... a crowded and mesmerizing history ... [a] superb chronicle of obsession, intoxication, hyperbolic exultation, appropriation, exploitation, repudiation, transmutation, and perpetual reinvention—an aerial view of a culture’s nervous system as it responds to an unexpected stimulus. In the end, Wagnerism is, however obliquely, very much a book about Wagner and his music, all the richer for being filtered through such a range of listeners and spectators ... As a non-musician myself, I like the importance that Ross places on their reactions, reactions that occur (as his subtitle puts it) 'in the shadow of music' ... Ross draws on an impressive range of texts, delving particularly deep into the arcana of fin-de-siècle literature.
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’ magnificent new book ... makes his subject less Wagner himself—although he has plenty to say about the music and the problematical man—than the way we absorb ideas and attitudes, how they can grow into cancers or panaceas ... Every culture has its own issues with Wagner, and Ross’ even hand is especially impressive when taking on the Big One. His explication of Hitler’s rise and the legacy of Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a moving lamentation, yet it lays bare the contradictions ... In the end, the inconsistencies are what made Wagner matter, and what make Ross today’s perfect Wagnerite.
... a work of enormous intellectual range and subtle artistic judgment that pokes and probes the nerve endings of Western cultural and social norms as they are mirrored in more than a century of reaction to Wagner’s works. 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 ... Wagnerism was incontestably a labor of love for Ross ... And it is easy to understand why, because his strategy is to use Wagner as a kind of ur-source out of which spring a multitude of artistic, social and political movements that include everything from the hectic musings of obscure bohemian poets and novelists to the opportunistic appropriation of the composer’s music and iconography by Nazi propagandists. In so doing, Ross has dug deep into some of the most fertile (and occasionally most bizarre) terrain of Western culture, examining and bringing to light the struggles for individuation and self-discovery of a host of reactive minds — poets, novelists, painters, playwrights, filmmakers, politicians and more ... 'The behemoth whispers a different secret in each listener’s ear,' Ross so wryly but perfectly sums up the 'near-infinite malleability' of his art and the 'interpretive pandemonium' over what exactly these operas mean ... Ross takes a deep dive into the psyches of Joyce, Proust, Mann and T. S. Eliot and returns with revelations, particularly in the case of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, that may surprise even the most ardent scholar for the extent to which each of them was influenced by Wagner. His moving essay on Mann’s Death in Venice, framed by what he terms 'gay Wagnerism,' reaches an emotional high point worthy of the inner turbulence of that epochal novella ... These names — Joyce, Proust, Eliot, et al. — are already familiar darlings for analysis, and encountering them yet again in a work of cultural history can at times feel like literary Groundhog Day, but Ross’s exegesis is nonetheless immensely valuable. And there are those we might not expect to have fallen under the composer’s spell.