By Cat Zhang
Imagine an episode of Billy on the Street in which the game show’s irascible host, the comedian Billy Eichner, hounds New York City pedestrians with questions related to the 19th-century composer Richard Wagner. “Miss, for a dollar,” he booms, interrupting a frazzled accountant in the midst of eating a croissant. “Do gay people care about Richard Wagner?” The woman lowers the pastry, slowly brushing the crumbs from her mouth. “Who?” “Richard Wagner,” Eichner huffs, gesticulating impatiently. “The opera guy? You know, Tristan and Isolde, the Ring cycle, Parsifal?” “Oh,” the woman replies tentatively. “Wasn’t he a Nazi?”
Wagner, who died in 1883, was one of Hitler’s favourite composers. His “Rienzi" overture blared at annual Nazi Party rallies, and his combination of pan-German nationalism, socialism, and antisemitism—well-documented in his 1850 essay “Jewishness in Music,” published initially under a pseudonym—is said to be a precursor to Nazi ideology. A 1940 article in the New York Times deemed him the “first totalitarian artist.”
But as Alex Ross emphasizes in his voluminous new book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, there is a deeper debate over who gets to claim Wagner, politically and otherwise. In his early years, Wagner was affiliated with the left—the anarchists, the communists—and forced to flee Germany for his role in the 1849 uprising in Dresden. “You’re left with this divided legacy,” Ross tells me over the phone. Further complicating the story is the composer’s outsized impact on radical figures: philosophers and Black theorists, Soviet film directors and science-fiction novelists. The anarchist Emma Goldman allegedly remarked that Wagner’s music helped women release “the pent-up, stifled and hidden emotions of their souls.” Late 19th-century gay-rights campaigners construed him as a kind of ally; the author Hanns Fuchs classified him as a “spiritual homosexual.”
Ross’s book, then, is not so much about Wagner as it is his enduring influence on non-musicians: how his legacy has been translated and contested across identities, time periods, and artistic mediums. “He was really perceptive about how culture uses myth, and how the same patterns are replicated in one tradition after another,” Ross says. So while Beethoven or Bach may claim more influence over music, Wagner’s impact on neighbouring arts—like novel-writing, architecture, and painting—remains unparalleled. “Wagnerian” is still used as a descriptor for seemingly anything, from Travis Scott surfing on a bird to the quality of Bruno Mars’ sex. The many warring interpretations of Wagner, says Ross, reveal as much about the composer as they do ourselves.