanded propaganda film “The Eternal Jew,” the narration of which cites Wagner as the source of the anti-Semitic slur, “The Jew is the plastic demon of the decline of mankind.” One can’t help feeling that Wagner’s statements about Jews being subhuman had come home to roost, and that the taint of the Holocaust on him is not entirely unwarranted. Ross seems to acknowledge that, but he also protests that the “Wagner-to-Hitler” meme suggests a teleological progression that, while perhaps convenient, is dangerously simplistic. Not a single utterance of Hitler’s includes a reference to Wagner’s writings on the Jews, and anyone familiar with “The Ring” knows that the marriage of capitalism and fascism that underlies Nazi ideology is utterly at odds with Wagner’s anarchic societal vision. “One danger inherent in the incessant linking of Wagner to Hitler,” Ross says, “is that it hands the Führer a belated cultural victory — exclusive possession of the composer he loved.” As the author has written elsewhere, “To hold Wagner in some way responsible for Hitler trivializes a hugely complicated historical situation; in a sense, it takes the rest of Western civilization off the hook.” It is a riddle that, like the composer’s famous harmonies, will remain forever unresolved.

John Adams is the composer of “Nixon in China,” “Doctor Atomic” and other operas.

WAGNERISM
Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
By Alex Ross
Illustrated. 769 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $40.

A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 18, 2020, Page 14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Opera Man. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 
 
 Posted:   Nov 21, 2020 - 11:48 AM   
 By:   nyrexari   (Member)

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