Wagnerism
Alex Ross, Read by Alex Ross

Book cover image

Narrated By: Alex Ross

Duration: 1 day, 4 hours and 20 minutes

What to expect

’An absolutely masterly work’ Stephen Fry

Alex Ross, renowned author of the international bestseller The Rest Is Noise, reveals how Richard Wagner became the proving ground for modern art and politics—an aesthetic war zone where the Western world wrestled with its capacity for beauty and violence.

For better or worse, Wagner is the most widely influential figure in the history of music. Around 1900, the phenomenon known as Wagnerism saturated European and American culture. Such colossal creations as The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal were models of formal daring, mythmaking, erotic freedom, and mystical speculation. A mighty procession of writers, artists, and thinkers, including Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf, Isadora Duncan, Vasily Kandinsky, and Luis Buñuel, felt his impact. Anarchists, occultists, feminists, and gay-rights pioneers saw him as a kindred spirit. Then Adolf Hitler incorporated Wagner into the soundtrack of Nazi Germany, and the composer came to be defined by his ferocious anti-Semitism. His name is now almost synonymous with artistic evil.

Wagnerism restores the magnificent confusion of what it means to be a Wagnerian. A pandemonium of geniuses, madmen, charlatans, and prophets do battle over Wagner’s many-sided legacy. The narrative ranges across artistic disciplines, from architecture to the novels of Philip K. Dick, from the Zionist writings of Theodor Herzl to the civil-rights essays of W. E. B. Du Bois, from O Pioneers! to Apocalypse Now. In many ways,Wagnerism tells a tragic tale. An artist who might have rivalled Shakespeare in universal reach is implicated in an ideology of hate. Still, his shadow lingers over twenty-first century culture, his mythic motifs coursing through superhero films and fantasy fiction. Neither apologia nor condemnation, Wagnerism is a work of intellectual passion, urging us toward a more honest idea of how art acts in the world.

Genre

Composers & songwriters, Musicians, singers, bands & groups, Biography: general

Listen to a sample

‘Ross does a good and very full job in tracing the obsession of different times and places, and the intellectual flavour each wave took … excellent, and extraordinarily thorough’ Philip Hensher, Spectator

‘An absolutely masterly work … A miraculous synthesis. Ross’s writing is an art that conceals art, propelling the reader on and on’ Stephen Fry

“Wagnerism is as magnificently realized as it is monumentally ambitious, a cultural history of the modern world that Richard ‘Wagner and his protean art helped mightily to create … Ross is the ideal guide: lucid, astoundingly erudite, scrupulous, generous, profound, objective and engaged, and enormously entertaining’ Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels in America

‘With rhetorical flourishes and an eye for detail Ross extols the art made by Wagnerians who were able to meet “the Meister” on their own terms’ The Times

‘Wagnerism is a hugely exhilarating read, and a virtuoso feat of scholarship and supple writing: Ross is such a companionable guide, connecting ideas so casually and unspooling stories so fluidly that you can almost lose sight of the ferocious erudition that undergirds every page. I can’t think of a better or more profound work about the long, complicated shadow of cultural influence’ Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say Nothing

‘Goes far beyond the man himself, using its subject to springboard into a breathlessly entertaining and dizzyingly diverse survey of art, politics and culture over the past century and a half. Ultimately, it’s a book about how humans are inspired by art, and like all of Alex Ross’s writing, it bottles that strange lightning and inspires us in turn’ Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi and Knives Out

‘Love him or hate him, Wagner has been unavoidable … By presenting an honest assessment of the problem, Wagnerism supplies, if not answers, then at least the right questions.’ Economist