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Wagner Nights

An American History

Named best book of the year by the Society of American Music

An entertaining and startling read, a treasury of operatic lore, Wagner Nights offers an unprecedented revisionist history of American culture a century ago.



As never before or since, Richard Wagner's name dominated American music-making at the close of the nineteenth century. Europe, too, was obsessed with Wagner, but as Joseph Horowitz shows in this first history of Wagnerism in the United States the American obsession was unique. The central figure in Wagner Nights is conductor Anton Seidl (1850-1898), a priestly and enigmatic personage in New York musical life. Seidl's own admirers included the women of the Brooklyn-based Seidl Society, who wore the letter "S" on their dresses. In the summers, Seidl conducted fourteen times a week at Brighton Beach, filling the three-thousand-seat music pavilion to capacity. The fact that most Wagnerites were women was a distinguishing feature of American Wagnerism and constituted a vital aspect of the fin-de-sicle ferment that anticipated the New American Woman. Drawing on the work of such cultural historians as T. Jackson Lears and Lawrence Levine, Horowitz's lively history reveals an “Americanized” Wagner never documented before. An entertaining and startling read, a treasury of operatic lore, Wagner Nights offers an unprecedented revisionist history of American culture a century ago.


“A beautifully realized and moving portrait of a neglected American cultural hero of thet the 1890s, Anton Seidl, the chief Wagnerian conductor of the day. . .An exciting invitation to rethink that period and, at last, to dispense with the meretrician 'Gilded Age'.” (John Diziges, The New York Times Book Review)


“A landmark study of the late 19th-century. . . transporting us on a Rhine journey from Bayreuth to Coney Island. The breadth of his book is extraordinary.” (Publishers Weekly [starred review])


“Remarkably accurate and sensitive. . . . not only a book about Wagner in America, but an informative description of the development of musical taste in the United States from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day.” (Daniel Barenboim, Music Director, Chicago Symphony Orchestra)


“Surpasses any previous writing on the history of American operatic culture of the 'Gilded Age'. If only for Horowitz’s resurrection of Anton Seidl – an unbelievably iconic figure in late nineteenth-century American musical life – his book would be of great value. And to have put Seidl, appropriately, in the context of the ‘genteel tradition’ of Victorian America is a historical coup.” (H. Wiley Hitchcock, author of Music in the United States)


“The Wagner/Seidl cult exerted an overwhelming, ecstatically sensual appeal to women ‘shackled by genteel breeding and decorum’ and denied opportunity for either professional or emotional fulfillment.” (Barry Millington, BBC Music Magazine [UK])


“A fascinating account of Anton Seidl, who became America's premier interpreter of Wagner, and of the women of the Seidl society who supported his work. In an era that was as complex and divided as our own, some sought to tame Wagner while others relished the intense emotions he evoked. This important story really bursts the seams of the existing paradigm of 'genteel' late nineteenth-century American culture.” (Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of Culture and the City)

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