Wagnerism: Art and politics in the shadow of music
by Alex Ross
Fourth Estate, $65 hb, 784 pp
Graz, 16 May 1906. Richard Strauss is conducting his scandalous, recently premièred opera, Salome. The expectant audience includes Giacomo Puccini, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav and Alma Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Alban Berg, and, slipping surreptitiously into a cheap seat, possibly a certain Adolf Hitler, having borrowed money from relatives for the trip from Vienna. So begins Alex Ross’s exploration of the kaleidoscopic twentieth-century musical world in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the twentieth century (2007), his now classic study. Ross is well known as the chief music critic of The New Yorker.
Perhaps not quite as dramatic an opening is the picture of the sixty-nine-year-old Richard Wagner playing excerpts on the piano from his opera Das Rheingold, in Venice, just hours before his death:
At around 3 p.m., Dr Kepler entered, and established that the Meistersinger, the Sorcerer of Bayreuth, the creator of the Ring, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal, the man whom Friedrich Nietzsche described as ‘a volcanic eruption of the total undivided artistic capacity of nature itself’, whom Thomas Mann called ‘probably the greatest talent in the entire history of art’, was dead.