Richard Wagner’s Pandemonium

An Absolute Shit

The lives and afterlives of Richard Wagner.


Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite. This wasn’t just ugly, of-the-times bigotry or part of a sad and private hang-up, but a blood-and-body-consuming dimension of his being. As per the usual pageantry that comes with hate, his loathing took on enduring and complicated expressions, was pathetically pseudoscientific, a product of some combination of transference, projection, and fear, and is, in hindsight—but also was, during his lifetime—a character trait that left his name and work rank with the spice of rot.

For the uninitiated, let me be clear: Wagner was a lot of things. He was a fop—a dandy who died in a room tailored in plum satins and whose last words were allegedly “My watch!” His fundamental rewiring of the ideas of harmony and tonality—the musical mathematics for how some notes are meant to go together—has made him the artist so many credit with ushering in modernism in music. He is contestably the most influential composer that ever lived, was unequivocally a genius, is outpaced only by figures like Jesus Christ and Shakespeare in the number of books written about him in the Library of Congress, and, as W.H. Auden put it, was “an absolute shit.”

Alex Ross—a New Yorker music writer for the past two decades—has spent the better part of his life bedeviled by both the beautiful and the reprehensible qualities of the 19th-century composer. The outcome of his years-long infatuation is Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Like his muse’s operas, the work is filigreed, prone to bombast, at times bloated, and, at over 700 pages, formidable. But the remarkable trick about Ross’s undertaking is in how it steers clear of the usual critical constructions that befall bad artists who make good art. Though Wagner’s myriad hatreds are certainly deeply plumbed, judgment is not Ross’s aim in the book.

Just as in his first, equally brick-sized work—the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century—Ross here makes the case that classical music from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries foregrounds much of how we think and talk about music and its relationship to the people who enjoy it. But Wagner is a figure that especially imprints on and becomes imprinted with history, revealing, in silhouette, what an epoch and its thinkers share. Ross’s new book charts the ideological pandemonium Wagner unleashed in his audiences, and the result is more an intellectual cartography than an assessment of Wagner’s influence through time. But by following Wagner’s reception rather than laying claim to a decisive reading of his work—instead hunting it, inspecting it, tracking how it moves—Ross has given us a book that does something impressive. Ross, in a rare feat of contemporary criticism, divests himself of his autonomy as a critic, hands it to others, and shows how writing about art is always an intervention between the subject and its beholders.

Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1813. His mother was the daughter of bakers and his stepfather a playwright who would stoke in his stepson a fascination with theater that Wagner would later call an “almost demonic fire.” With a preternatural capacity to pump out complicated, Beethoven-inspired compositions and with an unshakable sense of grandiosity, Wagner began his musical career as something of a bête noire, virtually destined to court adoration and nemesis.

From his precocious boyhood, Wagner would go on to wedge his ideas for the art of opera into the minds and hearts of not just his own milieu but generations of listeners and viewers thereafter. He would do so with an iconoclasm otherwise afforded only to inventors of things like Mickey Mouse or the iPhone. So much of how we think about, consume, and stage modern music is indebted to Wagner’s vast acreage of intellectual property—from the way we seat people steeply in theaters to some core principles and practices of conducting; from the sheer concept of atonality to the act of dimming the lights before a show.

Wagner’s music is embedded not only in the global consciousness but in the recesses of the global unconscious, too. The hymn known in weddings immemorial as “Here Comes the Bride” might be the most universally identifiable—taken from a passage in his Romantic opera Lohengrin—but the thundery “Ride of the Valkyries” (from the second opera in the four-part, 15-hour-long Ring cycle) is inescapable, be it in Elmer Fudd cartoons or Apocalypse Now. There are also the tension-soaked opening notes of Tristan und Isolde, followed by the “Tristan chord”—likely the most analyzed chord in Western music—a sequence that, with its strangely unresolved, half-diminished double dissonance, still sounds remarkably horny, like an orgasm edged, then held to fermata.

Wagner’s influence is so prolific that he’s been immortalized with his own adjective, “Wagnerian,” which, not unlike “Lynchian” or “Kafkaesque,” is a term that swallows a host of meanings almost to the point of unmeaning. The ideas carried in other chronically abused terms, such as “leitmotif” (a recurring bit of music associated with a character or object) and Gesamtkunstwerk (a “total work of art”), also belong to Wagner, and are now associated with works ranging from The Lord of the Rings to the buildings of Le Corbusier. Loudly, publicly, and with the frequency of an obsessive, he also published a number of brainless essays that calcified what he called his “instinctive repugnance against the Jew’s prime essence.”

The Wagner universe of art and thought was, and is, rich with things that are mammoth-sized, ideas so spacious and open to interpretation that they work like Rorschach blots for both his fans and his foes. In the right room, the mere mention of anything Wagner will yield a chorus of both love and hate, and for good reason: He inspires awe and ire in precisely the same, out-of-control proportions as the brilliance and bad politics associated with his name. By the same token, however, his work casts a strangely revealing spell that lays bare the critical framework of anyone who has an opinion of him.

Despite the insistence of its title, Ross’s latest book is not only an overview of Wagner’s influence on musicians and nonmusicians alike, though it is certainly and explicitly that; more usefully, it is also a Trojan Horse that delivers a larger exercise in figuring out the limits of criticism. While the book repeatedly asks, “What does it mean to admire Richard Wagner?,” it implicitly poses a more onerous set of questions: What does it mean to stake a claim to any artist? What are we supposed to do with their damning qualities? What do we do when we equivocate about them—and what gets lost in the process?

Wagner’s life and work constitute an excellent and fertile jungle to wander through in service of the everlasting riddle of whether an artist’s personal prejudices are a significant factor or an extraneous one in the art they create. Negotiating the balance of politics and aesthetics in art criticism is by no means a new endeavor, but Wagner’s corpus poses considerable challenges, especially in a contemporary mode, wherein critics often feel like arbiters of ethical consumption. Tacit declarations of a subject’s moral value (or lack thereof) are a hallmark of buzzy reviews—even a recent interview with Ross, certainly calibrated both for search engine optimization and to flatter contemporary tastes, bears the title “Wagner Was the Original Canceled Artist.”

But that headline belies the size of the tangle both with Wagner and within Ross’s Wagnerism. Though the expectations associated with the adjudication of an artist’s goodness might be top of mind for modern readers who’ve gotten even a whiff of Wagner’s ridiculous hostilities, Ross measuredly warns against the promise of a finite answer for what to do with a problem like Wagner. “I am conscious of my limits,” he writes in the introduction, though he’s speaking not only of the boundaries of his “expertise and language” but, more broadly, of his aesthetic, moral, and critical project of presenting Wagner as a case study in understanding what happens—and what matters—to individuals when confronted with good art from artists with festering ethical sores.

With so much landscape to cover, as fairly as possible, in Wagner’s work—and its dissonant, clanging reverberations—Ross must take on a number of jobs. Foremost, he has to be a well-equipped guide, leading us through the brambly fields of Wagner’s output and pointing out the responses his work and persona have engendered: how he’s endured endless relitigations of his character, how historical appropriations and reappropriations of him have tilted public perception, and the curiously generative hypocrisies in his fandom. But Ross also must be an anthropologist, patrolling with authority a panorama littered with past critics; he then must divide this vast geography into discrete and digestible sections that confront the ways Wagner moved from man to metaphor.

But even as he dons these uniforms, what he is not doing a whole lot of, exactly, is passing judgment on the subject or his art. “You need not love Wagner or his music to register the staggering dimensions of the phenomenon,” Ross writes, though the phenomenon in question is not so much that of Wagner’s aftershocks as it is the care with which Ross needs to handle the Wagnerverse. He may fastidiously exhaust the point that Wagner has seduced and more or less wrung dry the emotional and rational faculties of all the minds who have been touched by his work. But it’s Ross’s roaming catalog of the wilderness of the world’s deep and motley approaches to Wagner (be they schools of Jewish Wagnerites or Black Wagnerites) that makes the book such a distinctly Gordian knot of the logical and emotional pathways we pave by loving an artist’s art.

What Wagnerism shows, very clearly, is that while music and its creators constrain how you receive them—at least to some initial degree—they will never take away one’s freedom to respond.

In a way,” Ross writes, “this book is a story of failed analogies.” From metaphor to allegory, his main action throughout is erecting parallel constructions between Wagner the man and Wagner the myth, in order to chart the passage from Wagner to Wagnerism.

Each literary, musical, and philosophical figure he calls on to give testimony provides a new translation—or mistranslation—by which to read the man’s legacy. It’s clearly not lost on Ross that this marathon act of kneading every tension in and out of Wagner’s knotty corpus is, in itself, Wagnerian. In 2016, Nicolas Dames wrote that in the best criticism, “we should hear a critic’s performance of the work in question, much like a musician’s performance of a score.” This is to say, effective criticism should be as inventive as it is ekphrastic: As it wraps itself around one artistic object, it makes a second one in the process. Furthermore, it’s obligatory: “The behemoth,” Ross points out, “whispers a different secret in each listener’s ear.”

Take the case of Nietzsche. A contemporary of Wagner’s, the philosopher had a revealing relationship with the composer, moving from faraway interest to adoration, idolatry, mania, and, finally, enmity. While both were orbiting around Switzerland in 1869, they began an intimate, near father-son relationship. Fizzy with the buzz around Wagner’s latest opera, Das Rheingold, Nietzsche looked upon the composer with the reverence of a new cult inductee and treated him as a world-historical artist. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s 1872 essay, he explained the need for a chaotic, “Dionysian” style of art, to oppose the staid, rational, “Socratic” bilge then dominating Germany. Wagner was that figure, he believed—a man who breathed the “sublime and the ultra-sublime,” a man whose existence accomplished the Sisyphean, superhuman task of “sum[ming] up modernity.”

But Wagner’s grandiosity grew, and it began to gnaw at the disciple. Two major forces caused Nietzsche grief, the first of which was the development of Wagner’s own opera house and festival in the German hamlet of Bayreuth. Though it was conceived—and later successfully executed—as a mecca for opera, in its early days it was a remarkably garish meeting point of commodity and chauvinism, something more like a Wagner-themed amusement park filled with what Nietzsche saw as a maw of “bored, unmusical” guests and “idle European riff-raff.” (Bayreuth would even prefigure some of the gaudier features of modern branding: Shops outside the opera house were stuffed with beer mugs and “sundry toiletries” stamped with Wagner’s face.) “I no longer recognized anything,” Nietzsche practically moaned. “I scarcely recognized Wagner.”

Nietzsche’s second issue with Wagner—a more fundamental, very Nietzschean one—was what he saw as a series of ethical hypocrisies in Wagner’s weak Christian ethos—in particular, his anti-Semitism. Though Wagner had, in 1850, already published a nauseating pamphlet titled “Jewishness in Music” under a pseudonym (K. Freigedank, or “Freethought”)—an essay in which he describes the Jewish people as a “swarming colony of worms that takes up residence in the body of art”—he republished the work with his full name and a more damning addendum in 1869 and would continue to churn out essays with rabid indictments of Jewishness as a scourge of art until his death in 1883.

For Nietzsche, these texts proved to be too much. In his 1888 essays The Case of Wagner and Nietzsche Contra Wagner, he portrays Wagner as a decaying, duplicitous, anti-Semitic Christian, a stupefier of unthinking audiences with old German classics, and a man who has resolutely “made music sick.” He admits, painfully, that he had misapplied his faith in Wagner’s seemingly world-historical capacities all along. “Wagner’s art is diseased,” he writes. “Everything he touches he contaminates.” Nietzsche “revenged [himself] on Wagner for [his] deceived expectations” by spending his last year of lucidity publishing screeds against him.”

The intensity of Nietzsche’s feeling—that violent ambivalence, that long-wrought, well-anthologized defense of his turn away from the composer, and, crucially, that sense of personal disloyalty to the vision of the man he’d constructed and relied on as a savior—is a refrain throughout Wagnerism. Among fans of Wagner’s music both during his life and after, this sense of personalized perfidy is a mainstay. Auden (who, again, called Wagner a shit) also considered him “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived.” Thomas Mann seesawed between resentment and veneration; the French poet Catulle Mendès took a similar stance, as Ross notes, “admiring and despising his old idol in equal measure.” The American composer Leonard Bernstein’s wits’-end admission—“I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees”—may as well serve as the epitaph for a legion of writers and fans who saw revering his work as a sort of conscious hypocrisy.

Adolf Hitler, tellingly, had a far less fraught relationship to the composer. For him, Wagner was an angel of Germanic ideals. Naturally, the existence of “Jewishness in Music” didn’t harm his legacy in the Führer’s eyes, and it’s very likely, according to Ross, that several particularly nasty passages in Mein Kampf were copied closely from Wagner’s essay. In Hitler Speaks, the German reactionary Hermann Rauschning even quotes Hitler as seeing something of a spiritual master in him: “I recognize in Wagner my only predecessor…. I regard him as a supreme prophetic figure.” The depth of this ardor rendered the memory of Wagner, Ross tells us, “warped…around Hitler’s presence” in the 20th century: The Wagner estate’s support of the Third Reich, the “flurry of Wagneriana” in the Nazi regime, and the consecration of the Bayreuth Festival as a site of annual Nazi visitation after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 sealed the connection securely. The critic Siegfried Scheffler, in a review of the first Nazi-packed event, referred to the pair as the “two Führers.”

“One danger inherent in the incessant linking of Wagner to Hitler,” Ross notes, “is that it hands the Führer a belated cultural victory—exclusive possession of the composer he loved.” For Ross, such a victory is far more ambiguous: Though Wagner had unquestionably been an anti-Semite, he had also been something of a left-wing anarchist and a self-proclaimed man of the people.

Wagner was exiled from Germany and its musical world for 12 years after playing a not-unmeaningful role in the 1849 May Uprising in Dresden by ordering hand grenades, serving on the barricades, and loudly rallying rioters from the town hall balcony. “The backshadowing narrative was too simplistic,” Ross writes; he quotes the German academic Hans Rudolf Vaget, who alleges that the young Hitler’s exaltation of Wagner is one of “patent normality within the cultural context from which he sprang.” Socialists, communists, social democrats, radicals, dilettantes, and anarchists all found sustenance in Wagner, and yet his co-option by Hitler effectively reduced him “to a cultural atrocity—the Muzak of genocide.”

Declarations like “too simplistic” are a hallmark of Ross’s approach to unsnarling the life and afterlives of Wagner’s work, and this critical tool eventually becomes anticipatory. Each passage is so rhythmic in its argument, so swinging in its pendulum, that it begins to move metronomically. First, it lays out the land—a portion of Wagner’s life, a fan, a foe, a movement, a reaction to him—then, without fail, it swings in the other direction. Often, we enter baroque hyperbole, a favorite means by which Ross re-creates just how inchoate, contradictory, and dense Wagner’s system of art and belief was. Baudelaire’s ardor for the music was like that of “an addict, an opium dreamer,” and Twain’s response to the prelude to Parsifal, Ross reports, was “rhapsodic, almost delirious.” Ross himself speaks of the operas as having “near-infinite malleability” that often created “interpretive pandemonium.”

But any man contains multitudes, and in its own way, the volume of commentary that describes Wagner’s spell as ineffable can feel like a critical sidestep. It often seems as if the only way to approach the darker spots that stain Wagner’s being is to blur them into murk.

Ross is aware of this analytical shortcut. Wagner’s “misogyny, like his racism, can dissipate in the face of an unexplained force that erases distinctions and brings about transcendent unity,” he writes. This is to say, delusion or self-deception will necessarily be part of any equation that involves celebrating an artist. And when it comes to Wagner in particular, there is a certain sense of fantasy in believing a single idea.

To paraphrase Mann, it’s more valuable to be intoxicated not by intoxication but by insight. Ross devotes crucial moments of his book to the curious cases of those fans who disdained Wagner’s cruel politics but adored his music. Wagner was embraced not only by Hitler but also by Afro-Wagnerites, feminist Wagnerites, and even the not-entirely-rare examples of Jewish Wagnerites. In these fans, we can witness the logical leaps some took to not exactly defend their adoration of him, but to be able to separate their adoration from conventional identitarian narratives and ground it in their own terms. Each subject takes things personally, but this only sometimes means politically.

To take one peculiar example: Theodor Herzl considered himself a proud Wagner acolyte. As the father of modern political Zionism, he found himself “enraptured by the music of the great anti-Semite,” as his biographer Amos Elon noted, and sought deep inspiration in the ebb and flow of Wagner’s music as he wrote what would become The Jewish State. In his 1898 autobiography, he recalled, “My only rest in the evening was listening to Wagner’s music, particularly to Tannhäuser, an opera that I went to hear as often as it was given. Only on the evenings when no opera was performed did I doubt the rightness of my ideas.”

W.E.B. Du Bois shared an equally glowing conviction. Transfixed after his first visit to Bayreuth, he saw in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung a vision of particularly African American heroism. “It is as though someone of us chose out of the wealth of African folklore a body of poetic material and, with music, scene, and action, re-told for mankind the suffering and triumphs and defeats of a people,” he wrote in his travel column for the Pittsburgh Courier. In The Souls of Black Folk, he seems to get at a greater point: “Something in this world man must trust. Not everything—but Something.”

Riven with apparent contradiction, Du Bois’s admiration does not absolve Wagner of his idiocy, nor does Herzl’s appreciation abate the fact that Wagner would have categorically loathed him and his cause. Neither is it easy to resolve the fact that Emma Goldman found in Wagner’s work a pressure valve for women’s “pent-up, stifled and hidden emotions,” or that, as Ross writes, Wagner became part of the “syllabus of gay taste,” with queer writers like Hanns Fuchs referring to him confidently as a “spiritual homosexual.” Sundry other surprising Wagnerites populate the history of left-wing thought, such as the Black intellectuals, like Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, who found beauty in Wagner’s Teutonic idealism.

These Wagnerites’ relationships to the composer are what make Wagnerism and the idea of approaching art with a true subjectivity so fertile. Nietzsche seems to get to the core of Wagner’s sharpest effect in a journal entry written during his most passionate period of obsession with the composer. “All of the psychologically decisive passages,” he wrote, “speak only of me.”

Across these nearly 700 pages, Ross has done the work of explaining that there is no science in the logic of love, but it is worth an attempt to make one. Claiming messiness does not suddenly resolve a critical argument. By the same token, reason, and conviction in that reason, cannot undo hate. Even with such a monstrous artist and such a monstrous body of work, Ross insists that no love for an artist demands complicity with their evils. Artists are notoriously uncompromising, but what we’re slated (or doomed) to do is try to compromise convincingly with what’s at hand.

In an interview titled “The Value of Frustration,” the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips makes the salient case that the language of pleasure and the language of fulfillment are inextricable. “I think that the equation of happiness with forms of satisfaction is the problem,” he notes. “I think it is that we’re bewitched by the idea of gratification and we’re bewitched by the idea that gratification is what we want and is the thing that will make us happy.”

Satisfaction, or the idea of expressing complicated ideas economically—the swift and flattened thesis, tales of good versus evil—does not find a home in Wagnerism. We’re reminded again and again of his genius and his sins, but in a pattern that constantly reasserts itself in Ross’s narrative, we follow how each version of Wagner that each fan, critic, or reader holds close or views from afar is shaped by the person’s ability to see him, articulate him, separate him out into pieces, and underscore what matters most.

Tugging along these lines of inquiry is not always satisfying, but it is, very literally, a model of the varying limits of empathy. “What we hate in it,” writes Ross, “we hate in ourselves; what we love in it, we love in ourselves also.”

And this is where we are left at the end of Ross’s book. Wagner will remain ground zero for the method of taking an artist and measuring the person’s worth in terms of value systems that are historical, selective, and utterly emotional. Seeing oneself as a devoted Wagnerite or an anti-Wagnerite cannot be considered mutually exclusive conditions. It shows the way that individual politics work—how they are self-selective, shifting, and sometimes paradoxical. Wagner, like politics, is a perceptual proposition—a thought experiment that asks us not only what we value but also how we meaningfully justify those values as true.

Moral imperfections are tantalizing, whether they’re within Wagner or any contemporary artist. And a public’s fascination with the slippages that contradict the impossible idea of “greatness” is productive—it allows us to realize that the principles of art and ideology are not so much inseparable as they are the same force. Flashes of the most Wagnerian figure in this country today came involuntarily to mind as I read Ross’s book, and no mention of his name is necessary to underscore Ross’s success in outlining the enduring relevance of a towering, self-satisfied, endlessly fascinating figure whose myth often eclipses his reality and whose seductive factors seem baffling to many. It is certainly easy and attention-getting to begin a critical appraisal with an argument for why one’s subject is reprehensible and deserves our revulsion. But Ross also insists that it’s important to consider at length why so many others have been attracted to the same figure or his work. As Wagner himself intimately understood, harmony and resolution are two entirely different forces.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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