A VIRTUAL BOOKSHELF BY ALEX ROSS, author of WAGNERISM
For the past thirty years or so, I’ve been working as a music critic, and I’ve written three books myself: The Rest Is Noise, Listen to This, and the newly released Wagnerism. I’ve become accustomed to people asking me whether I find music exceptionally difficult to write about — the hard-to-source quotation “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” comes up a lot — and what models I use when I write. In truth, I don’t think writing about music is any *more* difficult than writing about any other form. Painting, poetry, dance, film all have dimensions that can never be put into words. Still, music does pose special challenges, because it seems to get under our skin in a peculiarly penetrating way. Part of what interested me so much about Wagnerism as a subject — the book is a survey of Wagner’s influence on art forms outside of music, from Baudelaire to Bugs Bunny — is that it’s all about artists struggling to come to terms with music and absorb it into their own work. Here, in any case, are some books that had a profound effect on me over the years.
I first read Doctor Faustus when I was eighteen, and it remains the most intense reading experience of my life — a monumental, bone-chilling fictional biography of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, who appears to have sold his soul to the devil in return for esoteric mastery of his art. It is to some extent an allegory for how German culture went astray in the decades leading up to the Nazi period, but it's also a thrilling evocation of art’s power to mirror its time, in sometimes terrifying ways. Mann wrote it in Pacific Palisades, starting in 1943, and he was able to take advantage of the great community of émigrés who came to LA in those years, including the modernist revolutionaries Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. When the German government bought the Mann house a few years ago and restored it, I was able to stand in the study where this stupendous book was written — a great moment for me.
A wide-ranging collection of the incisive, impassioned, posture-free pop-music criticism of Ellen Willis, who wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1975, setting a standard that none of us who followed her have matched.
The Song of the Lark is, in my mind, the other great music novel, after Doctor Faustus. It is the story of a Wagner singer who grows up on the Great Plains, absorbing influences from the landscape and melding impressions with her art. It is partly a tribute to the great turn-of-the-century soprano Olive Fremstad and partly a self-portrait of the author's own artistic emergence in Nebraska. Needless to say, this novel plays a large role in my book Wagnerism. I have an entire chapter devoted to Cather, who wrote about music with piercing perceptiveness.
Back to the ever-controversial, ever-fascinating Wagner: if I had to recommend a single book about him, it would be Barry Millington’s biography The Sorcerer of Bayreuth. It is richly illustrated, up-to-date in terms of scholarship, and far from worshipful in its treatment of the composer’s antisemitism. The title comes from an epithet that has been often attached to the composer over the years, and probably originated with Wagner’s acolyte-turned-nemesis Nietzsche, who wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra about an “old sorcerer” who hoodwinks everyone with his magic and illusions.