Alex Ross On Interpreting Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 15 April 2014 | 10:39:00 pm

The always worth reading Alex Ross in discussion with Todd Morman at the Indy Week.

Ross has been exploring Wagner's deep, broad cultural influence—he pays close attention, for instance, to what he calls "Black Wagnerism," the affinity felt by people like W.E.B. Du Bois for Wagner's work. The INDY spoke with Ross about Wagner, race and modern opera; an edited transcript is below.

TODD MORMAN: Let’s start with this: What exactly is Wagnerian about W.E.B. Du Bois? 

ALEX ROSS: Well, Du Bois was fascinated by Wagner, going back to his period when he was studying in Berlin in the 1890s ... He also went to Bayreuth in the year 1936, the summer of the Nazi Olympics. He spent several months in Germany undertaking a complicated project which ostensibly has something to do with industrial education methods, but the rationale for the grant he received from a German-American foundation was for studying racism in Germany and racial attitudes in Germany.

He was horrified by anti-Semitism but said that he himself was treated respectfully when he traveled and did not experience racism firsthand. You can take that at face value or not. But Du Bois said, going back to those days in the 1890s, when he came to Germany this was the first time in his life that he felt that he was being treated respectfully as a black man, and that he felt more or less on equal terms with those around him. The point is that Du Bois had this great veneration for German culture, German philosophy and literature and music. He detected in it this powerful idealistic energy that he felt could be translated into any context. He felt that it could in fact have great meaning for African-Americans, and that African-Americans specifically have something to learn from Wagner.

Again, we think of Wagner as this completely nauseatingly racist man and thinker, but it’s a little more complicated than that. He was unquestionably an anti-Semite. In terms of his attitudes toward people of color, there’s much less evidence. It just wasn’t something he spent a lot of time thinking about and being concerned with. You actually find a mix of opinions in his second wife’s diaries, which record everything that came out of his mouth in the last year of his life. But Du Bois himself found Wagner inspiring; In this remarkable story, “The Coming of John,” the music of Lohengrin is this gleaming, distant image of beauty and freedom and possibility, sort of a mirage of a perfect world.

Given a few more fascinating stories like that, I can see how the idea of a book about Wagner popped into your head.

Really, the core of the book is to describe this phenomena that many people may have forgotten about or not been aware of: how widespread Wagner’s influence was on the arts and on literature. It was absolutely enormous. He influenced this really endless list of major writers and thinkers—Nietzsche and Baudelaire and Mallarme and Proust and a very long list of French writers. You have Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann … in a lot of these writers very often you find there was ambivalence, or early infatuation followed by later rejection; Joyce I think falls into that category. Even that is an important influence, the overcoming of an early infatuation with Wagner. 

For the Modernist generation, Wagner was associated with this very heavy, foggy, sort of perfumed fin de siècle aesthetic, he was associated with Impressionism to some extent, symbolism and decadence. So the next step was to banish the murk and then present something much sharper and more objective, or more harshly realistic—the whole gamut of ideas associated with modernism.

The question of Wagner’s personality, his personal traits, his beliefs: In that period there wasn’t so much focus on that, I don’t think it was until later in the 20th Century that we came so consumed with the issues of Wagner’s biography and his influence on Nazism was something that really came to the fore after World War II. That has come to almost dominate the picture of Wagner.

You yourself say he made “a number of absurd and repulsive pronouncements on all matter of topics,” right? It’s an obvious question, how do you separate that out from the positive influences? What would you consider the negative influences?

I don’t consider “are these positive or negative?” but as a historian I want to describe this phenomenon year by year and let the reader decide. 

[Laughs] Good luck with that. Everyone’s gonna want to know your opinion. 

I know. But what I really want to do is simply show the breadth of the influence. I do think it’s very important to establish Wagner’s quite powerful influence on the anti-Semitic movement. For a long time in the Wagner world there were attempts to sort of brush that under the rug. In the ’50s and ‘60s, when the Bayreuth festival got going again, there was this attitude of ‘let’s not concern ourselves with politics, we’re talking about music here.’ 

There’s kind of a deep politicization that has happened there. A lot of very good scholarship has been done on Wagner’s influence and the quite crucial role that his ideas played. His family was increasingly snarled in these movements and eventually formed a relationship with Hitler himself. So yeah, this has been established and it’s very important. There will be what I anticipate will be a quite frightening chapter at the heart of the book where I confront all of that. But what concerns me is when the focus on the Nazi Wagner excludes the rest of the picture. If the average person was asked, ‘who was Wagner?’ you get, ‘Hitler’s favorite composer.’ For me, that’s a very dissatisfying answer, and I’m afraid that it actually gives a little too much credit to Hitler. It’s a minor victory for Hitler, I’m afraid, if we let his taste for Wagner become and remain the defining one. And there’s simply a very big loss that happens if you look at Wagner that way, because you are ignoring the side of Wagner that was some sort of anarchist who was a determined opponent, most of the time if not all of the time, of state power, a man who hated authority. He had this capacity, despite all of his horrible beliefs, to explore compassion, pity, a sense of identification with the downtrodden. With this book I just wanted to show everything—the whole political spectrum, the whole intellectual spectrum, this mastery of artists—and just set it out there. We’ll see what people make of it.

In terms of breadth and depth of his influence, pre-internet age, on both sides of the Atlantic, can you think of anyone in modern times he’s comparable to?

I think Wagner is a singular phenomenon in music. I don’t think there has been any other figure in the entire history of music who has had an influence of this nature; musical aesthetic across many cultural fields, intellectual, philosophical and political.

So it’s more than enormous fame.

It’s a pretty singular phenomenon, and I don’t know if in other fields, in literature or in painting, it’s also difficult to identify a figure who has had quite this effect. And I don’t mean that purely in a positive sense. Part of what staggers us about the phenomenon of Wagner is the evil that was attached to his name and the negative side of the influence. But, you know, that really adds to the breadth of the phenomenon and makes it something we need to come to terms with.

Two quick questions about modern, director-driven productions: There have been unusual, often-controversial productions—set in concentration camps or the gold mines of California—that put Wagner in odd settings. Have they been successful in helping modern audiences connect with Wagner, or do you prefer more traditional productions? Can you name a production that took some chances that you thought was particularly successful?

I’ve sort of gone through an evolution with these more adventurous styles of opera production. I think earlier I had a more conservative attitude about these productions. But yeah, as I’ve seen more I’ve really come to appreciate the limitation of that more conservative style. I’ve seen some really extraordinary and successful attempts along these lines. I think fundamentally it’s healthy, it’s inevitable; The world that we live in is going to employ directors to direct the operas, we need to give them liberty as artists to express their ideas.