Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: Alex Ross on his new book, and the chequered life and legacy of Richard Wagner

Wagner still remains a figure of substantial influence in films, literature, painting and music.

Harsh Pareek February 28, 2021 14:05:32 IST
Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: Alex Ross on his new book, and the chequered life and legacy of Richard Wagner

Wagner in 1871. Via WikimediaCommons

You would be excused if the prospect of yet another bit of writing on Richard Wagner doesn’t induce exhilaration and sleepless nights. He is after all only one of the most discussed and debated figures in the field of arts and politics over the last century or so. Form his unquestioned influence across the arts, to Nazi appropriation, the German composer’s life and legacy and been chewed up over and over again. But the new (originally published in September 2020, but you know how it is) offering on everything Wagner comes with an asterisk  — Alex Ross.

A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, and author of one of the most critically acclaimed books on music in recent times, The Rest Is Noise, Ross knows a thing or two about how to work his subjects. His latest, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, explores the cultural history of the composer over the last 150 years, and what it means to be a Wagnerian. And in a session alongside music historian Katherine Butler Schofield at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021, Ross was there to unpack it all.

Following one of the longest introductions in yours truly’s recent memory, the author read a passage from the beginning of his book, which interestingly details the last moments of Wagner’s life. Quite engaging, if one could only focus on the text, and not Ross’ almost-singsong narration, tailor-made of e-book recordings.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2021 Alex Ross on his new book and the chequered life and legacy of Richard Wagner

Wagnerism, by Alex Ross

The author discussed the renewed interest in Wagner following his death in 1883 at Ca' Vendramin Calergi, Venice; and not just in the field of music. The composer became an artistic phenomenon towards the end of the 19th century; frequently a controversial figure, but often a source of inspiration. Ross points out how Wagner’s avant-garde movement alongside his conservative views always presented a contradiction, cutting a figure of a “sacred monster”.

Wagner, who inherited the legacy of German romanticism, incorporated not only his own country’s or Norse mythologies into his work, but also those of Hinduism and Buddhism. Arthur Schopenhauer’s influence on the composer was plain, who himself was keenly interested in Indian philosophy. Wagner’s believed in spirituality which infused West, East and the pagan – showcased in one of his most well-known operas, Parsifal. Ross also talked about how in a time when many were longing for something more and outside their urban existence, an “esoteric Wagnerism” inspired some significant movements.

But what about Wagnerism in today’s world? Ross describes how the phenomenon started dying out in the 20th century. The two Wars tainted the composer’s image and made him much less popular. The fact he was being used as a propaganda tool by the Germans resulted in a massive backlash against him, especially in America. By then, the golden age was certainly over.

Today, many associate the German with the far-right, and at times only know him as “Hitler’s favourite composer”. Nonetheless, Wagner still remains a figure of substantial influence in films, literature, painting and music. Everything we love has a dark history, Ross says, and confronting that notion is perhaps the biggest takeaway from his new work.

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