Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross - Book Review

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ISBN: 9780374285937
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Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - September 15th, 2020

A triumph of scholarship, Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music sets a new standard for cultural history. Ross, the New Yorker’s longtime classical music critic, follows his acclaimed history of modern music The Rest is Noise with nothing less than a panoptic view of the outsized cultural influence of Richard Wagner-the 19th century’s grandest artistic titan-on everything that followed. From Wagner’s earliest disciples, admirers, and sycophants (like prodigal son Nietzsche and early French champion Baudelaire) to the far reaches of his influence in Tolkien, Marvel movies, and vegetarianism, Ross crafts his own leitmotifs of themes, characters, and perspectives including Wagner’s role in gay culture, his notorious descendants, and his influence on all the major figures of modernist culture writ large. Centrally, Ross reckons with Wagner’s antisemitism, the long-reaching effects of his racist prose, and how, so entwined with Nazism, he became regarded as a kind of prophet for the coming of Hitler (a most devoted disciple to be sure). With propulsive prose, deft history-telling, and a crafty structure (starting at Wagner’s death and filling in with operatic summaries or background at always the right moment), Wagnerism becomes finally a brilliant examination of the tangled knot that is the interrelationship of art, politics, and history. ~ Reviewed by Dafydd Wood

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