Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Written by Alex Ross, 769 pgs.

May 25, 2021

It was with no small amount of excitement that I picked up the latest book by Alex Ross, the longstanding music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise, the masterful history of classical music in the twentieth century. For his newest book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Ross chose as his subject Richard Wagner, the incredibly influential and prolific 19th century German Romantic composer. Ross attempts to showcase the complicated history of Wagner’s music, beliefs, and impact on society, but unfortunately, despite several high points, the entirety of the book is too disjointed and uneven to be considered a success.

The daunting task Ross set forth for himself was a fresh look at Richard Wagner and his works from historical angles different from—but not entirely divorced from—the usually accepted Pan-Germanic, anti-Semitic precursor to Nazism. To further this line of thought, he sets up his chapters with sub-headings like “Homosexual Wagner,” “Jewish Wagner,” “Black Wagner,” and the like, but never fully convinces the reader of his arguments. For example, are we to believe that Theodore Herzl (the father of Zionism) being a Wagner fan does anything to actually ameliorate the fact that Wagner and his family were viciously anti-Jewish in both private and published writings? Couple that with long chapters devoted to Wagner’s influence on the Fin de Siecle and Modernist movements in literature and one really begins to wonder what book Ross was trying to write here.

There are high points, of course. Ross is too gifted an essayist for some of these vignettes not to shine. In particular, the opening of the book dealing with a young Wagnerian acolyte (Nietzche) who falls under the spell of and then out of favor with the family is arguably the most engaging part of the book. And the section about “backshadowing” of Wagner’s influence on Hitler’s ideas for a German fascist utopia sheds light on what this book truly could have been. Unfortunately these vignettes stand in such stark contrast to the lesser parts that it makes this (already very long) book seem even more haphazardly thrown together. By the time you reach the late 20th century interpretations of Wagnerian influence, Ross is inexplicably describing the similarities between the Star Wars saga and Wagner’s operas, while also casually mentioning that Lucas was completely unfamiliar with his works. The reader is left wishing this would have been a couple of fantastic essays in the New Yorker as opposed to an unsatisfying book. –Justin Bookworm (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)