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Alex Ross’s Music History Syllabus
Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music
Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works
George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself
Laurence Dreyfus, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse
Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices
I spoke with Ross about his relationship with the academy, modernism and romanticism, and what to do with truly noxious historical and cultural figures.
Many of your colleagues at The New Yorker — Jill Lepore, Louis Menand — are academics who have moved firmly in the direction of general-audience writing. Reading Wagnerism, it seems to me that you’re on the opposite path: a journalist moving toward scholarship.
I was very much on the academic path after college, and then took this swerve into journalism almost without meaning to. In the early 1990s, I had applied two consecutive years to grad school, first Duke and then Harvard, and had gotten in. I was on the point of going when journalistic opportunities arose, and I decided to give it a try. Ever since then, there’s been this ghost identity, my nonexistent scholarly career. I often think about how that would have gone.
All the writing that I’ve done has involved an element of wanting to sustain that ghost career, or find a position somewhere between “journalism” and “scholarship.” I don’t feel that there’s a total difference between these kinds of writing. They’re not different species. There is so much that lies in between.
When I wrote my first piece for The New Yorker in 1993, I felt I was able to occupy that middle ground. Because of the leeway I was given in choosing topics and pursuing them at my own pace, the research phase was very rich. If I hadn’t found that path at The New Yorker — at first I was at The New York Times — I would have given up. It would not have been satisfying to me.
In more recent years, I’ve felt my role more and more to be to mediate between these spheres — and especially to let general readers know what’s going on in the scholarly world. I have written a whole series of articles in which I’m summarizing, and to some extent adding my own ideas to, the scholarship: on Beethoven; on music, war, and violence; on Bach; on Salieri; on questions of racism in classical music.
I did quite a bit of research for my first book, The Rest Is Noise. But ultimately that was an extension of my critical writing. Wagnerism was more scholarly right from the outset. The topic itself is a rather specialized one, and had never really been given the kind of treatment that I undertook: to bring together all of these different questions about how Wagner affected the arts and literature. So I felt from the outset that this wasn’t a kind of breezy general-interest treatment of a subject that had already been done in depth in the scholarship. Wagnerism needed to have a scholarly infrastructure, as well as to have some interest to the general reader.
Did you feel pressure from Farrar Straus to popularize it?
For my editor, the brilliant Eric Chinski, it was not a question of popularizing — he knew what he was getting into. But when I subjected him to a rough draft of the book, which was 350,000 words, he encouraged me strongly to cut it back somewhat. To some extent I went along with those suggestions. Looking back on it now, I wonder whether I should I have gone further!
There is a huge quantity of fascinating scholarship on Wagnerism, and I drew heavily on it. As with some of those New Yorker articles, but on a much bigger scale, this is just a guide to the scholarship.
One scholar who has worked in this area, the historian Celia Applegate, has called Wagner the Schengen zone of scholarship — where people are free to trade ideas and disciplinary techniques. Some are musicologists who have branched out into literature or art or film; some are specialists in each of those areas who have gravitated toward Wagner. It’s this fascinating interdisciplinary area where everyone is meeting up under a kind of umbrella of Wagner. You have to invent a language for dealing with these kinds of interdisciplinary connections, because the institutional framework really doesn’t exist.
Right — you’re coordinating musicology, German studies, Victorian studies, literary theory, theater history, art history, gay history, Jewish studies, the history of ideas. And opera. What was hardest to catch up on?
Writing about opera requires you to be interdisciplinary from the outset. Music is only one component of what is going on. There is scenic design, there is acting, there’s the text, theatrical direction, costumes, lighting — it immediately requires you to step outside of your comfort zone.
In coordinating the different fields of specialty, I’m weaving together different moves. I like that kind of transition where you’re jumping from a broad historical perspective to a very detailed engagement with music and then moving into literary criticism.
It was a big challenge at times to essentially pretend to have mastery of so many different fields. I was very comfortable with musical description and literary criticism. Much more challenging was writing about dance, the visual arts, theater history. Those are fields that I barely ever talked about in print. The pace of the writing would come screeching to a halt. Architecture as well: I spent an entire afternoon simply trying to come up with two or three sentences about Louis Sullivan that looked moderately well-informed. I had no practiced language to fall back on. But that was where it became such a fantastic education.
I never feared asking for help. One just amazing thing — this happened over and over again — is when I’d be wondering how on earth to interpret a certain passage, or how to cite a source that I couldn’t get hold of. I would just write completely out of the blue emails to perfect strangers, and often I would get this wonderful assistance. In great measure, people are delighted to have someone from the outside taking an interest in their subjects.
Were there exemplary works of scholarship that you had in mind as models? One that occurs to me is Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, which, like Wagnerism, is a multidisciplinary cultural history that moves across media — art history, architecture, literature, and so on.
That book was really important to me going back to when I was a teenager. I found it in my school library when I was 16 or 17. The lion’s share of Wagnerism is about the fin de siècle, seen through this Wagnerian lens. I’m helplessly drawn to that period, and Schorske’s book was the gateway into it.
In terms of other books, there weren’t one or two absolutely paramount models. It was more that in each of these disciplines, particular works would seem to have that broader scope — whether it was T.J. Clark or Jacques Barzun. Barzun was a formidable figure now receding into the past, who wrote a book that proceeded across very wide terrain: Darwin, Marx, Wagner.
Speaking of T.J. Clark, his Farewell to an Idea has a line that I love, maybe my favorite line in modernist criticism: “Modernism is our antiquity, the only one we have.” You’ve said Wagnerism comes out of your interest in the fin de siècle. But your Wagner is also very much a modernist Wagner. As the 21st century goes on, and the high points of historical modernism disappear further into the past, into antiquity, what does modernism mean for your work?
Eric Chinski encouraged me to foreground ideas about modernism as a unifying principle, which I tried to do. I’m not sure that I succeeded in either defining modernism or in showing how it works in the field of Wagnerism, because it is ultimately a very elusive idea. The more you read the more you become confused. Everything becomes “modernist.” Anything in the late 19th century which has traditionally not been named modernist, or has seemed to be antithetical to modernism — you can be sure that someone somewhere has written an article saying that no, actually, Rachmaninoff was a modernist, Tennyson was a modernist.
I grew up with the narrative that modernism was this violent break. It was adversarial, it was antagonistic. Of course, so much of the more recent commentary on modernism has questioned the cleanness of that break, shown how much modernism owed to the 19th century. Wagner makes that point more strongly than anyone else. Schoenberg always looked at Tristan and Isolde as a landmark. When you look at French Wagnerism, you see how Wagner is encouraging ideas about stream of consciousness, interior monologue, dream states, this space of rupture and violent transcendence. Wagner has a less visible role in Anglo-American modernism, but feeds the imaginations of Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf when they’re young.
What’s so contradictory about Wagner is that there’s also the Romantic side — his romanticism, his grandeur, is so flamboyant and extravagant.
At a roundtable hosted by the Modernist Studies Association this week, panelists addressed “the virtual disappearance of modernism as a hiring field.” Romanticism likewise has more or less disappeared. As categories, both are seen as too ideologically and conceptually freighted — period designations like “20th century” or “18th/19th century” are increasingly preferred. But when I read a book like yours, I think that it is probably a mistake to get rid of these categories, because they’re operative whatever we call them. We can’t get away from them.
If you’re just coming to terms with the cultural history of these eras, romanticism and modernism alike, the common ground is this extreme empowerment of the artist as legislator, as priest, as revolutionary, as spiritual leader. That is what makes modernism so romantic, ultimately. All these figures seamlessly took over the romantic religion of art. They changed its language, its orientation, its content, but still Joyce is forging the sword, Dedalus is forging the sword. It might be framed in a sardonic way, but there’s no question that Joyce himself was unleashing this mighty weapon that would change the world.
Unfashionable as some of those concepts have become — properly unfashionable in terms of the masculinist underpinning of so much of it, the questions of racism, misogyny, and so on — we need to contend with it. And so much about it is not noxious, not poisonous. These works retain their magnificence; they are highly mutable, adaptable to different spectators. A big part of Wagnerism was to foreground the degree to which spectators who did not share Wagner’s background were not only able to consume the work but to make the work their own. So I talk about W.E.B. Du Bois and Theodor Herzl and Magnus Hirschfeld. Willa Cather, feminists, gays and lesbians, people on the far left. The intent of the creator and the context of the created work do not dictate the reception or the subsequent creative application of the work.
That’s a mundane thing to say, but in the case of Wagner, too often our reading of Wagner himself has blotted out the rest of the picture. And there’s an aspect of the reception which has blotted out the rest of the picture, too — the Nazi reception. It’s incredibly urgent that we focus on that, but it’s about finding a balance. But I’ve wandered away from your question.
You’ve wandered right into my next question, which is about noxiousness. Wagner is even more problematic than many other now-problematic figures, maybe barring Ezra Pound, because of his overtly anti-Semitic statements on Jews and art. Obviously, you don’t think that this is grounds for canceling him — if you did you wouldn’t have written this book. But Wagner has been canceled, at least in Israel, where, as you discuss, to this day he remains barely performable, despite the efforts of superstar Jewish musicians like Daniel Barenboim.
There is a perception that college students are newly sensitive to the objectionable aspects of the art and culture being transmitted in, for instance, the Columbia University core curriculum — where in 2015 there were protests over Ovid, for his depiction of rape. I wonder if you think that the case of Wagner has anything to say to this debate about the potentially damaging consequences of works of art. Do you see yourself as engaged in this culture-war question at all, or would you prefer to remain aloof from that sort of thing?
I’ve steered clear of it, because I feel like there are no simple answers to these questions when it comes to Wagner. He was the original canceled artist. People have been asking whether he’s too horrible to be performed since the 1850s — not just because of the anti-Semitism, but because of his anti-French attitudes, or simply because of the music itself.
The Wagner Literature Syllabus
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark
Gabriele d’Annunzio, The Flame
Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
Marcel Batilliat, Chair mystique (only in French)
Yet Wagner has persisted. One of the questions of this book is, why? What I would say is that by this stage, in the early 21st century, after more than a 150 years of debate around Wagner’s viability as a cultural offering, we’ve achieved a fair degree of sophistication about how to deal with Wagner. In the post-Nazi era, changes in how Wagner was staged explicitly foregrounded those questions. In a strange way, this has enriched Wagner himself as a cultural quantity. Some people just blatantly apologize for Wagner and try to cover up all these issues; at the other extreme, there are people who violently dismiss his work. In the middle there are many people who are engaged with Wagner but who do have this ambivalence, this uncertainty.
Thomas Mann made Wagner interesting to me, because he presented this figure who was seductive and also questionable, magnificent and also odious. That attracted my attention! Of course there are people who refuse to listen to him. I respect that. I’m not going to debate anyone, or try to win them over. But it is very much worth keeping in mind that there are Jewish Wagnerians, feminist Wagnerians, leftist Wagnerians, gay Wagnerians. To declare Wagner an irredeemably awful and unperformable figure, to demonize him completely, is at the same time to erase — to use the fashionable word — all of those experiences.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.