2020-09-17 19:27:38 UTC
From Wall Street Journal:
<< ‘Wagnerism: Art & Politics in the Shadow of Music’ Review: The Outsider
After grappling with the artist in full—shadows and all—can we still hear his song?
By Joseph Horowitz
Sept. 11, 2020
Great works of art are so powerfully imagined that their intent and expression mold to changing human circumstances. But the operas of Richard Wagner are arguably unique in this regard: No other creative genius in the Western canon so unerringly holds up a mirror to time and place.
In Gilded Age America, Wagner was a meliorist: a source of uplift whose anti-Semitism was minimized or ignored. In Nazi Germany, he was a tool for Hitler. During the fin de siècle decades, when Wagnerism peaked, he was the source of a surging cultural and intellectual wave, at once avant-garde and reactionary, political and aestheticist, nostalgic and prophetic. Thomas Mann’s claim that Wagner was “probably the greatest talent in the entire history of art” cannot be dismissed as hyperbole.
Alex Ross’s “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music” takes up Wagner’s protean impact with unprecedented scope. In other writers’ accounts, Wagnerism ends with World War I in Europe and America and, slightly later, in Soviet Russia (where Vladimir Tatlin’s proposed monument to the Third International was inspired by Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”). But in Mr. Ross’s wide-ranging chronicle, Wagner’s influence outside the world of music keeps on going: through the Third Reich and Hollywood to J.R.R. Tolkien (whose disclaimer of Wagner’s influence “does not withstand scrutiny”) and the German artist Anselm Kiefer (“whose decades-long negotiation with Wagner deserves comparison with that of Thomas Mann”) and even Pope Francis (whose favorite Wagner opera is “Parsifal”). No previous writer has so copiously chronicled the sheer ubiquity of Wagner in important novels, poems and paintings. The result is an indispensable work of cultural history, offering both a comprehensive resource and a bravura narrative.
While the existing Wagner literature is vast and defies generalization, the best-known studies range from passionate advocacy to equally impassioned denunciation. Mr. Ross, who came late to Wagner, is a centrist—a circumspect, at times even diffident, Wagnerite. He writes: “The behemoth whispers a different secret in each listener’s ear.” Mr. Ross, the longtime music critic at the New Yorker and the author of “The Rest Is Noise” (2007), is able to become many listeners. Relatedly, there are limits to his degree of engagement—and Wagner is about commitment, however dangerous or misguided. These limits frame and modulate Mr. Ross’s extraordinary book.
In a postlude, Mr. Ross confides his own Wagner journey as a 21st-century gay American operagoer and writes: “Many people have gone away from Wagner feeling uplifted, empowered, aggrandized. For me, he has more often brought revelations of my stupidity, my self-pity, my absurdity—in other words, my humanity.” Wagner himself was more possessed of “humanity” than is generally asserted or assumed. His was in fact a personality as multifarious as his operas. The dramatist in Wagner created a musical stage peopled by powerful men and powerful women. As Mr. Ross richly details, Wagner’s appeal to women and gays is a hallmark of his achievement. Writing about Marcel Proust and Wagner, Mr. Ross observes that “by the nineties, Wagner was well established as a code of gay taste.” He calls Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” “one of the supreme Wagnerian creations, yet it is free of bombast, maintaining an intimate mode of address.” Writing about Virginia Woolf’s mostly concealed Wagnerian dimension, Mr. Ross is again keenly attuned to defining yet elusive subcurrents.
The author upon whom Mr. Ross lavishes the most attention is Willa Cather, whose Wagnerism—in her life as in her fiction—was an explicit leitmotif. As Joan Acocella demonstrated in her 2000 book “Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism,” Cather is a writer poisoned in our time by feminist psychosexual readings oblivious of Cather’s own milieu. To understand Cather on her own terms requires understanding her formative relationship with Sieglinde, Brünnhilde and other Wagner heroines. Mr. Ross has here furnished a veritable Cather-Wagner compendium. He has also scored a scholarly coup, establishing that Cather’s Nebraska piano teacher was the son of a prominent German conductor who once led “Rienzi” in Pest, with Wagner in attendance. Cather’s achievement, Mr. Ross summarizes, “was to transpose Wagnerism into an earthier, more generous key. She offered grandeur without grandiosity, heroism without egoism, myth without mythology. Brünnhilde stays on her mountain crag, hailing the sun: no man breaks the ring of fire.”
But is that all? In the early 20th century, most American Wagnerites were women, for whom Wagner was an antidote to lives marginalized in a man’s world of work and money. And so it was with Cather, whose most insightful Wagner commentary diagnoses Kundry, in “Parsifal.” One of Wagner’s most original creations, Kundry oscillates between extremes of submission and domination. Cather’s Kundry, at the Met, was Olive Fremstad, a Wagner soprano, Callas-like in veracity and intensity, with whom Cather became friends. Of Fremstad’s Kundry, Cather writes that it “is a summary of the history of womankind. [Wagner] sees in her an instrument of temptation, of salvation, and of service; but always an instrument, a thing driven and employed. . . . She cannot possibly be at peace with herself. . . . [A] driven creature, [she is] made for purposes eternally contradictory.”
Mr. Ross cites this commentary without comment. But read Cather, and read about Fremstad (who twice married abortively, identified with Ibsen’s women and chopped wood in Scandinavian forests), and it all fits together. Wagner, for Willa Cather, was more than an inspirational artistic model: He was a therapist, a medium for self-understanding and empowerment.
This dimension of the Wagner experience is equally inescapable in considering the vexed topic of Wagner and the Jews. Wagner was a vile anti-Semite. Adolf Hitler was a confirmed Wagnerite. Whether a direct line links Wagner to the Holocaust is a permanently embattled question. Sifting the evidence, Mr. Ross is again a centrist, for whom Wagner is an influential racist but not a proto-Nazi. That Wagner was in his time notably surrounded by loyal Jewish friends and adherents is a fact requiring explanation.
Among the warmest, most animated reminiscences of Wagner the man is the book-length “Personal Recollections” of Angelo Neumann, the Jewish impresario who, in the 1880s, toured the “Ring” throughout Europe. The news of Wagner’s death so stunned Neumann that, as he put it in his memoir, he “reeled into the next room and clutched the bed. . . . I felt within my soul that a god had left this earth.” The peculiar intensity of affinity Wagner could arouse in Jews was perhaps most notably evinced by Hermann Levi, who conducted the premiere of “Parsifal” at Bayreuth. To his father, a rabbi, Levi wrote: “The most beautiful thing that I have experienced in my life is that it was granted to me to come close to such a man, and I thank God daily for this.”
Or take the case of Gustav Mahler, who, as Mr. Ross observes, once argued that the devious dwarf Mime, in “Siegfried,” was “intended by Wagner as a persiflage of a Jew.” Mahler then added: “I know of only one Mime, and that is me.” There is, however, more to this aside. Mahler also said: “No doubt with Mime, Wagner intended to ridicule the Jews with all their characteristic traits . . . the jargon is textually and musically so cleverly suggested; but for God’s sake it must not be exaggerated and overdone. . . . You wouldn’t believe what there is in that part, nor what I could make of it.” For Mahler, Wagner exquisitely understood the Jew in Mime.
Mr. Ross ventures in a useful direction in considering the “special appeal” of “Lohengrin” for Jewish listeners: “The opera romanticizes the figure of the itinerant outsider who stands apart from the ‘normal’ community, much as many Jews perceived themselves within German society.” As a lifelong Jewish Wagnerite, I would go the distance: Wagner is the supreme poet of homelessness, the master musical portraitist of marginality. He is Siegmund, an orphan of ambiguous parentage, who exclaims: “I am always unpopular. . . . Misery is all I know.” He is Wotan and Tristan, who drop out. He is Hans Sachs, a lonely philosopher of pessimism. He is the cerebral Loge, whose irony is quick and irredeemable. As for Wagner himself, he suspected his actual father to have been Jewish. He fled the law as a political exile. He was always in debt. His enemies were numerous and powerful. His health was poor.
That he was himself a paradigmatic outsider explains many of the most impassioned, most therapeutic manifestations of Wagnerism, beginning with his appeal to gays and women, to whom he seemed, as to so many Jews, “one of us.” And so he is also Parsifal, who may be read as androgynous; or Senta, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde, driven to flout convention because of oppressive circumstances—because of a brutish husband or clueless father.
If one were to further extrapolate the grand trajectory traced by Mr. Ross, where, finally, does his own “Wagnerism” fit, with its cool intellectualism and tenacious yet circumspect forms of engagement? I would place it alongside Patrice Chéreau’s landmark 1976 Bayreuth production of “The Ring of the Nibelung.” Chéreau, like Mr. Ross, came late to Wagner. He, too, was an open-ended revisionist, both critical and appreciative. Above all, his production was justly acclaimed, not least by Mr. Ross himself, as an exercise in cultural memory, culling allusions from history and the visual arts—“a panorama of Wagnerism in all its variegated glory.”
And what next, for generations to come? Wagner is never cursory: There is no short course. Will there be enough cultural oxygen to sustain another half-century of Wagnerism? The final sentences of Mr. Ross’s book sound discomfitingly pregnant. He is writing about the Good Friday Spell in “Parsifal,” during which all living creatures “give thanks for the bright instant between birth and death. . . . As Parsifal sings, only the spear that caused [Amfortas’s] wound can heal it. The spear is art itself: poetry, novels, painting, dance, theater, opera. . . . The slowness of the music, the ambiguity of it, the radical shiver of its emotions, the disquiet that so many people feel in its face: all this marks Wagner as a contrary voice in modern culture, a warning from the damaged past.”
—Mr. Horowitz’s 10 books include “Wagner Nights: An American History” and “Moral Fire: Musical Portraits From America’s Fin de Siècle.”
This article appeared in the September 12, 2020, print edition as 'Wagner Über Alles.' >>