ART AND POLITICS IN THE SHADOW OF MUSIC
Alex Ross in conversation with Katherine Butler Schofield
Alex Ross’s latest book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, in the words of the author himself, is about the “aftermath of Richard Wagner”. It is an exploration of the cultural, musical and political history and legacy of German composer, Richard Wagner.
“Alex’s book takes us on many roads less travelled in its exploration of Wagnerism,” says academic and author Katherine Butler Schofield. She opens the conversation by asking Ross what “Wagnerism” means to him. Alex takes the audiences to the moment of world history post-Wagner and explains that “Wagnerism is the renewed interest in Wagner, not just in music but in all of arts”. Despite the complications in the legacy of Richard Wagner, Ross believes that “Wagnerism continues today”.
Katherine brings the dialogue closer home for the Indian audiences, asking Ross the extent to which Wagner’s ideas were underpinned by philosophers who had been dealing with Buddhist and Hindu mythology. Here, Alex maps the trajectory of Ross’s ideas to German romanticism and intellectual thought, with special emphasis on the influence that Schopenhauer’s ideas of resignation and renunciation had had on Wagner’s turn towards Eastern and other non-Western cultures.
Alex delves deeper in the study of Parsifal, which is among the most important stage works of Wagner. He mentions that Parsifal is an apt illustration of the “syncretic religion” that Wagner propounded in the later years of his life. One of the most noteworthy contributions of Wagner to cultural history, says Alex, is that “he detached the idea of myth from mythology”.
Ross and Katherine discuss the relation between landscape and American Wagnerism, with emphasis on the chapter of the book based on American writer, Willa Cather. He says that Cather resonated with Wagner for a musical reason, which is “Wagner famously in his operas abandons usual forms”; instead, he composes them “as a continuous stream of sensation”, which is exactly what Cather felt about the landscapes of Nebraska that she loved, growing up. Alex acknowledges the pioneering feminist contribution of Cather to literature and says that “one of the rewards of this book was to go deeper into Cather’s world”.
In the latter part of the session, Katherine asks Alex what Wagnerism is today. Alex mentions that Wagnerism went into a steep decline in the 20th century, adding that “the two wars forever changed Wagner’s image and made him a much less universal figure”. He elaborates on how Wagner got associated with German nationalism, Nazism and extreme right-wing tendencies in German thought. Alex also clarifies that there are other strands which still exist and we continue to see impressions of Wagnerism in film, art, fantasy culture and some commercial literary fields even today.
To conclude the session, Katherine asks Alex what he takes away from Wagner. Alex promptly responds that “what Wagner teaches us is the power and danger of our tendency to worship art”. He says that the legacy of a great artist being enmeshed in dark, political forces is a recurring phenomenon and one that we have to actively engage with and fundamentally confront.
He ends the conversation by quoting Water Benjamin, “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Richard Wagner, says Ross, is a great illustration of that.