Wagnerism Book Summary - Wagnerism Book explained in key points

Wagnerism summary

Alex Ross

Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

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What is Wagnerism about?

Wagnerism (2020) chronicles how the works of Richard Wagner have influenced thinkers in the years since his death. Exploring the multitude of ways in which people have interpreted his music, it looks beyond his artistic legacy to his political influence – most of all on the Nazi party.

About the Author

Alex Ross is a staff writer at the New Yorker. His highly popular and award-winning first book, The Rest is Noise, is an account of classical music in the twentieth century. He also wrote Listen to This, a collection of essays.

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    Richard Wagner’s visionary music dramas have remained astonishingly influential.

    In February 1883, Richard Wagner died in Venice at the age of 69, and the world went into a frenzy.

    Lengthy obituaries around the world chronicled his musical achievements – Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, the Ring cycle. Radical revolutionaries in the US praised him as an anarchist. A poet as far away as New Zealand wrote a commemorative sonnet. 

    Over in Europe, the young composer Gustav Mahler wept as he ran through the streets. And in early March, some Viennese students organized a tribute to Wagner that quickly descended into an anti-Semitic riot. It got so serious that the police had to break it up.

    These were only the first signs of the extraordinary effect that Wagner would have on art, culture, and politics in the century ahead.

    The key message here is: Richard Wagner’s visionary music dramas have remained astonishingly influential.

    Wagner was controversial all his life. In 1849, he was involved in revolutionary protests in Dresden and had to flee the country. A year later, he published the infamous essay “Judaism in Music.” Wagner used a pseudonym, but his essay caused a scandal that sent shock waves far beyond the musical world.

    But he was first and foremost a composer. Wagner referred to his work as “music dramas.” The best-known is Der Ring des Nibelungen, or the Ring cycle – a series of four evening-length works that tell a mythological story on an unprecedentedly epic scale. It’s a story of lust for power and wealth, of love, and of the downfall of gods themselves.

    Another work, the yearning love story Tristan und Isolde, shocked audiences with its harmonic daring. And Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, drew on the ancient legend of the Holy Grail to create a curious, transcendental work rooted in Christian tradition.

    Wagner’s musical influence was huge, like that of Bach or Beethoven. But only Wagner had such a colossal effect on other art forms like literature, the visual arts, and even cinema. And then, of course, there was his influence on politics – especially on Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. But, as we’ll discover in the blinks to come, this protofascist interpretation of Wagner is just one of many possible takes on his work. 

    The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, once a close friend of Wagner’s, later disavowed the composer – and yet he remained obsessed with him. “Wagner sums up modernity,” he wrote. “It can’t be helped, one must first become a Wagnerian.”

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    Who should read Wagnerism

    • Classical music fans who want to broaden their knowledge
    • Historians interested in the role of music and culture
    • Politics enthusiasts who want to explore the history of ideas

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