Audio Transcript:

Andersen: Whether it's the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth or the centennial of Gustav Mahler's death, the classical music world loves celebrating round numbers. This week is a big one, the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner, an occasion that's being celebrated big time around the world, but here in America the commemorations are few and far between. Wagner is probably the most controversial figure in music, both because of his music - epic operas of beautiful and/or bombastic music that Mark Twain called "Not as bad as it sounds", but also for his opinions. He was an outspoken anti-semite and after his death, he was an inspiration to Adolf Hitler. Here to help us get a handle of the Wagner problem is Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker, who is writing a book about Wagner right now. Alex, welcome to Studio 360.

Ross: Hi Kurt, thanks for having me on.

Andersen: So, 200 years after his birth, and 130 years after his death, Wagner still inspires this incredible passion. You either love him or loath him, and I guess that was true when he was alive as well, yeah?

Ross: Yes, absolutely. No one ever thought that Wagner was pretty good or okay. Wagner was either magnificent, the greatest living composer, or he was something horrible.

Andersen: And as I say, there are these bicentennial and concerts being held all over Europe, but nothing major in New York, and I looked around the country and there's a thing here and there, but not much. Does this lack of hoopla for this big deal guy surprise you?

Ross: I couldn't really find any major orchestra or opera house any where in the country that was performing Wagner on the day of his birthday and that struck me as curious and I think here in America we are perhaps more hesitant of Wagner, a little more wary of Wagner, and that actually didn't used to be the case. 100 years ago there was an enormous fad for Wagner in this country, so it seems as though something has diminished over time and these endless Wagner controversies may have something to do with it.

Andersen: Well, yeah, 100 years ago Wagner had not become the soundtrack to national socialism. Can his music ever now be separated from what it inspired?

Ross: It seems difficult for the time being. The Nazis and Wagner seem to be wrapped up together in a lot of people's minds, but then I think there's a point past which it becomes excessive. It seems as though these days, if the man in the street knows anything about Wagner, it's that he was Hitler's favorite composure and I think it's really problematic to focus on this one aspect of his influence.

Andersen: Isn't part of the problem that the nature of the music - it seems to fit so well with the idea of martial over-the-top fantastical visions of power. I mean, if he had just done show pan, if he'd done a different kind of music, it wouldn't be as problematic.

Ross: Yes, there are these thrilling moments, these excerpts, the entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, the Ride of the Valkyries, the Tannhauser overture, but he's a very sophisticated Germanist and very often he's using these images of power ironically. He then undermines them.

Andersen: The argument is not unlike the argument made about the Gatsby movie. Fitzgerald wasn't celebrating materialism, he was ironically critiquing materialism.

Ross: Exactly, which of course is a tricky game to play, because your irony can be overlooked, and that certainly happened to Wagner as well.

Andersen: And speaking of movies, lately Terrence Malick and Lars Von Trier and David Cronenberg have all made movies loaded with Wagner music. It seems almost sometimes too appealing, because it's such a familiar way to convey largeness and grandeur. Does it become a cliche sometimes in film?

Ross: Yeah, it can be a crutch and I actually had problems with the way Lars Von Trier used the Tristan and Isolde prelude in that movie really because he used it over and over and over again until I felt its mystery was being leached out after awhile and it became wallpaper. There's another very interesting Wagnerian movie, which was Tarantino's Django Unchained in which you don't hear any Wagner at all. There is this Wagnerian subtext that bubbles up, and that's really quite surprising and fascinating, so I thought when I was watching "Wouldn't it have been amazing if he had used the Ride of the Valkyries at some point in this movie?", but then I thought but Ride of the Valkyries is such a loaded musical object now, people would have automatically think of "Apocalypse Now" and Bugs Bunny, I think it would actually be almost impossible the Ride of the Valkyries in any kind of serious way. People would start giggling.

Andersen: So, we are now going on 70 years since the end of German Naziism. Will it start being safe to love Wagner again?

Ross: Well, I think it's already safe to love Wagner. We're not going to forget about the Nazi association, but I think we can just have a richer and more nuanced sense the enormous impact that Wagner had.

Andersen: Alex Ross, thank you very much.

Ross: Thank you so much for having me on. Happy Birthday to Wagner.

Andersen: Alex Ross is a writer for the New Yorker and the author of "The Rest is Noise". So, what do you think? Do you love Wagner. Can you separate his music from its history? Go to studio360.org and leave a comment.