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Wagnerism Grapples with Richard Wagner’s Complex Legacy

Wagnerism Grapples with Richard Wagner’s Complex Legacy

Author: Sophie Strohmeier

November 24, 2020

“Are you peculiarly fond of Wagner?” 

—  a query from a 1908 public questionnaire by gay writer Xavier Mayne, in an effort to ascertain whether or not its subject might be homosexual. 

Feeling just a little too thrilled by the music of Richard Wagner is a sure sign of queerness, and by the early 20th century, Wagner had become a kind of queer passcode. His music, with its “uninhibited sensuality, its androgynous merging of opposites” writes Alex Ross, author of Wagnerism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), “intimated new ways of living in the world.”

Richard Wagner was a 19th century composer, librettist, and producer of enormous opera productions. The ur-creator behind a seemingly endless list of marketable cultural products, Wagner defined the history of music, art, literature, philosophy, and beyond. Among his creations is the quasi-mythological retelling of Germanic and Norse sagas in the form of music dramas known as the Ring-Cycle, or Der Ring des Nibelungen, which gave rise to the idea of “Wagnerian” as synonymous with colossal, overblown, megalomaniacal, all-encompassing, and extra.

But notoriously, Wagner is infamous for his antisemitism: at first directed at colleagues of Jewish descent such as composers Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, both of whom threatened Wagner with their status and talent. Wagner’s antisemitism accumulated into an ugly, misguided, pan-European political philosophy that would catastrophically shape upcoming generations. 

Here Wagner becomes an example of the destructive power of ideas. Though Wagner passed away in the early 1880s, his politics prevailed alongside his music. Antisemitism and romantic nationalism, bridled with the bombastically stirring music of his operas, appealed to the young Adolf Hitler—who subsequently integrated Wagner into his party politics, not at all to the displeasure of Wagner’s successors and family. Wagner’s synonymity with Nazi-Era Germany and the Holocaust is unshakeable in contemporary Western culture. Israel maintains an unofficial ban on performances of Wagner’s music–effectively making Wagner an early example of a cancelled artist. 

The horrendousness of his antisemitism walks hand in hand with his vast cultural impact. The ongoing Bayreuth music festival, founded in 1876 by the composer himself, still promotes the Wagnerian idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk: the total, bundled work of art that encompasses a sublime perfection and mastery in all areas it touches, is promoted. In opera, this transcends architecture, event, set design, music, orchestration, instruments, performance, writing, etc,–to the ends of a radically transformative new work of art. Wagner’s ideas were revolutionary. In many ways, the Gesamtkunstwerk anticipated cinema and our contemporary, episodic franchise culture, as well as performance art and modern streams of literature. 

Popular culture flirts with the proximity of Wagner to the 20th century’s fascist ideologies. We see self-deprecating quips on Wagnerian operas in Woody Allen movies and on Seinfeld. Famously, The Ride of the Valkyries (originally, the stunning entrance of flying female warriors) blares diegetically in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as American soldiers arrive on helicopters to massacre a Vietnamese Village, at once depicting and criticizing American white supremacy. But Wagner and his creations have had a more nuanced impact on history: why, for instance, would something that stands as a musical chiffre for fascist Germany also stand as an icon of Queer culture? It is, of course, common practice in Queer culture to use the tools of the oppressor for the act of subversion—which is how fascist aesthetic also becomes a fetish item in the second half of the 20th century. But there are also more obvious influences of Wagnerian queerness that are not simply subtext, but text. 

Opera has always been a Queer-coded space, its emotions too big, and its conceits too silly. Terry Castle names it the first space a woman could admire—even worship—another in public. Alan Hollinghurst sets elaborate, swooning sequences at performances of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, even going so far as to incorporate real life characters from opera history into his scenes. Wayne Koestenbaum’s kaleidoscope of The Queen’s Throat elaborates on the queer rituals of opera, going down to the collecting of tickets and the smell of the bathroom lines; he describes the repressed longing, the lucid gender confusion, the self-abasement (also noted by Terry Castle). Opera queens, and the queer history of opera, are as old as the art form itself. Playing with representations of gender and sexuality falls within the scope of opera’s principal topic—desire. 

Desire is opera culture’s modus operandi, both in the stories operas tell as in the ways they are told. Perhaps it is this libidinal preoccupation (every opera, Wagnerian or not, is either about sex or death, or most likely both) that makes opera both target and symptom of queerness. The operas of Richard Wagner have had a steady influence on queer art and literature, with their concern for the power and perils of sexuality, their powerful female characters (the most recognizable caricature of a Wagnerian soprano is an opulent woman in armor wearing a winged hat), and the feats and virtues of the male body.

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’ newest opus of nearly 700 pages, Wagnerism, posits that we live our lives almost unaware of the currents that have shaped the cultural content we consume, the world through which we move. An account of composer Richard Wagner’s influence on the past 160 or so years, Wagnerism is neither a biography of Wagner nor an analysis of his music, but a grappling with Wagnerism itself and how it has shaped the world beyond music. Following Alex Ross’ two volumes of music criticism and history–The Rest is Noise and Listen to ThisWagnerism becomes a biography of a culture’s history of influence, spreading outwards from Wagner himself and across the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. Much like the structure of Wagner’s music–seemingly endless, not just temporally but musically, in its addictive linking of melodies and motifs so that the end and beginning of whole sequences become indistinguishable–Wagnerian figurations appear and reappear in the chronology of time. Extending into a much larger and consistently more urgent cultural question, Wagnerism asks: how do we separate art from artist? Myth from culture? Culture from Myth? Must we? Can we? Can we not, and still live with the dissonance?

In Alex Ross’ writing, Wagnerism itself becomes a stand-in for the philosophical debate we are all facing as we grapple with cultural products and behaviors that range from unsavory to unacceptable, and how we deal with our conflicting feelings surrounding them. A very recent example that comes to mind is the hatefulness of J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans radicalism, which has transcended insult and become politically potent and dangerous. (While Rowling’s disgrace came too late to be incorporated in the book, Ross does point out that Rowling’s work is full of Wagnerian iconography.)

Ross manages a generous and moving temperance in Wagnerism via a large-scale exploration of the composer’s dissonant reception and effect. Ranging from examinations of Gay, Black, Feminist, and Socialist Wagnerisms, Alex Ross seems to be wrangling with history, with us, as well as with himself. He never shies away from Wagner’s uglier sides, but confronts them, parsing them carefully and never allowing the reader to ignore them. 

Though not central to the book, what Mr. Ross, who is out and Gay, personally thinks of Richard Wagner gradually emerges. In this obscured thread, Ross examines not only the effect Wagnerism has had on Gay, and Lesbian culture and vice versa, but also the influence of Wagnerism on the very modes of reception of these cultures. The work of Wagner is filled with a queerness that has an almost religious connotation. He seems to attribute androgyny as a kind of sacred end-goal: “Culture and art, too, could be perfect only if a product of the act of suspending the divided unity of male and female.” What else happens in the final act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a musical movement that has been likened to an orgasm, than the merging of two separate genders into another, not unlike Neo and Trinity in the Trans-allegory of the Matrix movies?

With attentive care, Ross examines the influence Wagner has had on world politics, literature, art, and film. Willa Cather uses Wagnerian motifs in her writing, from writing characters as Wagnerian opera singers, moving through a world that follows Wagnerian symbols and cues, and Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness waves evoke the endless music of Wagner. Thomas Mann nests his Death in Venice in a multi-faceted ode to Wagner, no less complicated in its feelings for Wagner than those Ross harbors himself.

Ross notes personal habits of Richard Wagner himself that might today be considered queer: an affinity for pink silks, campy night robes, and rose perfume. Most of all, there was the company he kept, which enabled the very way he managed to produce his enormous music dramas. The entire Ring-Cycle as well as the Bayreuth opera house were financed by the troubled— and gay—young Emperor Ludwig II of Bavaria, who built the castle that would predate the Disneyland symbol: Schloss Neuschwanstein. The strange relationship between Wagner and the unfortunate romantic Monarch are immortalized in the complicated cinematic masterpiece Ludwig (1973) by equally gay icon Luchino Visconti (starring Helmut Berger as the lost romantic monarch and Trevor Howard as a maddeningly flamboyant and dislikeable Richard Wagner). In an iconic scene, Berger’s Ludwig drifts on a swan boat in a grotto, just like the title character in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, and not unlike the way real-life Ludwig had himself represented. Berger had appeared earlier as a drag queen-come-Nazi officer in Visconti’s equally Wagnerian The Damned (1969), the Italian title of which, La caduta degli dei, meaning The Fall of the Gods, evokes the final installment of the Ring-Cycle, Twilight of the Gods. Queerness becomes the essence of romanticism, a folly, a danger, a form of subverting the status quo.

Richard Wagner’s work centralized sexuality in a way that has almost disappeared from popular culture. It’s probably telling that the creators who resemble Wagner the most in the 20th and 21st century are not people, but a corporation like Disney, with its sprawling amusement parks and retelling of fairy tales and dramas in palatable cartoonish form, and movie franchises (many Disney-owned), who excel at working on vast canvases, prequel-ing and sequel-ing and intertwining their characters who all recycle attributes common to Wagnerian heroes. Most of these products (consider Star Wars, Marvel and DC, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, etc) are designed as grand events, many hours long, and meant to be consumed with a kind of love-labor. And yet, with the exception of Game of Thrones (which after all was designed for television), none of them are close to addressing what characterizes Wagner at his most interesting and philosophical: sexuality. Though Marvel’s contemporary heroes may run about in latex-like suits, the movies shy away from actual campy sexiness with the speed and grimace of a frat boy shuddering “no homo!” – by contrast, Wagnerian heroes falter or succeed over questions of sexual desire and compassion.   

Eroticism and sexuality, the very topic and its nuanced discussion, have been relegated to either low-brow pulp (Harlequin romance novels, 50 Shades of Grey) or high-brow culture (literary fiction, arthouse movies, respectable and “quirky” TV-shows). The separation of sex and pop has become most apparent in recent years. Rarely do we see anything in between. And yet, when we do, it is Queer-themed cultural products made to process the repressed discussion of sexuality and gender. That’s great for Queer culture–and too bad for everyone else. 

Of course, Wagnerian operas are still performed, and will be in the future–even in the age of COVID-19, a production of Die Walküre, Part II of the Ring-Cycle, is currently rehearsing in Berlin. But opera is quickly becoming a more and more esoteric world, seeming irrelevant and obsolete to younger generations. All the more relevant, then, that the Queer lessons of Wagnerian opera—the feminist aspects, the merging of genders, the preoccupations with sexual danger and adventure—proliferate. 

By Alex Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374285937, 784 pp.
September 2020

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