Skip to content


The revolutionary contradictions of Richard Wagner

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross. Macmillan, 784 pages.

When the revolution came to Dresden in 1849, Richard Wagner greeted it with unhinged ecstasy. “Whatever stands, must fall,” the thirty-five-year-old court conductor wrote that April in the radical periodical Volksblätter. “I will break the power of the mighty, of law, of property . . . I will destroy all rulership of one over other.” As Dresden’s radicals rose up in May, Wagner swung into action, acting as a lookout and helping secure weapons. Accompanying him in these duties was the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, later cited by George Bernard Shaw as the model for Siegfried, anarchic Übermensch of the Ring cycle.

In the wake of the uprising’s suppression, Wagner evaded a probable death sentence by fleeing to Switzerland, where he lived in exile for a decade—composing, polemicizing, and sponging off wealthy acquaintances. There he embarked on the sixteen-hour operatic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, at once timeless mythic cosmology and biting commentary on unfolding political events. The Ring cycle narrates the history of the world from the primal fall, through the age of the gods, to the apocalyptic conflagration that will one day consume them. But its primal fall is a transparent allegory for the birth of capitalism; its gods are the European aristocracy; and its apocalypse is the revolution Wagner gleefully imagines sweeping them away.

Twenty-five years later, Wagner cut a very different figure. By 1874, when he completed the Ring, the former exile was back home in Germany, a celebrity nicknamed “the Meister” for his oracular authority. That year he moved into a villa in the provincial town of Bayreuth, where King Ludwig II of Bavaria funded a festival dedicated entirely to his work. Wagner envisioned the new theater there—with its egalitarian seating arrangement, concealed orchestra pit, and immersive dim lighting—as a democratic temple of art, open to anyone willing to make the pilgrimage. King Ludwig and Kaiser Wilhelm I were in attendance when Bayreuth opened in 1876, with a premiere of the completed Ring. By the time Wagner died in 1883, it had become a luxury destination for the upper classes he’d once fantasized about sending to the tumbrils.

Hitler’s Wagnermania was not shared by rank-and-file Nazis, who scalped the opera tickets he gave them.

The contradictions that marked Wagner’s life only deepened after his death. For French artists from Baudelaire onward, he was the apostle of a seemingly apolitical aestheticism, of l’art pour l’art; to Germans, a nationalist figurehead. At the turn of the century, he was idolized by both the decadent Italian novelist (and future proto-fascist politician) Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl. Three decades later, his music introduced the Nuremberg Rallies.

It is this last Wagner that we know best, or think we do. He has gone down in popular history as a raging anti-Semite (true) and Hitler’s favorite composer (not entirely true); his music is thought to have provided the soundtrack for the death camps (in fact, it was mostly light waltzes and operetta). Wagner’s role in the iconography of German imperialism was real enough. When Hindenburg claimed Germany was stabbed in the back by the treaty of Versailles, he was invoking Siegfried’s assassination by the villainous half-breed Hagen. And when Hitler died, Siegfried’s funeral march was played to commemorate him. But Wagner was less popular in Nazi Germany than this might suggest, and his appeal was more complex. For one thing, Hitler’s Wagnermania was not shared by rank-and-file Nazis, who scalped the opera tickets he gave them. Besides, Siegfried’s funeral march had first been played to mark Lenin’s death. In 1933, at the dawn of the Third Reich, Thomas Mann could still find in Wagner the spirit of a very different Germany than Hitler’s. Wagner’s real meaning, Mann insisted, was “entirely revolutionary.” He would “assuredly be branded a Kultur-Bolshevist today.”

How do we pin down an artist who has meant so many things to so many people? This is the question that Alex Ross sets out to answer in his new book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Formally, Wagnerism is a reception history. Ross interweaves discussions of Wagner’s operas with an encyclopedic account of his influence, showing how the composer has shaped generations of admirers (and some ex-admirers) from Nietzsche to Terrence Malick. Wagnerism is a sprawling historical narrative, lovingly detailed and elegantly plotted, full of brilliant and idiosyncratic characters. But at its heart are a number of broader theoretical claims—about the nature of artistic influence, the concept of genius, and the political capacities of music itself.

The book marks the culmination of a decade’s work for Ross, who is probably the most influential classical-music critic in the United States.[1] At The New Yorker, where he has been a staffer since 1996, he helped usher in the current incarnation of New York’s new music scene, introducing younger composers like Nico Muhly and Timothy Andres, many of whom have since become its dominant figures. The Rest Is Noise, his history of twentieth-century classical music, is the first—and probably last—book many people read on the subject. At once an elegy for the German musical past and a paean to the American future, it embodies Ross’s broader critical proclivities: a concern with the classical tradition’s relation to political power; an impatience with the stylistic purism of the old modernist establishment; and an enthusiasm for the pluralistic musical landscape set to supplant it.

In recent years, Ross has expanded into the role of full-bore public intellectual, turning his attention to such subjects as Hitler, Hollywood, and the Frankfurt School. Wagnerism unites his new preoccupations as cultural commentator with his older concerns as critic, providing a backdrop for both the triumphs and failures of artistic modernism, and the fraught cultural politics of today. Wagner, in Ross’s telling, represents the “cultural-political unconscious of modernity.” Grappling with his divided legacy “should make us more honest about the role that art plays in the world.” It should also, Ross hopes, make us more honest about ourselves.

The Führer addresses soldiers and workers at the Bayreuth Festspiel (c. 1939–1945). | NYPL

Fathers and Sons

Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, a year before Napoleon’s abdication brought a symbolic end to the revolutionary era. He was an archetypical product of the period that followed—what German historians call the Vormärz—which was marked by conservative retrenchment, creative ferment, and political discontent. The “actor in music,” as Nietzsche later called him, was raised by one actor and eventually married another. He spent his journeyman years first as a conductor in Königsberg and Riga, then as a down-and-out bohemian in Paris, eking out a living on journalism and chasing vainly after a career-making success. In 1839, he heard the conductor François Habeneck’s rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, finding in the culminating setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” a forerunner of his own artistic project. In the Ninth, Wagner later wrote, music was redeemed “from out of her own peculiar element into the realm of universal art.” Abstract instrumental music transcended itself in song, which brought with it a utopian vision.

Wagner finally found success not in Paris but Dresden, where Giacomo Meyerbeer, the preeminent opera composer of the period, had recommended his Rienzi (1840) for performance. Wagner would come to despise Rienzi—and Meyerbeer, whom he later condemned as the paragon of Jewish artistic sterility—but the opera made his reputation. It also won him his conducting appointment in Dresden, where he settled in 1842. By the time he fled the city seven years later, he had written The Flying Dutchman (1841), Tannhäuser (1845), and Lohengrin (1848), bringing the genre of German Romantic Opera, with its fraught emotionalism and demonic fairy-tale ambiance, to its high point. Yet for all their ambition, these operas only hinted at the scale and intricacy of what was to come: the four parts of the Ring; the erotic fever-dream of Tristan und Isolde (1859); the self-reflexive comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867); and the decadent mystery-play Parsifal (1882).

In these post-revolutionary works, the orchestra is transformed into an instrument of unprecedented force and subtlety, the dramatic text assumes the allusive density and sweep of religious epic, and Wagner’s musical language is pushed to heights of anguished dissonance and contrapuntal complexity that would go unrivaled until the birth of modernism half a century later. This increasing musical radicalism goes hand-in-hand with a darkening of Wagner’s worldview. In the later operas, the utopian humanism that inspired the early parts of the Ring is joined, though never quite displaced, by something like its opposite—the metaphysical pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer, which struck Wagner with the force of a religious revelation when he first encountered it in 1854. Schopenhauer’s philosophy saturates the death-drunk Tristan, the most inward-looking of Wagner’s operas. It also pervades the subsequent works in subtler ways, shading their brilliant spectacles of communal renewal with darkness.

If the technical daring and layered ambiguity of these works anticipates modernism, it sits alongside a populist theatricality that is more William Jennings Bryan than T.S. Eliot. This is just one instance of the duality at the heart of all Wagner’s work—what Thomas Mann called his “double vision”—with its paradoxical fusion of myth and psychology, moralism and sensuality, introverted pessimism and political messianism. Wagner embodied the broader contradictions of the Romantic movement from which he arose. Today we tend to think of the Romantic artists as naively apolitical, lost in lofty abstractions. In reality, the Romantic movement culminated in what Eric Hobsbawm called “the overwhelming victory of political art.” And Wagner in 1849 was Romanticism’s most political artist, music’s great revolutionary.

Since the Second World War, there has been endless discussion about whether Wagner’s highly public art, alongside his equally public statements of bigotry, influenced or prefigured the rise of twentieth-century fascism. There are several traditional positions, best understood as points along a continuum. The case for the prosecution takes two primary forms. First is what could be called the Wagner-to-Hitler-pipeline theory, which casts Wagner as an ideological prophet of Nazism. According to this interpretation, the Jew-hatred of Wagner’s 1850 essay “Das Judentum in Musik” pervades the operas as well, expressed not just in their elements of stock anti-Semitic caricature—the wheedling and dissimulation of Siegfried’s treacherous stepfather Mime, or the musical sterility of the pedant Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—but in a deeper and more programmatic malice. Wagner’s biographer Robert W. Gutman contrived to see Parsifal as an allegory of Aryan racial purity. The German journalist Joachim Köhler, in Wagner’s Hitler, interpreted his oeuvre as an eliminationist program.

A slightly different indictment has been made by thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School. In this view, Wagner’s work is less a vehicle for authoritarian ideology than something dangerously authoritarian in itself—overwhelming, narcotic, and falsely monumental. In his book In Search of Wagner, Theodor Adorno damns Wagner with the words of his idol Schopenhauer: “Like all shoddy goods,” his music “is covered over with false luster.”

Against these critiques are arrayed two classic defenses. Thinkers on the left have emphasized the utopian rather than authoritarian element of his music, a view expressed most elegantly by the philosopher Ernst Bloch, who saw, beneath the “Aryan hullabaloo” seized on by Hitler, a prophetic and perennially revolutionary quality to Wagner that the Nazis could not touch. Their music, he wrote, was “not the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, but rather the Horst-Wessel-Lied; they deserve credit for nothing else, and no more can or should be given to them.” Bloch differs significantly from Wagner’s liberal defenders, who have traditionally dismissed the whole argument as a category mistake. What, after all, does music have to do with politics? For these liberals, Wagner’s music floats majestically free of his ideology. “Richard Wagner, I hate you,” as Leonard Bernstein famously put it. “But I hate you on my knees.”

Since the Second World War, there has been endless discussion about whether Wagner’s highly public art, alongside his equally public statements of bigotry, influenced or prefigured the rise of twentieth-century fascism.

Ross sets out to rescue Wagner from these first and last interpretations. He is particularly acute on the caricatures of the Wagner-to-Hitler thesis, with its teleological reading of modern German history as “an irreversible march into the abyss.” In the American context, Ross argues, this story is not just cartoonish but self-serving: reducing German culture to “an extended preamble to the Nazi calamity”—think of all those Mozart-loving Hollywood Nazis—distracts from our own culture’s role in “the politics and economics of American hegemony.” He addresses the liberal defense of Wagner less directly. But in a way the whole of Wagnerism is an implicit critique of the philosophy that informs it—the depoliticized cult of uplift that we’ve inherited from midcentury liberalism, which looks to music (as Ross writes elsewhere) as “a zone of moral improvement, a refuge of sweetness and light.”

While Ross is more sympathetic to Adorno and Bloch, his primary loyalties lie with a figure who belongs neither to the prosecution nor the defense. This is Thomas Mann, whose novel Doctor Faustus, the allegorical chronicle of a damned composer, figured as a kind of master key to The Rest Is Noise. Mann resumes his tutelary role in Wagnerism, his lifelong engagement with Wagner forming the book’s guiding thread.

Mann contended that Wagner’s art was neither monolithically grand nor sinister but deeply, violently ambivalent. He cited Nietzsche’s swing from filial devotion to Oedipal rebellion as a case in point. In his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche hailed his friend’s art in terms that fused Wagner’s own revolutionary rhetoric with Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of self-annihilation: it broke the “spell of individuation,” reopening the way to “the innermost heart of things.” But over the following decade Nietzsche shifted slowly from acolyte to skeptic, estranged by Wagner’s growing nationalism, the spectacle of Bayreuth, and his own changing intellectual needs. The final breach, he wrote, was precipitated by the self-betrayal of Parsifal, in which “Wagner, seemingly the all-conquering, actually a decaying, despairing decadent, suddenly sank down helpless and shattered before the Christian cross.” Later, in The Case of Wagner (1888), Nietzsche concluded that there had been nothing there to betray in the first place. Wagner had always been a disease, a toxin, and a neurosis, even before the encounter with Schopenhauer. “Only the philosopher of decadence gave to the artist of decadence—himself.”

Yet Mann saw through Nietzsche’s apparent volte face, arguing that The Case of Wagner was a “panegyric in reverse, another form of eulogy.” The archetypical Wagnerian passion is a violent oscillation between hatred and adoration, rebellion and submission; sometimes, as for Mann, it is both at once. Baudelaire compared listening to Wagner to being “ravished and flooded”; Nietzsche, to suffocation. Like a storm or the ocean, those Romantic exemplars of the sublime, Wagner’s music attracts and repels for one and the same reason—it threatens to subsume us.

If the experience of Wagner’s music is ambivalent, then so is his political meaning. Inseparable from Wagner’s genius, in Mann’s view, were elements of demagogy and bourgeois vulgarity, a taste for grandeur and a “dark, compulsive and agonizing will to power,” that invited comparison to his contemporary Bismarck as well as his admirer Hitler. In this, Wagner epitomized Mann’s tragic vision of German culture as a whole, whose Nazi epigones reflected, in distorted form, the features of its most brilliant representatives. Le Dieu Richard Wagner, as Mallarmé called him, did not create Hitler; yet they bore, all the same, a mysterious likeness.

Ross wants to restore our belief in Wagner’s ambivalence, in both senses—artistically, to remind us what a rich and contradictory phenomenon Wagnerism really was; and politically, to move beyond simple categories of praise and blame. He succeeds in this, at a certain cost. Ambivalence results when passions pull us forcefully in opposite directions, but also when conflicting desires are too weak to move us at all. As a listener, Ross feels the first kind of ambivalence toward Wagner, but as a critic he seems trapped in the second.

Aubrey Beardsley, “The Wagnerites“ (1890). | Victoria and Albert Museum

Lose Yourself

Wagnerism begins with a set-piece description of the frenzy greeting the composer’s death, then moves back in time to 1848, progressing in roughly chronological sequence from there to the present. The early chapters couple deft overviews of individual operas with depictions of the movements or communities to whom, in Ross’s telling, they were the most significant. The Ring is paired with Wagner’s revolutionary disappointment and his relationship with Nietzsche; Tristan with Baudelaire and the French Symbolists; the Arthurian Lohengrin with Victorian Britain and gilded-age America; Tannhäuser’s study of sexual conflict with the gay and lesbian demimonde; Meistersinger with German nationalism; Parsifal with fin-de-siècle decadents and Satanists. From there the book moves forward to discussions of Wagner’s impact on modernism and the Russian revolution, before reaching its inevitable Hitlerian climax and postwar denouement.

Thinkers on the left have emphasized the utopian rather than authoritarian potential of Wagner’s music.

At the book’s heart are what Ross calls the “alternative Wagnerisms,” largely ignored in older accounts of Wagner, that have been explored by contemporary scholars. Alongside more familiar versions of the composer, Ross’s reception history gives us not just gay, decadent, and Soviet Wagner but also feminist Wagner, Black and Jewish Wagner, Hollywood Wagner, cowboy Wagner, and, briefly, “young adult Wagner.” In fact, there’s just one Wagner missing: apart from the occasional walk-on role, Wagnerism has no musicians in it.

These disparate images of Wagner are as elaborately counterbalanced as the parts of a Calder mobile, with “Wagner and Women” immediately followed by “Women and Wagner,” and the history of Wagnerian nationalism in Wilhelmine Germany by that of Black and Jewish Wagnerism. Wagner “mobilized forces across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right,” Ross writes, and “nurtured dreams of future freedom among oppressed members of the population, even as he emboldened their oppressors.”

The strength of this approach is obvious: it avoids the trap of presenting any one Wagnerism as definitive. In one chapter, Ross describes Wagner’s posthumous transformation into a symbol of German völkisch imperialism, evident in the glut of turn-of-the-century books like Richard Wagner and German Culture, Richard Wagner and Deutschtum, and Richard Wagner and the National Idea. In the next, he recounts Wagner’s impact on Theodor Herzl’s Zionism and W.E.B. Du Bois’s “cosmopolitan nationalism.” Herzl, his imagination fired by Tannhäuser, envisioned “majestic processional marches for great celebrations,” a spectacular second Exodus suffused with Wagnerian pageantry. Du Bois aimed to “nurture a Negro consciousness while opening that consciousness to the wider world.” Like the hero of his autobiographical novel Worlds of Color, he dreamed of a Black communal art modeled on Bayreuth’s: “legend and fantasy . . . [would be] wed to histrionic ability and imagination, to build a great dramatic tradition” depicting “the suffering and triumphs and defeats of a people.”

Ross rightly stresses the contrast between the social visions Wagner helped inspire. But he misses what they had in common. In Germany, Vienna, and Atlanta, Wagner was a stimulus to the formation of new collective identities. Why?

The elision is partly explained by Ross’s understanding of his central theme: influence. “Are we necessarily subject to the domination of [Wagner’s] works,” he asks of Du Bois. “Or, in embracing them, can we take possession of them and remake them in our own image?” In answering this question he takes a cue from Nietzsche, who in Ecce Homo anxiously downplayed his earlier praise of Wagner: “In all psychologically decisive places I alone am discussed—and one need not hesitate to put down my name . . . where the text has the word ‘Wagner.’” Ross finds this paradigm everywhere: a travesty of Siegfried’s forging song in Ulysses helps the protagonist, and Joyce, to define himself as an artist; Proust’s excision of Wagner from the later drafts of Swann’s Way achieves the same end by opposite means. If the Wagner-to-Hitler-pipeline theory ascribes Svengali-like powers to Wagner, here he becomes a kind of cypher. “To a surprising degree,” Ross writes, “an allegedly tyrannical artist becomes a blank screen on which spectators project themselves.”

Ross likens this projective process to the Greek agon, “the contest between worthy adversaries.” Its purpose is neither to tear Wagner down nor throw off his yoke. Rather, it is a creative clash of equals that “benefits both participants, defining the one and redefining the other.” Established by Nietzsche, the pattern repeats itself with Baudelaire, who compared his experience of Wagner’s music to “letting myself be penetrated and invaded.” In his very submission, Ross contends, he “makes the music his own, and forever changes how the world perceives it. In this agon, the one who surrenders is the victor.” So it goes with Proust (“an unobtrusive agon”), Woolf, and many other artists, who in confronting Wagner are really confronting themselves. And so it is with us today: “What we hate in it, we hate in ourselves; what we love in it, we love in ourselves also.” Wagner is the pool in which we behold, Narcissus-like, our own face.

This is a strange theory of influence, half Harold Bloom and half Roland Barthes. Politically, its effect is to absolve Wagner of any malign influence, by absolving him of any influence at all—on Hitler or Herzl just as much as Joyce or Proust. This interpretive framework seems forcefully imposed on Ross’s narrative, giving the book something of a Tolstoyan quality. Like War and Peace, Wagnerism is a stirring epic grafted onto a dubious philosophy of history. And like Tolstoy’s Napoleon, used by the collective will “as an instrument for its purposes,” Wagner is only what his followers have made him, innocent because powerless.

It’s worth noting that Wagner’s followers—many of them, at least—saw things rather differently. “To turn my back on Wagner was for me a fate,” Nietzsche wrote, “to like anything at all again after that, a triumph.” This sounds less like filial conflict than erotic obsession. You don’t find your self in obsession; you lose it, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get it back intact. Wagner to his early admirers was almost the opposite of what he is to Ross: not a floating indeterminacy but a perilous attraction; not a pool, but the sea. There was a genuine risk of drowning, and not just from staring at yourself too intently.

Still from Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s “Parsifal” (1982) | Filmgalerie 451

Signs Taken As Wonders

In a recent New Yorker article about classical music and white supremacy, Ross takes aim at the liberal dogma of musical uplift, in the process articulating the critical principles underlying Wagnerism more fully than he does in the book itself. Following the semiotician Jean-Jacques Nattiez, he describes “two dominant ways in which we construct musical meaning: the ‘poietic,’ which reads a score in light of its creator’s intentions, methods, and cultural context; and the ‘esthesic,’ which takes into account the perceptions of an audience.” Our age is “determinedly poietic,” obsessed with “what artists do and say.” But it doesn’t have to be: “We can [also] yoke the music to our own ends, as W.E.B. Du Bois did when he improbably reinvented Wagner as a model for a mythic Black art.” In the same way, “we can be conscious of the racism of Mozart’s portrayal of Monostatos in ‘The Magic Flute’ . . . yet contemporary stagings can put Mozart’s stereotypes in a radical new light.”

This is a good thing to do, of course, but as a prescription for how to think about music politically it’s somewhat limited. Maybe this is because the diagnosis is wrong. It isn’t actually true that we don’t talk about how music is perceived by its audience; when it comes to the politics of music, at least, we talk about little else.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the ubiquitous idea of music as symbol. In 2017, when Donald Trump bloviated to the Poles that “we write symphonies,” commentators tossed off op-eds on “classical music as a symbol of power.” This past September, Vox described how “wealthy white men . . . embraced Beethoven and turned his [Fifth] symphony into a symbol of their superiority and importance.” Classical music was bad. A few days later classical music was good again, as the Times enthused over the shared love of opera that helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg bond with Antonin Scalia. The interesting thing about this method of critiquing music is that you can practice it without actually having heard any. Ross’s focus on opera staging in his New Yorker article is indicative. In this picture, what music portrays is political, who makes it is political, who listens to it is political, and how we interpret it is political. The one thing that’s not political is how it sounds.

Like War and Peace, Wagnerism is a stirring epic grafted onto a dubious philosophy of history.

In its cruder forms, this approach results in a form of criticism from which music—like the musicians in Wagnerism—is simply absent. But it runs through contemporary criticism in subtler ways as well. For about two decades, the cutting-edge paradigm, in classical criticism as in other fields, has been what the British popular-music critic Simon Reynolds calls “impurism”: the reflexive association of wide-ranging influences, “stylistic inconstancy, [and] generic treason” with artistic and political progress, and of stylistic purism with the menacing forces of reaction. This is a natural extension of the symbolic view: once musical styles are conceived as signs of particular communities or cultures, remixing them becomes a mark of cosmopolitan virtue. Ross, a relatively early adopter, praised the composer Nico Muhly in 2004 for his “private repertory, running from . . . English choral music to minimalism . . . [to] off-kilter pop, like Björk, Múm, Ladytron, and Fischerspooner.” His Wagner is Muhly’s obverse, defined by the breadth of his legacy.

Impurism seemed to hold out the promise of a post-ideological pluralism, an escape from modernism’s politics of style. In practice, old ideologies often just gave way to new ones. “I have seen the future, and it is called Shuffle,” Ross declared in another article the same year. “It seems to me that a lot of younger listeners think the way the iPod thinks.” He has since had second thoughts about the gospel of disruption. Yet the analogy captured something essential about his criticism. Many impurists do indeed hear music like a machine: as something both disembodied and resolutely abstract. The reason impurism conforms so easily to the market is that it has few other concrete forces to give it shape. In this way of thinking, you don’t experience music; you read it for meanings like a text. Behind Ross’s upside-down Wagner, demoted from god to nonentity, lies an upside-down Wagnerism: not all art aspiring to the condition of music, but music aspiring to the condition of language.

In his classic study Noise, the French economist and musicologist Jacques Attali poured scorn on this vision of music, which he called “the lamest kind of naturalism or the most mundane kind of pedantry.” Unlike language, music lacks a stable code of reference; unlike language, it acts directly on the body. Music, Attali argued, is really a form of violence.

The analogy can seem slightly insane on first encounter. Certainly Attali, in tracing music’s social role back to ritual sacrifice, pushed it a good deal further than most of us would be prepared to. But it’s not necessary to follow him that far. Any listener will acknowledge that music does things to us, sometimes against our will.

If today we find “the power of music” to be a sentimental idea, it may be because we’ve misunderstood it. Famously, the phrase occurs in the title of Heinrich von Kleist’s story “Die heilige Cäcilie, oder die Gewalt der Musik,” in which four would-be iconoclasts, descending on a convent to vandalize it, are struck dumb by the performance of an old mass. Six years later they’re found in an asylum, still mute, emerging from their stupor only at midnight to intone, “in a voice that made the windows shake . . . the Gloria in excelsis.” As the musicologist Carolyn Abbate notes, the word Gewalt implies not legitimate authority but “violent force.” In Kleist’s telling, music has the power to induce madness. But then you don’t need to consult German literature to learn that. Just ask the interrogators at Abu Ghraib.

Wagner can seem like a natural candidate to forward the linguistic view of music because his art is so literary. Yet his work has a great visceral power. Nietzsche, as usual, captures both sides of the paradox: Wagner is “music for the unmusical.” But then: he “persuade[s] even the intestines.” How does Wagner persuade us, and to what end?

In Wagner’s understanding, tragedy was not just another dramatic genre; it was the great civic and religious rite of Athenian society, fusing music, myth, and stage action into a sacred ceremony of communal and metaphysical renewal.

These questions weighed heavily on the composer in the early months of his Zurich exile. He addressed them in a series of polemical essays, reflecting on the technique and social purpose of his art, reconsidering them in the light of his revolutionary disappointment and laying the theoretical basis for the works that followed. Like the left-wing Hegelian philosophers whose thought saturates the text of the Ring, he looked behind him to see a grand historical development reaching its final synthesis in the present: the history of literature, from Aeschylus to Goethe, would unite with the German symphonic tradition to create a new art form that marked the culmination of both, conveying a comprehensive vision of the human condition in music of raw coercive force.

In the first of the Zurich essays, “Art and Revolution,” Wagner named this new form the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” To us, the term suggests a mechanical combination of every artistic medium that can be conscripted into a joint assault on our senses. To Wagner, it meant something more serious and less literal. Gesamt also means “whole,” and the Gesamtkunstwerk was a making whole of tragedy, the primal art form that had been torn apart.

In Wagner’s understanding, tragedy was more than a dramatic genre; it was the great civic and religious rite of Athenian society, fusing music, myth, and stage action into a sacred ceremony of communal and metaphysical renewal. In attending a tragic performance, the Athenians returned from the “restless activity and accentuated individuality” of their separate lives to “fuse their own being and their own communion with that of their god.” Because art and society were one, when they crumbled, they crumbled together, the rise of alienation and egotism paralleling tragedy’s disintegration into its constituent parts. “Only revolution, not slavish restoration,” can bring us what we need now—a new and higher Athens, free of the crimes of slavery and nationality; and a new and higher tragedy, the artwork of the future. Music will be the force that binds this new community together. Stripping away the listener’s separate self, it creates a new political order, by creating new political subjects.

This ecstatic force can be felt in a passage from Götterdämmerung, the final opera of the Ring. Fresh from the triumphs of the previous opera, Siegfried is sailing blithely down the Rhine into the arms of the conspiracy that will kill him. As he approaches the castle where the conspirators wait, C Major figures dance jubilantly in the higher ranges of the orchestra. Tension builds inexorably beneath them, signaling the imminent arrival of a brilliant climax. Just as the accumulated tensions seem set to resolve, Siegfried’s future killer calls out a greeting, his voice tracing the outlines of the final C Major harmony. At that precise moment, beneath him in the orchestra, the bass sinks down to a discordant F sharp, transforming his bright harmony into a horrifying dissonance. Above it, three fortissimo trombones enter on a familiar, jagged theme, slashing up violently through the massed orchestral texture that surrounds them before crashing onto an ear-splitting chord, then subsiding at last into darkness.

That jagged theme in the trombones is a leitmotif, one of dozens woven through the Ring in an intricate network of recollections and foreshadowings. We heard it first when a curse was placed on the ring that Siegfried now wears; we will hear it again when he is killed, and yet again in the opera’s final conflagration. On one level, this is a literary technique, resembling the patterned poetic imagery of the Aeschylus tragedies Wagner loved, and language-like in its powers of irony and association. But there is nothing literary about its physiological effect: the instantaneous transformation of light to darkness; the menacing gleam of the trombones slicing through the air; the release of long-accumulated joyous expectation in a moment of sudden terror. Wagner produces countless such passages of visceral sadism that batter down the walls of the self—or their obverse, moments of mesmeric calm in which it seems to seep away.

In The Ring

These experiences lie behind both the rebellion of Wagner’s detractors and the ecstasy of his admirers—Baudelaire’s joy at being “ravished and flooded,” and Nietzsche’s horror of being driven “into the abyss.” Sex, opium, disease, transcendence, the sea: the stock imagery of Wagnerian response attests to the seductive pleasure of feeling ourselves dissolve into something larger, and to the sudden panicked fear that we might not come back again on the other side. Understood this way, ambivalence to Wagner resembles something more familiar—the experience of innumerable men and women swept up in the mass politics of the twentieth century, alternately seduced by the joys of community and repelled by the terror of the mob. We would be wrong to see the Ring, whose theoretical groundwork Wagner laid in “Art and Revolution,” as simply a political commentary. With his other late works, it is, itself, one of the nineteenth century’s great political utopias. In one sense, its failure as utopia kept pace with its success as art, as Bayreuth transformed from Athenian idyll to upper-crust watering hole. But the most serious indictment raised against Wagner is that his utopia achieved a belated and perverse success.

The legacy of the Gesamtkunstwerk has been traced through successive generations of far-right politicians—from the völkisch radicals of prewar Vienna to D’Annunzio and Hitler—who adopted Wagner’s politics of the sublime while discarding his democratic idealism, his ethos of compassion, his visionary complexity. What these admirers took from Wagner, they wed to a chauvinist militarism he despised, and techniques of mass mobilization he could never have imagined. Would Wagner have condemned the rallies at which his music was played, or the demagogues who invoked his name? These questions are besides the point. More important is whether he would recognize, when he looked at them, the distortion of his own features. “There is much ‘Hitler’ in Wagner,” Thomas Mann wrote to an acquaintance in 1949. To the essayist Erich Heller, this gnomic pronouncement spelled out a continuity of creative vision: a link between the total work of art and the totalitarian state, over which the dictator ruled with the sovereign authority of the artistic genius, effacing what displeased him like a painter wiping flaws from the canvas.

It is hard, finishing the book, to escape the thought that Ross’s shifting, faceless Wagner is yet another projection.

Walter Benjamin famously argued that the fascists found their success in transforming public life into an eroticized communal spectacle, binding alienated men and women together into a sinister collectivity. Fascist spectacle was not the antithesis of aestheticism but its endpoint, the “consummation of l’art pour l’art.” Humanity, actor and spectator at once, “experience[d] its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.” For many, Wagner’s new Athens was one of the principal antecedents of this “aestheticization of politics.” Indeed, the debates about Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his relation to the Third Reich have always been, at some level, externalizations of a deeper anxiety about the music itself, a fear as old as Nietzsche but given new meaning in the twentieth century. Wagner binds us into a sinister collectivity; he teaches us to experience our own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.

One of Wagnerism’s chief achievements is to show that this fear captures only part of the truth—that the Wagnerian ecstasy could be experienced as freeing and that the forms of collective identity it inspired could be emancipatory. But this hardly makes Wagner a cypher. Limitation and contradiction are the substance of all power. Why should music be any different? If Wagner, like Napoleon, was greeted as a liberator and a tyrant, maybe that’s because he was something of both. In claiming he was neither, Ross denies the music’s power, and ours as well. “The behemoth,” he writes, “whispers a different secret in each listener’s ear.” We can make Wagner our own, but only because we hear nothing in common. There is no collective experience, only individual men and women, listening to music alone.

Failed utopias, like Wagnerisms, come in many forms. Surveying the restless stylistic plurality of the musical world in 2011, Simon Reynolds saw in it something very different from the bright future perceived by critics like Ross. The principles of “flux and mutability,” he wrote, had “long ago shed their former subversive and utopian charge,” and had come instead to suggest the “static and dystopian.” In this “hyperstasis,” at once frantic and frozen, music had become an expression of contemporary capitalism’s endless, unstable now. But perhaps our musical utopia collapsed because it was a false one to begin with—an end-of-history fantasy like the society it reflected, in which we mistook the symbolism of power for power itself, and thought we had transcended violence because we could no longer see it.

Ross’s earlier writing, with its paeans to the future and its trust in the liberating effects of technology, reads now as an epitaph to that rapidly receding dream. We have moved on, and so has he. In a gently dissenting 2009 review of The Rest Is Noise, Nikil Saval suggested that Ross’s optimism might be misplaced; that for him, as for us, “a little pessimism (not to say cynicism) might be called for.” By the close of Wagnerism, Ross seems to have learned that lesson, though maybe in not quite the right way. “In the distance,” he writes, “we may catch glimpses of some higher realm, some glimmering temple, some ecstasy of knowledge and compassion. But it is only a shadow on the wall, an echo from the pit. The vision fades, the curtain falls, and we shuffle back in silence to the world as it is.”

It is hard, finishing the book, to escape the thought that Ross’s shifting, faceless Wagner is yet another projection: his powerlessness is the mirror of our powerlessness; his failure the justification of our failure. The path from the old optimism to the new pessimism is short, and hemmed in on all sides. We used to bless the world as it is; now we only reconcile ourselves to it. But now, as then, its borders mark the bounds of the possible. The alternative is to entertain a notion that nearly all the characters in Ross’s story take seriously, though he himself cannot. This is the idea that music shows us something far grander, and more dangerous, than our own reflection. It shows us the world as it could be.


[1] The Times informs me that the most influential music critic tout court is a thirty-four-year-old YouTuber named “Melon.”