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Wagnerism summary

Alex Ross

Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

4.5 (65 ratings)
20 mins

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Wagnerism by Alex Ross explores the multifaceted impact of German composer Richard Wagner on art, literature, politics, and culture, with a critical and insightful approach.

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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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    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.

    Wagnerism Review

    Wagnerism (2020) by Alex Ross explores the legacy of Richard Wagner and its impact on various aspects of culture. Here's why this book is definitely worth a read:

    • With meticulous research and a wealth of fascinating anecdotes, it offers a comprehensive account of Wagner's influence on music, literature, and visual arts.
    • The book sheds light on the cult-like devotion surrounding Wagner's work and the controversies that arise from his problematic political views.
    • Through its exploration of Wagner's lasting impact, it provides a deep understanding of the cultural movements that shaped modern art and society.

    Best quote from Wagnerism

    When we look at Wagner, we are gazing into a magnifying mirror of the soul of the human species.

    —Alex Ross
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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

    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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    Wagnerism FAQs 

    What is the main message of Wagnerism?

    The main message of Wagnerism explores the influence and impact of Richard Wagner's music on various aspects of art, culture, and politics.

    How long does it take to read Wagnerism?

    The reading time for Wagnerism varies depending on the reader, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in around 15 minutes.

    Is Wagnerism a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Wagnerism is a fascinating exploration of Wagner's cultural impact and is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in music, art, or history.

    Who is the author of Wagnerism?

    The author of Wagnerism is Alex Ross.

    What to read after Wagnerism?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Wagnerism, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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