An Interview with Alex Ross - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Alex Ross

[music critic]
by Nicholas Cannariato
January 8th, 2021
Photo by David Michalek

Richard Wagner wrote operas. They are long. They’re about mythical characters, doomed lovers, and even the freaking holy grail. Grandiosity was Wagner’s thing, and he was grandiose about it. When you first hear his music, you probably think: What is this? Then you might ask: Where are the tunes? They bob up sometimes, but more often it’s bits of music coming and going, endlessly. The ones that return again and again signify a thing or character or theme. Those are called leitmotifs. The music doesn’t feel linear, either. It doesn’t make a tight argument, doff its powdered wig, and hop off. It fills rather than moves. At first it can seem boring, even decadent. But then something gets hold of you. The old sorcerer pulls you in. The colors swirl. The music rises like a flood. You’re left wondering what could have possibly come before it, and what, if anything, could come after it.

Enter Alex Ross, resident music critic of The New Yorker. A book that treats Wagner in a comprehensive way must, I think, be Wagnerian in scale. And Ross’s new book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, is just that. I was engrossed by its 750+ pages: a broad yet thorough account of Wagner’s influence on literature, politics, and culture. Most of all, I’ve always been interested in the space between literature and music, and Ross’s writing is especially illuminating about those borderlands of word and sound. Our conversation was illuminating, too.

— Nicholas Cannariato

THE BELIEVER: Who was Richard Wagner?

ALEX ROSS: He’s a lot more than a composer. He wrote the librettos for all his operas. He wrote extensively as a kind of theorist and commentator and critic. He thought about theater practice and musical practice. He directed many of the productions of his operas. And he even, as an architect of this, started shaping the design of the theater [in Bayreuth, Germany] where his festival was inaugurated in 1876. So he was extraordinarily talented, and in many different areas. Yet everything he did and thought about went back to the theater, to the stage… He was the sort of artist of a very unusual order. He just stepped outside of art as it then existed and sort of created his own world.

BLVR: So Wagner was virulently antisemitic. If art and artist can’t really be separated, how does one proceed in Wagner’s work, especially when that bigotry is only barely concealed—if at all, one could argue—in many of the operas? It may not be his defining characteristic, but it can’t be ignored either.

AR: Yeah, well, Wagner’s antisemitism became visible fairly early on in his infamous antisemitic essay, “Jewishness in Music”, published anonymously at first in 1850. Then he republished it in 1869, ensuring that it would never be forgotten or overlooked. He had an obsession, a paranoid obsession, with Jewish people. He associated very often with Jewish people… But his fixation was extreme. It was just an idea that took hold of this exceptionally intelligent, in many ways, broad-minded man. It was a disease, almost, that took hold of his brain, and he could never escape from it.

I do think there’s a great debate over whether antisemitic stereotypes are present in the operas themselves. Wagner himself never indicated that he was intending to do that, and there wasn’t too much comment about it in his lifetime. But I think that it’s difficult to kind of put your finger on it. There is something there and sort of somewhere in the middle of this ongoing debate… some people say there’s actually no evidence the stereotypes are out there [in the operas]. [Other] people say, you know, they’re absolutely there. They’re unspeakable and cannot be ignored… The truth may lie somewhere in between. But the point is his antisemitism does not stay confined in these pamphlets that he wrote. It spilled over into his [social] reputation, general artistic reputation, and into the perception of the works themselves, whatever he may have intended. And so it’s just unavoidable. Anyone who wants to have a relationship with Wagners’s work, I think, needs to take that into account and keep it in mind.

What I find complicating in this whole question of antisemitism and Wagner in Nazi ideology is that it’s now sort of become the defining characteristic. The only thing that a lot of people know about Wagner now is that he was Hitler’s favorite composer, and I think that’s a very limited idea of Wagner to have. So, you know, on the one hand, I absolutely oppose those Wagnerians who want to put it to the side and make it somehow a footnote to the “sublime magnificence” of his work, as they put it. But on the other hand, I reject the idea that this is ultimately all that the works are about and that somehow the whole purpose of his career was looking ahead to the Nazi state and to the Holocaust.

BLVR: In your new book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, you write about Wagner’s broad appeal politically and aesthetically: leftist revolutionaries, nationalists, anarchists, reactionaries, feminists, African Americans, LGBT activists, not to mention other writers, artists, and filmmakers. How do you explain his being a kind of cultural Rorschach test for new two centuries of experimental artists and political radicals?

AR: Well, that’s a good question, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever found a clear answer to it. This phenomenon begins to unfold actually, really, from the middle of the 19th century onward. But especially I really see it beginning in Paris 1861 [with] Baudelaire, [who wrote an] extraordinary essay: “Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris”, which in many ways is a radical reinvention of Wagner in light of Baudelaire’s own obsessions and concerns and themes which are pointing toward Symbolism and the late 19th and early 20th century avant garde—seeing Wagner as a conduit for a dream state, a kind of unearthly other realm, satanic energies, kind of uncontrolled passion… And so Wagner offered himself at the perfect moment to be the sort of gargantuan artistic figure who could channel all of these energies and all these dreams of a different future. And he kept talking about the future. You know that catchphrase that was attached to him was always “The Music of the Future”?… So that was a somewhat radical idea to find then in the artistic arena.

But I think more deeply, it has a lot to do with this urge for art to advance, to become modern, to become a herald for social or political or psychological or spiritual change. Wagner seems to offer this model, this sort of prototype, for how artists who follow him can sort of set off this earthquake with their work.

BLVR: Considering Western music more broadly, do you object to “music theory” as a term applied, implicitly or explicitly, to all music?

AR: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, there is a kind of tradition going back hundreds of years of musical analysis, of music theory, which is sort of built up around the so-called classics of the Western canon, and it’s useful for discussing those works. But when you generalize it, universalize it, and try to make out this particular musical language, to be the sort [of] supreme governing language of all music, it’s destructive and can reveal itself as implicitly or even explicitly racist in its assumption that a white European musical language becomes the master language of the world…

There’s so much of music which cannot be explained simply in terms of the musical scale, or in terms of rhythm, in terms of harmony… And so we need a way of seriously analyzing music and telling the history of music, especially on university campuses and in music departments. [One] that embraces all of the different musical languages of humanity.

BLVR: What did Hitler see in Wagner and what, as you see it, did he fail to understand?

AR: Well, Hitler fell in love with Wagner’s music when he was quite young, early teenage years. And he was one of millions of German youth and frankly, youth of many countries, who had a similar experience. There is nothing unusual about it. And it was very intense in his case… It was very common to sort of have, you know, a young person going through this phase of just extreme enthusiasm for Wagner. It’s about as remarkable as finding someone in the 1960s who is listening all the time to Bob Dylan or the Beatles. It was just completely part of the atmosphere of the day.

So the question with Hitler is did he receive some special infusion from Wagner in terms of antisemitism or in terms of extreme German nationalism? This is very much up for debate and there’s sort of schools of thought and various sides. My own feeling is that Hitler initially did not see Wagner in a political way, despite the story that he was inspired by [Wagner’s early opera] Rienzi to sort of envision himself as the future savior of Germany. I suspect that that story was sort of somewhat backdated from a later time. And that’s just his initial attachment to Wagner, [it] was just very much about being in love with the music and infatuated with the spectacle.And it was only somewhat later, at the end of the First World War, that Hitler began to develop any kind of recognizable political philosophy, and it was one of extreme nationalism and antisemitism. So whether this is a direct connection from the one to the other is simply not clear. I’m not going to say that there was no causality, but it’s simply not clear that there was an open-and-shut clear transference from Wagner to Hitler in political terms.

The curious thing is that Hitler actually never mentioned Wagner’s antisemitism at any of his recorded utterances, speeches, private recollections. It just seems never to have come up. Of course, he was aware of it, but it just didn’t seem to be uppermost in his mind when he thought about Wagner. [To Hitler, Wagner is] just this grand German cultural figure, I think, who had sort of a less specific message in terms of the great role that he played, I think, in Nazi ideology, simply as a sort of the Supreme Titanic German genius, not so much as an antisemitic ideologue. Wagner’s antisemitic writings [were] quoted in Nazi Germany. But it wasn’t really the dominant theme of how he was discussed in Nazi Germany—I think in part because Wagner’s writings were strange. [His] antisemitic writings are strange and they’re contradictory and they’re eccentric and they didn’t fit particularly well with this extremely pseudoscientific biological definition of race that the Nazis had embraced.

And there were actually Nazis who were suspicious of Wagner in general, [who thought] he was somehow kind of a bohemian or [there was] something sexually “off” about him. There were rumors that Wagner himself was Jewish. And so some people felt that he was an inappropriate model for robust, healthy German youth. Obviously, Hitler himself didn’t feel that way… That’s my general reading of the situation. But I recognize that it remains open. It remains uncertain what this relationship was between Wagner and Hitler in the end.

BLVR: You write in your book about W.E.B. Du Bois’ love of Wagner and even his making the trip to Bayreuth Festival. What lesson is there in Du Bois’s love of Wagner as it pertains to race and culture?

AR: So Du Bois belongs to a generation of African American thinkers, intellectuals, who often looked toward German culture for inspiration. Frederick Douglass, before him, was drawn to German culture. Many, many others in this generation came to be after—some figures of the Harlem Renaissance as well. There are a lot of complicated factors that go into why a man like Du Bois embraced German culture and Wagner in particular. One factor is Du Bois himself was in Germany. He was in Berlin and said that he actually felt liberated, free of racist assumptions in this society, as he had not been back home. One remarkable thing he later said was that he began to see white people as human. And of course that jars against the conception of Germany as sort of the homeland of genocidal racism.

Wagner was antisemitic. When it came to the feelings about Black people, he didn’t have a great deal to say. And some of the remarks that you can find in the private pages of [his wife] Cosima Wagner’s diary, where he’s sympathetic, particularly to the plight of African Americans. I think Du Bois would have sort of picked up, would have sensed through a few clues, that Wagner was not a figure who was sort of actively inimical to the cause of Black people. I mean maybe he would have been if he’d been sort of confronted with it, you know, full on. But, just as it turned out, it was just not a preoccupation of his…

It wasn’t necessarily that Du Bois thought that Wagner was actively sympathetic… Wagner can be a kind of blank slate… There’s a kind of neutrality about it. And, therefore, Du Bois could make of it whatever he wanted. He took Wagner as a model for how Black people could sort of look back at their own legends and myths and modernize them and use them to uplift and inspire contemporary people. And so that was how he talked about Wagner, as sort of this model myth-maker who Black artists could imitate.

BLVR: Nietzsche, maybe Wagner’s most famous superfan and then antagonist, wrote in The Case of Wagner that “one becomes more of a philosopher the more one becomes a musician.” What does that mean to you?

AR: Fascinating. I mean, there is this kind of complex relationship between music and philosophy. Nietzsche didn’t invent it, but he presented it in a very charged way that I think changes, affects philosophy that comes after. And he had this particular experience of Wagner where Wagner really just informed his philosophy and informed his thinking on a very profound level, and therefore, sort of indirectly, Wagner is shaping 20th century philosophy and intellectual history through Nietzsche.

So this is a very, very powerful effect that he had on Nietzsche… But it’s an extraordinary story in itself, just that it is a sign of Wagner’s weight, you know, that he becomes eventually a topic in philosophy. You have multiple generations of philosophers up to Žižek and Badiou who are weighing in on the Wagner issue… There’s sort of this musical energy that he had that he [Nietzsche] brings into philosophy, which is converted into a more sort of freewheeling and lyrical style of writing through philosophical issues, which obviously has a huge impact on everything that comes after, even if very few philosophers after him were as good a writer as Nietzsche was.

BLVR: Wagner might be most famous for Der Ring des Nibelungen, or “The Ring” cycle, comprised of the operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. What do you think is The Ring’s primary theme and how is it relevant today?Do you see it, for example, as anti-capitalist?

AR: I think it begins as a revolutionary, anti-capitalist project. That’s pretty unmistakable from the way in which he conceived the cycle at the beginning. But then you sort of have this effect where, as it goes along, even by the time he’s finishing the librettos in the early 1850s, his sort of revolutionary energies are beginning to ebb and he’s turning in other directions. Then in 1854, when he’s in the middle of composing Die Walküre, he discovers Schopenhauer, which has this enormous impact on him and leads him somewhat in the direction of this kind of renunciation of outer reality… Then he stops writing this cycle in the late 1850s and instead writes Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, which are very, very different pieces…

And so when he comes back to the Ring, he’s almost a completely different person. He has a different musical language… And even more of this kind of psychological layer becomes more and more important… [In the final opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung:] Then you hear the leitmotifs which you’ve heard again and again throughout the cycle. But they’ve turned evil. They’ve turned dark and twisted. And it’s sort of a nightmare. It’s just this grand nightmare of an opera. I love it. I mean, this is just one of his most modernistic creations… There’s sort of these other layers and sort of the psychological, the philosophical, the spiritual, then there’s this sense in where it also becomes a satire.

BLVR: Switching to a literary focus, your account of Willa Cather’s relationship to Wagner’s music in your new book is one of its real strengths. Can you talk about why Wagner appealed so much to Cather’s sensibility, desires, and values?

AR: Her upbringing in Nebraska, her sense of isolation in Nebraska. And then she received sort of cultural influences, infusions in that isolation, which kind of opened up these great mental worlds to her. And one of them was Wagner. I’m not even sure whether she would have been able to hear any Wagner music in her childhood, just a few very brief pieces played on the piano or sort of sung with a piano. But she read about Wagner, and I think she sort of had this fantasy of the heroes: Brünnhilde on her rock and sort of the ring of fire… These grand images of a single figure kind of isolated against a landscape which she identified with intensely and [which] relates to her own experience on the Nebraska plain. And so it’s just a kind of deep identification that took hold and sort of lasted throughout her life—but also had to do with her love of the theater, her love of opera, and her fascination with singers.

BLVR: Your account of Thomas Mann’s evolution as a Wagnerite is also one of the book’s great features. Can you talk about the arc of Mann’s Wagnerism, how it started, where it came down?

AR: For me, he’s the greatest Wagnerian and he also probably has a lot to do with the reason why I became so interested in Wagner in the first place: because I fell in love with Mann’s writing before I was really strongly attracted to Wagner’s music and was just overwhelmed by my first experiences reading The Magic Mountain and especially Doctor Faustus… It had a lot to do with why I think I became a writer about music, because I just found the description of music in Doctor Faustus so gripping and so thrilling… As with everything else with Thomas Mann, essentially it is this complicated love story where he fell head over heels in love with this music when he was a teenager, never fell out of love with it, but was constantly torn, constantly questioning… I think it also has to do with his sexuality… There was always the sense that Wagner was sort of this region, sort of sexually ambiguous and ill-defined and uncertain. That’s why “Death in Venice” is so charged with Wagner, even though Wagner is not actually named in the book… And so he [Mann] had this deep kind of dawning awareness of political danger in Wagner right at the end of the First World War.

He sees this dark energy in Wagner, I think quite prophetically. He sort of sees Hitler coming almost before Hitler exists [as a] political figure. And then once the Nazis take power, he meditates many times, very seriously, very honestly, with this problem. He does not look away from it. Sometimes he just seems to be on the verge of condemning Wagner utterly and sort of seeing a very clear identification between Wagner and Hitler. This very, very close connection. Yet he still can’t step away. He still feels that there’s all these elements in Wagner which point away from Hitler, despite this seeming like a close connection. It’s this ambivalence. This engaged ambivalence, and it’s kind of a model. It’s always been a model for me for how you treat a composer like this, a problematic figure like this.

BLVR: I know you’re close to the work of James Joyce. Certainly the scale of Joyce’s later novels (like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake) were unambiguously Wagnerian and showed Wagner’s influence to some extent in style, themes, allusions, etc. But also, what do you make of Joyce’s attraction to Wagner, considering how they so sharply contrasted, how they were so different in key ways: Joyce was earthier in wit and personally more of a tongue-in-cheek type (or so it seems) compared to Wagner’s sometimes hulking solemnity and grand gestures.

AR: Wagner is a Romantic and Joyce was coming of age at the very end of Romanticism and he went through a phase when he was young, where he loved Wagner. He loved all this kind of misty, murky, sort of late Romantic and also Symbolist art and literature. And then he broke with it. He sort of put it behind him and leapt into the twentieth century and sees this very, very new language that could be sort of brutally direct and vulgar and playful and wildly variable and just kind of kaleidoscopic. Just sort of the antithesis of Romanticism in so many ways.

And, yes, Joyce is Wagnerian insofar as he still wants to kind of embrace the whole world, and he still wants to use myth in tandem with modernity. So he still wants access to these old mythic archetypes and some of the grandiose language which goes along with him, with them. So there’s a lot of very rich Romantic language in Ulysses that may seem ironic, or it’s kind of broken into pieces, but, it’s still there… Joyce was a very grandiose personality, and so I think there’s a sense of a rivalry with Wagner in that sense. It’s more of a playful kind of relationship than the one that you have with Mann… Mann is agonizing over Wagner and Joyce never is. He is just kind of dancing around Wagner and sort of using him as part of his modernist spectacle. But it’s a rich relationship.

BLVR: Most people might be put off by the perceived super-seriousness of Wagner. And they certainly wouldn’t consider Wagner funny—at all. Because irony is on the ropes and everyone desperately needs a little humor now, what do you think is the funniest moment in Wagner’s work?

AR: That’s a great question. There are funny moments. I mean, he was not a great humorist by any means. But there are funny moments, actually, in Tristan, which just is this kind of utterly bleak tragedy—or at least a plot where death is kind of looming at every moment—[but] has its quirky moments. One moment that I’ve always loved is at the end of the first act. These lovers have drunk the potion and they’ve fallen in love and they’re going into the sort of oblivion of mutual infatuation and then the ship is approaching land. Tristan’s assignment was to bring Isolde to his uncle, King Mark, to be married to him. And so there’s this mission of the king, and the sailors are singing, and this festive tone is taking over, and Tristan says “Welcher König?”, or “Which King?” This is just funny because he’s just forgotten who the king is. He has no idea where he is… So there is impishness in Wagner as well as that sort of overpowering, kind of grandiose mode… As I said before, he was this little guy who many people found ridiculous in his mannerisms. And so, a great ironic element to [for example] Alberich[1] is that he’s the most Wagnerian character in the cycle, the dwarf who wants to conquer the universe. It’s kind of a self-portrait in a lot of ways.


[1] Chief dwarf of the Nibelungen in the Ring cycle

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