Sunday, April 08, 2018

Alex Ross' next book looks like it will be about Richard Wagner, Wagnerism.

I have a huge preoccupation with Wagner right now. My third book, a very big, long-term project, is going to be called Wagnerism. It will not be a book about Wagner per se, but an account of his vast cultural impact from the latter part of his life to today in all the arts. I’m not actually going to talk about his impact on music, which is a book or many books in itself.
Nietzsche as a young man was completely besotted with Wagner, and had to fight his way out of this obsession – not only with the music but the man, because they had quite an intense personal relationship. In the latter part of the 19th century, this reaction of Nietzsche against Wagner points to a new strand of thinking, which became modernism in a lot of ways. It’s the case with many other major figures of the later 19th and early 20th century. Very often, you see an early infatuation with Wagner, followed by a reaction against him or a modification of the passion. You see it in Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and many others.

People have forgotten just how overpowering a figure Wagner was in the late 19th century. If you were an intellectually or artistically leaning young person in any field, you more or less had to come to terms with Wagner, or at least expose yourself to him. He influenced every imaginable form. He had an impact on socialists, communists, feminists, early gay-rights people, as well as the right wing of course, which is all that people remember in a way.

One very significant problem that classical music has faced in the 20th century has been an association with fascism, and in particular Hitler’s notorious love for Wagner. There was a sense that something had gone spiritually awry in classical music itself, or that Hitler’s love for Wagner had somehow tainted the music or revealed something evil inherent to it. This is something of a misunderstanding, or a far from complete picture of Wagner – but it needs to be confronted and talked about.

The other thing about Nietzsche’s writing about Wagner is that it’s wonderfully brilliant, unpredictable vivid and perceptive, even when he’s deliberately distorting the material for a certain effect or working out his own profound ambivalence about Wagner. It’s fantastic music criticism exactly because it’s so wild and eccentric and unreliable – he’s the last person you should turn to for an exact account of what’s going on in Wagner’s librettos, but it’s insidiously quotable and fantastically expressive. It’s a dangerous model to use for music writing, but an inspiring one nonetheless.

He's been working on this one for a while.  I enjoyed The Rest is Noise, his perhaps too sweeping but very readable history of 20th century art music in the Western tradition. He's not writing quite as much for The New Yorker these days but he's still writing stuff.  Writing a book about Wagner's influence through the last two centuries sounds like a worthy project, even writing as someone who regards Wagner's operas as being somewhere between Star Wars and Michael Bay movies for drama.  I don't say that as someone who can't still appreciate the fun of the original Star Wars trilogy.  For that matter I own Transformers Prime.  Steve Blum's turn as Starscream was really, really funny. 

But Wagner was, in his way, an extension of what Douglas Shadle called "the Beethoven problem" in art music.  Beethoven, Wagner insisted, had written the last symphony, the point beyond which no one could successfully bother writing yet another symphony.  The Ninth was the be all and end all of the symphonic idiom.  What was left, however, was to take Beethoven's innovations for the symphony and apply those musical insights to the musical drama, e.g. opera.  Wagner set out, obviously, to achieve that.  He wrote his own libretti, composed the music, handled the orchestration and exerted control over every aspect of each multimedia extravaganza and laid the foundation for festivals that would, as Roger Scruton has said about Wagner's work, tell us the story about our stories.

There's all kinds of ways in which Joseph Campbell's monomyth could be seen as indebted to Richard Wagner's theorizing that it was the task of Art to recover and preserve the kernel of truth lost in all those old absurd religious dogmas.  The Hero's Journey was arguably in utero in Wagner's operas before a Joseph Campbell began to formulate American takes on the concept.  While Wagner is credited or blamed with an explicitly Germanic ideal of art he was shooting for art that would represent the hero and the entire universal human condition in which humanity could in some way redeem itself, if through a kind of tragic redemption.  It's not like everyone lives happily ever after in The Ring cycle.  Everybody dies but some face their deaths with tragic dignity and come to understand the value of love and a woman's worth ... .

Seeing as I have come to the view that Francis Schaeffer failed spectacularly to read the intellectual and artistic history of Western culture in the 19th century by not addressing Wagner and by also not addressing the monomythic elements of Joseph Campbell's quasi-Wagnerian take on how all folklore could be boiled down to a hero's quest, I'm probably picking up Alex Ross' book on Wagner and Wagnerism when it comes along. 

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