Alex Ross’s Wagnerism

Detail from a Japanese poster for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)

In Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross readily points out that Monteverdi, Bach, and Beethoven have each had an impact on music as great or even greater than Richard Wagner’s. The nineteenth-century German composer’s “effect on neighboring arts was, however, unprecedented,” writes Ross, “and it has not been equaled since, even in the popular arena.”

Reviewing Wagnerism for the New York Times, composer John Adams observes that the book “has its own ‘Wagnerian’ heft and ambitiousness of intent, being nothing less than a history of ideas that spans an arc from Nietzsche and George Eliot to Philip K. Dick, Apocalypse Now, and neo-Nazi skinheads.” In Bookforum, Geoffrey O’Brien calls Ross’s third book after The Rest Is Noise, a history of music in the twentieth century, and the essay collection Listen to This, “an aerial view of a culture’s nervous system as it responds to an unexpected stimulus.”

The word “encyclopedic” crops up in more than a few reviews—see Peter Conrad in the Observer, for example, or Tim Riley in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and at 4Columns, Geeta Dayal suggests that, while Wagnerism is “an important book,” it’s “also many books in one.” There’s just an awful lot of influence to map. In cinema and television alone, Wagner’s music can be heard on more than a thousand soundtracks, but “the Wagnerization of film,” as Ross puts it in a recent issue of the New Yorker, extends far beyond the composer’s IMDb credits. “Cinema’s integration of image, word, and music promised a fulfillment of [Wagner’s] idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art,’” writes Ross. “His informal system of assigning leitmotifs to characters and themes became a defining trait of film scores. And Hollywood has drawn repeatedly from Wagner’s gallery of mythic archetypes: his gods, heroes, sorcerers, and questers.”

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