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Wagner Nights

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Before the Beatles, there was Wagner. Swooning crowds of mostly female fans thronged Beyreuth, coming from as far away as the American Heartland. For those in the New World who could not make the pilgrimage to the German composer’s hometown festivals, there were all-Wagner programs in many American cities and even Wagner road shows that took the radical new music to the frontier.

Joseph Horowitz subtitled his examination of the Wagner phenomenon AN AMERICAN HISTORY to underscore the subject of WAGNER NIGHTS—the reaction of America to Richard Wagner’s ecstatic, renegade music and the light it sheds on the Gilded Age. In an era associated with prudery and elitism, the heightened sensuality and pagan themes of his operas were justified, rationalized, Christianized—anything but exorcised.

Horowitz’s history includes brief profiles of the conductors, critics, and singers of the day, including Albert Niemann and the reigning Isoldes Lilli Lehman, Olive Fremstad, and Kirsten Flagstad. The focus, however, falls most often on Anton Seidl, the magnetic conductor for whom Laura Langford formed the Seidl Society—a club of dedicated fans who supported Seidl and the music of Wagner, traveling en masse to Coney Island for Wagner Nights at the Brighton Beach Pavilion.

As the executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and the author of several music histories, Horowitz’s presentation is scholarly and concise. In fact, his investigation of this lively period suffers at times from a relentless dryness. For a stirring glimpse of what the author fails to relate, one should read Willa Cather’s A WAGNER MATINEE. Horowitz’s attention to detail and documentation, however, is impressive and his insight on the cult of Wagner and its forgotten impact on Gilded Age America is keen.