The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday December 3rd

Q&A with The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross

Alex Ross is a music critic for The New Yorker , whose latest major undertaking is a book on the cultural legacy of German composer Richard Wagner . Ross will deliver a lecture titled "Big Ballads of the Modern Heart: Sidney Lanier and Early American Wagnerism"  this afternoon in Gerrard Hall. Diversions editor Allison Hussey talked to Ross about Wagner and the composer's long-lasting effects on the arts.

The Daily Tar Heel: Wagner is a pretty big figure but Lanier isn’t quite as well-known. Who is Lanier and what is his connection to Wagner?

Attend the lecture: 

When: 4:15 p.m. 

Where: Gerrard Hall 

More info:

Alex Ross: So Sidney Lanier , a poet born in Georgia, somewhat well-known in the later 19th century, later somewhat forgotten — although I think people in the literary fields still do consider him one of the leading American poets in the period after Whitman and Emily Dickinson . He was one of many, many figures affected by Wagner. He was a musician as well as a poet, so he had a particularly close involvement with the stuff of the music and had many ideas about how poetry could become more musical, more purely musical in its discourse, and he looked to Wagner for ideas in that regard.

But I’m really using Lanier to stand in for a whole range of American figures who became fascinated by Wagner during the Gilded Age, the late 19th Century, when there really was a very strong cult of Wagner, almost, which reached all the way to the heights of society. Wagner was played in the White House during the Cleveland administration and various other official functions. Theodore Roosevelt was rather interested in Wagner. He penetrated American society as well as so much of European culture during this period.

DTH: You said that Wagner was such a force and that this is a big topic to tackle, what made you want to undertake this as a book?

AR: Well, my first book was about the collision of music and society, music and politics in the 20th century in "The Rest is Noise," in which I studied how composers of the 20th century reacted to or were swept away, in some cases overwhelmed and crushed by these huge forces of 20th century history. Whether it was Shostakovich struggling to maintain his identity and his soul under Stalin and the Soviet Union, or Aaron Copland being called before the McCarthy committee. 

There were very extraordinary moments in which composers, who seem to occupy a separate sphere, a world apart, were really pulled right up to the maelstrom of 20th century life. This has always kind of been an abiding fascination of mine, this seemingly obscure and distant sphere of music being pulled into world events, which they ultimately can’t avoid. We’re reminded of that now, the conductor Valery Gergiev , who is known to support Putin’s action in Crimea. There are questions about Gustavo Dudamel and to what extent is he involved with the current Venezuelan regimes. These questions can simply never be avoided, and it’s healthier to confront them.

Of course with Wagner, the confrontation is inevitable. He himself insisted on throwing himself into events. He was involved with the Revolutions of 1848 and 1849, he issued endless political and cultural and social polemics. Through his entire life, he made his work political, from the outset. I was going to write another book on this ever-thorny question of music and society, music and politics. Wagner just seemed the juiciest imaginable case. I’ve been fascinated by the composer since my teenage years. I’ve had ambivalent feelings about him, or at least I found him much more difficult to accept and make sense of of. This was sort of a longterm project of coming to terms with Wagner, and I think this book is just part of that process. 

DTH: What would you say is maybe the most lasting impact that Wagner’s had on culture today?

AR: There’s kind of a popular idea of Wagner, or kind of a pop culture version of Wagner. The grandiose Wagner, the bombastic Wagner, the mythic Wagner — swords and heroes and gods and magic rings. The most visible manifestation may be in "The Lord of the Rings" and the Tolkien stories. Tolkien always denied that he was influenced by Wagner, but it’s really unmistakable.

There are many, many resemblances between Wagner and Tolkien. Above all, this idea of the magical, evil ring that will give you power. An idea that’s found explicitly in that form in the original sagas and stories, this idea of a dangerous political power residing in the ring is something that Wagner invented and he tended political allegory. The ring is actually a critique of industrial capitalist society. It was really created from a left-wing perspective, and that was exactly the message that he intended.

There’s Wagner in “Apocalypse Now,” there’s Wagnerian residences in the “Star Wars” movies. So that’s kind of the pop culture version of Wagner. I think there are other maybe subtler, more hidden influences, which would go all the way back to the birth of modernism in the 19th century — late 19th century, early 20th century. 

DTH: What’s been the biggest thing you’ve learned about Wagner or yourself while you’ve been working on your new book?

AR: Unfortunately, I’m very far from being done, so I know that I have a great deal more to learn. There’s so much more work to be done. I haven’t reached the 20th century yet, I’m still in the last years of the 19th century. It’s an ongoing process, and it’s constantly evolving. I know it’s going to take a long time. I’ve written two books, but "The Rest is Noise," the first book, was the bigger undertaking, and that took seven years to complete, so this may take a few more years as well. But the joy of it is — and also the challenge — is music is the jumping off point for the book, but I’m really moving through many different artistic disciplines, from literature to visual arts to architecture and dance and film. It feels like I’m re-enacting my college education, almost. I was very immersed in this period, late 19th, early 20th century, when I was in college.

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