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The Trouble with Wagner

In this unique and hybrid book, cultural and music historian Michael P. Steinberg combines a close analysis of Wagnerian music drama with a personal account of his work as a dramaturg on the bicentennial production of The Ring of the Nibelung for the Teatro alla Scala Milan and the Berlin State Opera. Steinberg shows how Wagner uses the power of a modern mythology to heighten music’s claims to knowledge, thereby fusing not only art and politics, but truth and lies as well. Rather than attempting to separate value and violence, or “the good from the bad,” as much Wagner scholarship as well as popular writing have tended to do, Steinberg proposes that we confront this paradox and look to the capacity of the stage to explore its depths and implications.  

Drawing on decades of engagement with Wagner and of experience teaching opera across disciplines, The Trouble with Wagner is packed with novel insights for experts and interested readers alike.

160 pages | 8 color plates, 12 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018 

History: History of Ideas

Music: General Music


“Unlike any other composer, Wagner continues to fascinate. Michael P. Steinberg has added to the vast literature a thought-provoking look at the composer from the perspective of not only history and criticism, but also the challenges of mounting a contemporary production. Through Steinberg’s uncommon grace and learning, readers will encounter why Wagner is still with us today as a force in the arts and culture.”

Leon Botstein, music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra

“An exquisitely learned and sensitive journey through ambiguities that make the case against Wagner always also a case for. Readable and often very witty, this new book is perfectly reflective in its novel combination of two kinds of expertise that rarely come together. While offering sophisticated philosophical insight into the Ring Cycle, the author recalls his first-hand involvement in producing the work for the stage. Most highly recommended.”

Lydia Goehr, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

“After thirty years of writing on music in relation to history, politics, and ideology, Steinberg has produced the book he was brought into the world to write. The Trouble with Wagner explores Wagner ambivalence with unparalleled erudition, breathtaking mastery of the Ring, deep understanding of Wagner's conception of modernity, and an astonishing ability to integrate the history of performance into the story of how Wagner’s work has been understood. The book is brilliant and riveting. The Trouble with Wagner will be discussed for many years to come.”

Daniel Herwitz, Fredric G. L. Huetwell Professor, University of Michigan

"This slim but important volume offers a unique perspective on Wagner’s mature music, a perspective that arises from the author's dual career as historian and dramaturg.... Ultimately, the 'trouble' with Wagner may best be addressed not by scholarship or criticism but through the choices that must be made to present these masterworks to a contemporary audience. A significant achievement, this book is sure to have a role in any serious Wagner discussion."


"In his new, deceptively slender book, Michael P. Steinberg, a distinguished cultural historian of music, pursues two separate but interdependent lines of thought. On the one hand, he offers an account of the Wagner bicentennial production of The Ring . . . On the other hand, and more fundamentally, he offers a sophisticated 'deep' reading of the latent layers of psychology, philosophy, and history embedded in this colossus of the operatic stage." 

Wagner Notes

"Anyone who seeks total immersion in the Wagnerian oceanic experience would find the time spent reading this book time well spent."

Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents


Introduction: Wagnerian Songlines
One: History and the Stage
Two: Siegmund’s Death
Three: Bad Education
Four: Les passions humaines

Afterword: On Purity, Danger, and the Postsecular Moment


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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