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Publisher's Summary

This program is read by the author and includes excerpts from Richard Wagner's musical compositions throughout. 

Alex Ross, renowned New Yorker music critic and author of the international best seller and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Rest Is Noise, reveals how Richard Wagner became the proving ground for modern art and politics - an aesthetic war zone where the Western world wrestled with its capacity for beauty and violence.

For better or worse, Wagner is the most widely influential figure in the history of music. Around 1900, the phenomenon known as Wagnerism saturated European and American culture. Such colossal creations as The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal were models of formal daring, mythmaking, erotic freedom, and mystical speculation. A mighty procession of artists, including Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Paul Cézanne, Isadora Duncan, and Luis Buñuel, felt his impact. Anarchists, occultists, feminists, and gay-rights pioneers saw him as a kindred spirit. Then Adolf Hitler incorporated Wagner into the soundtrack of Nazi Germany, and the composer came to be defined by his ferocious antisemitism. For many, his name is now almost synonymous with artistic evil. 

In Wagnerism, Alex Ross restores the magnificent confusion of what it means to be a Wagnerian. A pandemonium of geniuses, madmen, charlatans, and prophets do battle over Wagner’s many-sided legacy. As listeners of his brilliant articles for The New Yorker have come to expect, Ross ranges thrillingly across artistic disciplines, from the architecture of Louis Sullivan to the novels of Philip K. Dick, from the Zionist writings of Theodor Herzl to the civil-rights essays of W.E.B. Du Bois, from O Pioneers! to Apocalypse Now.

In many ways, Wagnerism tells a tragic tale. An artist who might have rivaled Shakespeare in universal reach is undone by an ideology of hate. Still, his shadow lingers over 21st century culture, his mythic motifs coursing through superhero films and fantasy fiction. Neither apologia nor condemnation, Wagnerism is a work of passionate discovery, urging us toward a more honest idea of how art acts in the world. 

A Macmillan Audio production from Farrar, Straus and Giroux  

©2020 Alex Ross (P)2020 Macmillan Audio

Critic Reviews

Chicago Tribune Best Books of the Year, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year, 2020

NPR Best Book of the Year, 2020

Barnes and Noble Best New Books of the Year, 2020

New York Times Book Review Notable Books of the Year, 2020

What listeners say about Wagnerism

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Not Just for Wagner Experts!

As someone with a limited knowledge of Wagner, I was a bit hesitant to tackle such a massive work focused on his cultural and political legacy, but I found it truly fascinating. Ross's writing and narration are both top-notch, and the inclusion of brief relevant clips of Wagner's music is a benefit of buying the book in audio format. Highly recommended!

9 people found this helpful

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  • ML
  • 10-09-20

Magnificent book

Wagnerism is a truly fantastic deep dive into the lasting impacts and cultural legacy of Wagner. The writing is compelling and propulsive, the insights fair and even-handed. If you care about art, you will learn something.

5 people found this helpful

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The narrative of how a pompous, racist composer...

The narrative of how a pompous, racist composer, in the finest detail, finally got the attention his overweening ego demanded by marshalling a coterie of influencers and rich benefactors.

Couldn't even get a fifth of the way through.

The author is extremely talented and his research is impeccable, but ultimately I just don't care.

5 people found this helpful

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Not for everyone

If you are well versed in 19th and 20th century philosophy, history, literature, art, drama, film and music AND enjoy Wagner music dramas, then this is the book for you. There is so much offered here to justify the time spent reading or listening to the book. What if you are all the above except that you have had little exposure to Wagner's music dramas, then there is an easy fix. Audible has Robert Greenberg's "The Music of Richard Wagner" recorded for the Great Courses and this will bring you up to speed on the great composer, his life, thoughts AND music.

But what if you are like me, in that I have seen the Ring, Lohengren and Tristan and heard all but Parsifal but have no in depth exposure to the philosophers, historians, authors etc. that abound in this wonderful book. I guess I could use the book as a reference point and explore as much of the surrounding culture that I can. The problem is that I'm not sure that it is worth that commitment. There is some absolutely beautiful music written by Wagner but it is like a long road trip on an interstate highway. Most of the scenery just washes past you although you stop and marvel at the truly special moments. I love listening to Brahms and Mozart and haven't a clue as to what they thought of anything other than music. Wagner didn't create the story lines but worked with existing myths. He was a nut case in so many ways as well as a musical genius. But the bottom line is if you like the music and have the requisite cultural exposure, then you will truly enjoy this book. If you don't relate to the music, or are limited in your liberal education, then I'm not sure it is worth making the effort. I am still undecided.

2 people found this helpful

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Wonderful

Ross is surely one of the best writers on music in English working now. In this book he displays a staggering breadth of knowledge. I learned so much. Highlights were the chapters on Joyce and on Mann. What a gift he has shared with us all.

I always like hearing authors read their own work; it often reveals depths of emotion in certain moments that would go unremarked otherwise. Maybe this would have been an easier listen with another reader, but Ross will get nothing but praise from me for what he offers here.

2 people found this helpful

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Lack of narrative

Alex Rose knows a lot a Wagner, music and history. The book is a testament to that. Alas he’s not a good story teller. The book is crammed with details. Too many of them. But there is no sense narrative that leads you across all this plethora of information. The result is a book too tedious to finish.

1 person found this helpful

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Excellent

One of those books that really deserves 6 stars. I feel like I can now see in another spectrum of light - the history of 19th and 20th century art and literature makes so much more sense - Wagner’s influence was everywhere. The book is preposterously wide-ranging but also so nuanced and detailed that just thinking about its writing exhausts me. Listening was a pleasure though. Got me watching Wagner performances and I previously could not have cared less about opera. Highly recommended.

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Good Art Criticism

This is a very good book if you know what it is. Alex Ross, a well known art critic for the New Yorker, examines Wagner's impact on all things that are *not* music. This includes art, literature, philosophy, poetry, race studies, and certain aesthetic movements, like modernism. And, of course, the Nazis.

If you've read Ross' excellent "the Rest is Noise," you know that his writing tends toward the encyclopedic. There is a vast ground covered, some very briefly and not fully connected to each other. Some artists were directly influenced by Wagner. Others merely did something that resembled Wagner's ideas, regardless of where they came from.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed this book, but too often found myself listening about an obscure art movement that I wasn't especially interested in. That made it hard to get through. The first sections, tracing Wagner's immediate impact, and the last sections, looking at his enduring legacy, were the most interesting.

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I loved the audible book but would it needs music

I am a Wagner fan and now an Alex Ross fan. I've read many of his music reviews in the New Yorker and really enjoyed his in-depth guide to Wangerism. The only downside wat the great lengths that Ross spends on Willa Cather and other fin de seicle authors. Having never read her, I wasn't that interested in her. Ross spends about as much time as Wagner's influence on Cather as he does on Wagner's influence on the horrid Nazi culture. One of my favorite memories of Wagnerism is the start of Simon Gray's play "Otherwise Engaged," one of my favorite plays that I saw in London. The main character, played by a youngish Michael Gambon in the 1976 production I saw, sits down to listen to his new recording of Parsifal. He's rudely interrupted as the opening strains of Parsifal fill the theater. Throughout the play, he periodically starts to play the recording only to be stopped by other interruptions. I had never heard Parsifal before, but I bought a copy just to enjoy the rest of Wagner's wonderful music.

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Neither gifted storyteller nor narrator

This is an encyclopedia not a story about a German composer where the narrator presumably doesn’t even try to pronounce German correctly or use a decent microphone. Additionally, his voice sounds strained as if you happened upon his hundredth reading of the text. It’s altogether a long and slow plodding through the nearly 30 hours of recited facts.