Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross - review by Michael Tanner

Michael Tanner

The Complete Composer

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music


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This book comes garlanded with praise. It certainly is impressive in several ways. The amount of reading that Ross has done for it, often summarising at length a wide variety of texts, is prodigious. But note the subtitle. Don’t expect it to be about music, whether Wagner’s or that of the innumerable composers who have been influenced by him. Early on, Ross writes, ‘Wagner’s effect on music was enormous, but it did not exceed that of Monteverdi, Bach, or Beethoven.’ I’d say that Wagner’s music did have a greater effect on later composers than that of those other masters, or certainly that its effect was more immediate and obvious. But even if Ross is right, it is Wagner’s prodigious effect on theatre, poetry, painting and even the novel that makes him a singular and altogether amazing figure. And does his ‘shadow’ extend beyond the arts altogether? This claim is at the centre of Ross’s book, as it is in most books and articles written about him. But I’ll come to that later.

Ross’s book consists of fifteen chapters, all of them illustrated. Much of it consists of plot summaries – in the case of Willa Cather’s novels, thirty pages’ worth. The chapters are long and their titles derive from one or other of Wagner’s works. For instance, the chapter called ‘Venusberg’ is

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