Music Critic Alex Ross Gives 2018 Elson Lecture


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Sarah Beth Campisi's picture

Every few years, the Department of Music at Harvard University chooses a speaker to present the Louis C. Elson Lecture. On April 19, Alex Ross, Harvard class of 1990, became the most recent lecturer in the Elson Series.

Professor of music and Department of Music Chair Suzannah Clark was responsible to bringing Ross to Harvard’s John Knowles Paine Concert Hall.

“One of the joys of being chair of the Music Department is that one can bring to campus those guests one finds fascinating,” Clark said. “Alex Ross [made] a great Elson Lecturer for the community, and he is one of my favorite music writers because of his acumen as a critic.”

Since his time at Harvard, Ross has written for The New York Times, The New Republic, and finally The New Yorker, where Ross has been contributing since 1993. In 1996, Ross became The New Yorker’s music critic. Ross wrote the magazine’s obituary for rockstar Kurt Cobain.

Ross’s first book, “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” was awarded a National Book Critics Circle award and the Guardian First Book Award. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ross also has an essay collection, “Listen to This.”

Ross is currently working on his third book, “Wagnerism.”

“Richard Wagner has gone down in prosperity chiefly as an inspiration for Nazi Germany and as Hitler’s favorite composer. My lecture, related to my forthcoming book Wagnerism, explored the complexities behind that image,” Ross said.

Ross’s interest in the subject began in his undergraduate years at Harvard, while he studied the culture and history of the early 20th century.

“I grew up listening to classical music,” Ross said, “and was especially enamored of music from the great period of German Romanticism: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler. The Nazis attempted to appropriate much of this music… and as a result a shadow was cast upon it. Wagner was especially affected. I have always felt the need to explore the contradiction between the transcendent qualities ascribed to this music and the terrible historical purposes to which it was put.”

The topic is a grim one, Ross said. Ross’s lecture, titled, “Wagner, Hitler, and the Cult of Art,” discussed how much The Third Reich celebrated Wagner’s work, even though Hitler never referenced Wagner’s own anti-Semitic beliefs.

“One must remember that there are always lessons to be learned from this terrible period, ones that we apply in our own time,” Ross said. “I am not sure if my own work can help with the ghastly reawakening of anti-Semitism around the world—indeed, it never went away—but I hope that I can draw attention to the ways in which art and music have become ideological weapons.”

Ross hoped his lecture would peak the interest of undergraduates, who sat in the lecture where he once sat.

“It was a wonderful form of recognition,” Ross said. “I felt especially honored to be returning as a lecture to a campus where I was once a student. I hope that some undergraduates heard the talk and got something out of it—even it was by way of saying, ‘He was wrong, I want to write my own account of this period!’”

Ross anticipates publication of “Wagnerism” in the next two years or so.