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Summary

Alex Ross, renowned author of the international best seller 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, myth-making, 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 21st-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 towards a more honest idea of how art acts in the world.

©2020 Alex Ross (P)2020 HarperCollins Publishers Limited

Critic reviews

"A masterpiece - massive and magnificent. A book I’ve been waiting 50 years to [listen to]. It turns lights on in regions where I have bumbled in murk." (Peter Schjeldahl)

"Attention: a masterpiece! Wagnerism is extraordinary for the richness of references and testimonies drawn from literature, philosophy, the visual arts, musicology, the cinema. It is probably the most informed work on Wagner and his aesthetic and cultural significance that I have ever read." (Jean-Jacques Nattiez, author of Wagner Androgyne)

"An absolutely masterly work." (Stephen Fry)

What listeners say about Wagnerism

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A predictable post-modernist disection

A predictable post-modernist interpretation of Wagner's influence. The author narrates in a soulless manner reminding one of a tedious University academic whose lectures one is compelled to attend and from which there is no escape. The wealth of researched sources to support the stream of endless politicised essays on Wagner's influence cannot be denied. This overhyped sprawling tome relies too much on length and endless references but ultimately fails to convince.

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A masterful example of Gesamtkunstwerk

What a wonder this book is. The sheer scale of the enterprise - examining the Old Sorcerer’s influence on all art forms across the world and over almost two centuries, from Willa Cather or James Joyce’s books to The Matrix or Terence Malice’s films - is breathtakingly Wagnerian. So are the depths of the insights and the nuance of the interpretations. Ross’s book is just as essential, and much more universal reading for anybody with an interest in Wagner, as Nietzsche’s, Mann’s or Baudelaire’s writings. And being able to enjoy it both on Audible (with ample extracts from the operas) and in book form (with a rich iconography of paintings and photos) makes it one of the most successful examples of that Gesamtkunstwerk that Wagner aspired to and that Ross explores so eloquently. An experience not to be missed.

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Great survey of Wagner's heavy influence

I really enjoyed this examination of the long Shadow Wagner casts over Modernity. Would be of interest to anyone engaged with the art and culture of the latter nineteenth to mid-twentieth century in particular. Ross is particularly adept at making musical analysis accessible and relevant in a broader context.