Wagner gave his name to a movement that is also a contagious malaise and in surveying a Wagnerised world Alex Ross looks far beyond the composer’s musical legacy. True, the pining dissonance at the start of Tristan und Isolde disrupted tonality for ever, but Wagner’s sonic sorcery has cast an equally decisive spell on those Ross calls “the artists of silence – novelists, poets, and painters”, as well as on some noisy and unmelodious politicians. The harmonies of Orpheus supposedly soothed emotional distress and kept the cosmos in tune. Wagner achieved the opposite: his operas unsettled the sanity of his disciple Friedrich Nietzsche and later provided the besotted Hitler with a preview of fiery apocalypse.
For more than a century, this music has been a drug or even a poison, a cult with members who are sometimes fanatics, not fans, goaded to overcome humane qualms as they surrender to a Dionysian excitement. Ross likens the overwrought emotional state of the typical Wagner devotees to the Greek “agon”, a state of conflict or self-contradiction. Casualties abound. Nietzsche, the first of the book’s antagonists, vaguely blamed Wagner for his headaches, eye strain and vomiting attacks; the poet Stéphane Mallarmé said that Wagner disgusted but irresistibly enslaved him. The tenor who sang Tristan at the opera’s premiere dropped dead soon afterwards, then with the intercession of a medium informed his widow, the first Isolde, that the mental strain of the music had done him in.
Mostly, the combat takes the form of “cultural contestation”, as reverence for the “holy German art” extolled in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has often required other nations to pay homage to Germans as the master race. Once or twice, the “agon” descends into violence. Ross reports on duels between Wagnerites and non-believers and there is even a boozy altercation with weaponised beer mugs.
Wagner is finally absorbed by pop culture, that fecund compost heap where the classics are mulched and pulped
The story diverges and digresses and soon gets out of Ross’s control. Like Wagner with his repeated orchestral motifs, he tends to go round in circles: I don’t mind Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence in music, but a historical narrative needs to move ahead. In this encyclopaedic book, the plethora of interpreters makes Wagner mean anything at all, which ultimately makes him mean nothing in particular. Decadent enthusiasts such as Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde were thrilled by the orgiastic revels in Tannhäuser, yet the nuptial march from Lohengrin became compulsory at sedate Victorian weddings. For Shaw, Wagner’s Ring exposed the greedy iniquity of capitalism, while for Hitler it unearthed the racial roots cultivated by fascism. Can it do both or is Ross just amassing opposed opinions? At its most undiscriminating, Wagnerism lapses into a game of Trivial Pursuit: if you need to know how many US cities have streets named after Parsifal, the answer is somewhere in here.
On American turf, Ross writes well about the novelists Willa Cather and Owen Wister, who found an equivalent to the raw, wild landscapes of the Ring in the geysers of Yellowstone, the Wyoming prairies and the New Mexico desert, and he uncovers a suppressed tradition of African American Wagnerites. Yet in his desperation to be all-inclusive he straggles off in quest of such exotic aficionados as “the Sri Lankan Theosophical leader Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa” and “Horacio Quiroga, a Uruguayan epigone”. Worse, the abstruse rightwing philosopher Martin Heidegger and the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss lure him up blind alleys of speculative theorising.
The occasional obscenity adds a much-needed fillip. A poem by Pierre Louÿs filthily fantasises about the lusty appetite of Senta, the chaste redeemer from Der Fliegende Holländer, while Aubrey Beardsley places the wayward Tannhäuser in an all-male Venusberg where he “descends to the passive attitude” and is rogered by a priapic servant. There’s even a detour to a Greenwich Village leather bar in which a sign once enjoined patrons to concentrate on having sex rather than loitering in corners to discuss Wagner. However when Yukio Mishima spills his entrails with a samurai sword in his film Patriotism to the rapturous accompaniment of Tristan und Isolde, the effect is merely repellent.
Wagner is finally absorbed by pop culture, that fecund compost heap where the classics are mulched and pulped. The napalm-spewing gunships that blast the Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now remind us that the opera’s shrieking female warriors are out to scavenge corpses from the battlefield, although the cartoon in which Elmer Fudd pursues Bugs Bunny to the same score while yelling “Kill da wabbit!” reduces Wagner’s ecstatic whirlwind to muzak. Ross smiles on such kitschy appropriations: he calls Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings a “kinder, gentler” version of Wagner’s Nibelungen tetralogy, populated by peaceable garden gnomes, not tragic gods and stricken heroes.
At the end, Ross performs a cleansing ritual. Taking up the spear with which Parsifal closes the wound of Amfortas in Wagner’s last opera, he uses it to heal his own psychic scars, which, as he somewhat creepily discloses, include being dumped by a boyfriend after a performance of Die Walküre and an ensuing alcoholic slump. My long slog through his book was not so cathartic. After Ross’s hungover postlude, I recalled his claim, made 700 arduous, enfevered, over-charged pages earlier, that Wagner’s influence was actually less extensive than those of Monteverdi, Bach or Beethoven. It’s good to be reminded that music does not always leave us with an aching libido and shredded nerves or threatens the universe with extinction.
• Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross is published by HarperCollins (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15