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From George Eliot to Neo-Nazi Skinheads: The Chaotic Cult of Richard Wagner

The “chaotic posthumous cult” that came to be known as Wagnerism was well underway even before the composer’s death in 1883, and Ross charts how differently Wagner was embraced in different countries. In Bismarck’s newly unified “blood and iron” Germany, the composer’s conjuring of Nordic myths in his “Ring” tetralogy and the glorification of German “Kunst” that is the subject of “Die Meistersinger” played perfectly to the nascent intimations of Teutonic strength and superiority. (“I am the most German person, I am the German spirit,” Wagner proclaimed in 1865.) British listeners experienced the medieval myths on which he based his operas “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” as mirroring their own Arthurian legends. American operagoers predictably saw themselves reflected in the “rude forcefulness” of Wagner’s heroes. The French, including Baudelaire, who was one of the first to understand him, found in his operas not the rude and the violent but rather the erotic, the dreamlike, the otherworldly and the deeply psychological. Out of this spin came a whole literary movement, the Symbolists. It was “Tristan,” in Ross’s description, that “set the course for an avant-garde art of dream logic, mental intoxication, formless form, limitless desire.”

Ross takes a deep dive into the psyches of Joyce, Proust, Mann and T. S. Eliot and returns with revelations, particularly in the case of “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake,” that may surprise even the most ardent scholar for the extent to which each of them was influenced by Wagner. His moving essay on Mann’s “Death in Venice,” framed by what he terms “gay Wagnerism,” reaches an emotional high point worthy of the inner turbulence of that epochal novella.

These names — Joyce, Proust, Eliot, et al. — are already familiar darlings for analysis, and encountering them yet again in a work of cultural history can at times feel like literary Groundhog Day, but Ross’s exegesis is nonetheless immensely valuable. And there are those we might not expect to have fallen under the composer’s spell, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Theodor Herzl, Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf.

“Just as Herzl looked to ‘Tannhäuser’ to fortify his Zionist vision, Du Bois took Wagnerian myth as a model for a heroic new African-American spirit.” Both Cather and Woolf had their own “shock of recognition” encounters with Wagner and wove their responses intricately into their fiction in ways more cleareyed and less besotted than many of the men. Wagner figures intimately in Cather’s 1915 “The Song of the Lark,” about the rise to fame of a small-town Colorado girl, Thea Kronborg, who, through her natural talent and resolute ambition, becomes the great Wagnerian soprano of her era. The trope of humble beginnings, innate gift, self-determination and ultimate triumph mirrors the composer’s own life story.

Virginia Woolf blew hot and cool. An encounter with “Parsifal” rendered her in tears: “It slides from music to words almost imperceptibly.” And most acutely, she observed, “Like Shakespeare, Wagner seems to have attained … such a mastery of technique that he could float and soar in regions where in the beginning he could scarcely breathe.” But four years after this she was finding Wagner oppressive: “My eyes are bruised, my ears dulled, my brain a mere pudding of pulp.”

Wagnerism assumes an increasingly sinister guise as the 20th century progresses. The Nazis exploit both the music and the mythology. Wagner is played at Nazi state occasions and is heard regularly on propaganda newsreels. Wagner’s heirs effusively welcome Hitler’s frequent visits to Bayreuth. With the war underway, “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” is the favored music for national mourning. Most damning is the revolting Goebbels-commanded propaganda film “The Eternal Jew,” the narration of which cites Wagner as the source of the anti-Semitic slur, “The Jew is the plastic demon of the decline of mankind.” One can’t help feeling that Wagner’s statements about Jews being subhuman had come home to roost, and that the taint of the Holocaust on him is not entirely unwarranted. Ross seems to acknowledge that, but he also protests that the “Wagner-to-Hitler” meme suggests a teleological progression that, while perhaps convenient, is dangerously simplistic. Not a single utterance of Hitler’s includes a reference to Wagner’s writings on the Jews, and anyone familiar with “The Ring” knows that the marriage of capitalism and fascism that underlies Nazi ideology is utterly at odds with Wagner’s anarchic societal vision. “One danger inherent in the incessant linking of Wagner to Hitler,” Ross says, “is that it hands the Führer a belated cultural victory — exclusive possession of the composer he loved.” As the author has written elsewhere, “To hold Wagner in some way responsible for Hitler trivializes a hugely complicated historical situation; in a sense, it takes the rest of Western civilization off the hook.” It is a riddle that, like the composer’s famous harmonies, will remain forever unresolved.

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