User Menu


The text of a talk in the Third Ring Symposium on 16th December 2023

Many people would regard the fusion of western myths and eastern beliefs as dramatically unworkable and contradictory. But actually, it is something that is typically Wagnerian. We find it throughout the Ring from the second act of Die Walküre onwards and especially in the closing pages of Götterdämmerung, and also in Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal.

In the Prose Edda of Iceland and the Norse Völsungasaga, both written in the 13th century, Brynhild ends up on Sigurd’s funeral pyre. In Wagner’s 1848 sketch for ‘Siegfried’s Death’, which takes the story further, she is seen as a proud Valkyrie rising above the flames and leading Siegfried heavenwards to his place in Valhalla. There is no cataclysm, and the old order of gods survives. Then, in 1851, another Norse idea was introduced – Ragnarök (‘Twilight of the Gods’) – in which the gods are destroyed, although, according to the old poems, this occurred not after a hero’s funeral but after a great battle with the powers of evil (the frost giants, a fearsome wolf and sea monster) and when the flame giant Surt set the heavenly rainbow bridge alight as the blazing world sank beneath the ocean. Wagner could have followed those old Norse precedents, but he chose not to.

In the mid-1850s, something else caught his attention – an account of the death and cremation of the Buddha. When the sage entered Nirvana (which, according to Wagner’s later text, was also Brünnhilde’s destiny) the earth trembled and firebrands fell from the sky, the heavens were lit up by a preternatural fire and the rivers boiled over. It’s not hard to recognise in a conflation of these images, the stage directions at the end of Götterdämmerung. Nor is it difficult to understand why Wagner, in a rare example of motive-labelling, referred to the exquisite closing theme (first used as Sieglinde’s paean to Brünnhilde in Die Walküre) as ‘the glorification of Brünnhilde’ or ‘the theme in praise of Brünnhilde’. By renouncing desire and achieving wisdom through love, Brünnhilde had revealed the path to Nirvana, a path that would be expressed definitively in the Christian/Buddhist syncretism of Parsifal. That’s why it is Brünnhilde, not Siegfried, who is the real hero of the Ring, and why she is given the task of bringing the whole story to a close.

So, where did Wagner’s interest in eastern ideas and philosophies come from? In his autobiography, Mein Leben, he describes how, as a little boy living in Leipzig, he had met the composer Carl Maria von Weber, who visited the family home on a number of occasions. In 1805, Weber had composed a Chinese Overture using a genuine Chinese theme, and, a few years later, this overture was used as incidental music for Friedrich von Schiller’s play Turandot.

Both Weber and Schiller loomed large in the Wagner family’s thinking. The young Richard was greatly impressed by Weber’s music, especially Der Freischütz, echoes of which can be found in the Third Act of Siegfried in the scenes of the forest by night and the forest murmurs. Schiller had been an acquaintance of the scholar Adolf Wagner, Richard’s uncle, and as a seven-year-old, Richard played a minor role in Schiller’s play William Tell, along with his sister Klara and Ludwig Geyer who would become their stepfather. But it was Turandot that brought genuine Asian musical themes to this early 19th century German world, and the young Richard came to know it.

Schiller had based his Turandot on a Commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Gozzi, first performed in Venice in 1762. In 1872, Cosima Wagner wrote in her diary: “In the evening we return to our good Gozzi and read his Turandot with great interest.” So Wagner certainly knew the story which inspired as many as twelve operas, including Puccini’s in 1924. The tale originated in Persia, and its principal source was a collection called The Thousand and One Days, or The Persian Tales, a counterpart to The Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights. For close on a thousand years, the story of an irresistible princess of China and her fatal challenges to unwanted suitors had been known in Persia – now Iran. ‘Turandot’ is a Persian name meaning ‘the daughter of Turan’ – Turan being the Persian name for central Asia. Persia fell to Genghis Khan’s Mongols in the thirteenth century and, in the following century, to the Tatar ruler Timur, known to Europeans as Tamerlane. This Timur was a military genius (albeit a brutal one) who died during a campaign against the Ming dynasty. The Timurid dynasty survived until 1857 as the Mughal dynasty of India.

Which brings us to India and, in particular, to the opera Jessonda by the German composer Louis Spohr which Wagner admired greatly and conducted numerous times at Magdeburg, Königsberg and Riga in the 1830s. Written in 1822, this opera is set in Goa, and the plot involves the heroine, Jessonda, facing suttee – being burned to death on the funeral pyre of her husband, the former Rajah. (Thoughts of Brünnhilde’s immolation come to mind.) Louis Spohr had lived in a spare room of the Geyer family home in Dresden when Richard was a boy and, much later, he conducted the earliest performances of Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser in Kassel. In his autobiography, Spohr recalled a dinner party attended by the young Wagner.

“We were most pleased with Wagner” wrote Spohr, “who seems every time more and more amiable, and whose intellectual culture on every variety of subject is really wonderful.”

In 1837-38 Wagner began work on, but didn’t finish, a comic Singspiel called ‘Men’s Cunning is Greater than Women’s Cunning, or The Happy Bear Family’. It was based on Women’s Wiles, one of the Tales from a Thousand and One Nights. He changed the setting from Baghdad to ‘a large German town’, the story was Europeanised, and some of the characters were loosely modelled on Richard’s family members. This was his first personal engagement with the literature of the East, and it wouldn’t be his last.

In Saxony in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, there was a general fascination with the orient – its art and architecture, objects d’art, literature, religions and philosophies. And this was the physical environment in which the young Wagner discovered the world of his imagination. Today, we can differentiate easily among Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Persian cultures, but in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, such differences were only vaguely understood in the west, and national boundaries were not as we know them today. When people spoke of, say, ‘the Indies’, they were often lumping together all sorts of eastern cultures and traditions. This seems strange to us now, but in those days, it was a fact.

As a child living in Dresden from 1814 when his mother married Ludwig Geyer, Richard Wagner knew Pillnitz Castle, the summer residence on the Elbe of the Electors and Kings of Saxony. Geyer’s theatrical troupe performed there before Geyer died when Richard was just eight years old. The various buildings at Pillnitz, surrounded by a large public park, are notable for their chinoiserie decoration. The grounds feature a Chinese garden and a Chinese Pavilion, and the interiors include paintings of Chinese and Japanese scenes. The great trading companies of the 17th and 18th Centuries brought Chinese and Japanese export porcelain to Europe for the collections of kings and connoisseurs. These exquisite and, for a long time, mysteriously made objects inspired the founding in 1710 of Europe’s first hard-paste porcelain factory at Meissen in Saxony at the initiative of Augustus the Strong.

Wagner wasn’t interested in comical and patronising orientalism of the kind that inspired other works, including Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. Instead, even as a young man, he was drawn to a school of thought that linked German intellectual achievements with those of ancient India and Persia. His interest had been stimulated by Hermann Brockhaus who had married his sister Ottilie in 1836. Hermann was appointed to the chair of ancient languages and literature at Leipzig University, specialising in Persian and Sanskrit.

In the early 1850s, Wagner wrote to his former assistant August Röckel languishing in Waldheim Prison after the failed Dresden uprising, about the poetry of the 14th Century Persian mystic, Hafiz, whose works were then being edited by Hermann Brockhaus, saying:
“Study Hafiz thoroughly; he is the greatest and most sublime philosopher. No one has ever been so cognizant of the Great Thing [he meant ‘love’] as positively and incontestably as he. There is only one thing which he eulogizes: and everything else is not worth a brass farthing, no matter how high and sublime it may call itself. Something similar will also become manifest in my Nibelungen.” Perhaps he had the following words of the poet in mind when working on the text of Das Rheingold: “Man of self, raised up with endless pride, we forgive thee – for love’s to thee denied”.

“My sleep is dreaming, my dreaming brooding, my brooding the mastery of knowledge”. With these words, Erda addresses the Wanderer in Act Three of Siegfried, and her words associate her with the eastern practice of meditation. She implies that, through contemplation or meditation it is possible to abandon the world of the mind and senses – the world of time and space – and achieve wisdom. Wagner believed that Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian mystics all shared this understanding. Wotan thinks that success, life and power are all that matters, but Erda tells him that all things that are, will end; he is not the ultimate controller of his fate. Hafiz describes the futility of resisting an appointed destiny and offers only one solution: “Cast the world aside, yes abandon it”. In 1882, Wagner observed: “The greatest heroic power lies in resignation”. And that, of course, is what ultimately occurs to Wotan.

In 1814, Goethe had been drawn to the poetry of Hafiz and used it in his collection of twelve lyrical poems West-Eastern Divan, symbolizing exchanges and mixtures between the orient and the occident.

Philologists like Brockhaus had discovered that Sanskrit – the liturgical and scholarly language of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism – had much in common with European languages; all are members of the Indo-European linguistic family. Some went further, arguing that there were also cultural connections via a common Indo-European ancestry.

The blending of Christian legends and sacraments with Buddhist legends and teachings is an extraordinary idea, but Wagner saw no conflict in this at all. There were, after all, many common elements in Christian and Buddhist morality, if not theology. Wagner cited contemporary research “proving that pure uncontaminated Christianity is no more and no less than a branch of that venerable Buddhist religion”. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had subscribed to this view as early as 1813, the year of Wagner’s birth, writing: “Whatever anyone may say, Christianity has Indian blood in its veins”. But he went further, saying: “We find what we have called ‘the denial of the will to life’ still more fully developed, more comprehensively expressed, and more vividly presented in the ancient Sanskrit writings than could be done in the Christian church and the western world. … [this] is perhaps to be ascribed chiefly to its not being restricted by an element quite alien to it, as is Jewish doctrine within Christianity.” That was Schopenhauer in 1813.

Following the arrival of Christianity in Europe during the Early Middle Ages, antisemitism became deeply entrenched, including during the Crusades, the Reformation and even the Enlightenment. It was hardly surprising therefore, that when evidence of links between Christian doctrine and ancient, far-eastern religions emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century, this attracted the attention of serious thinkers like Schopenhauer and Wagner. It was a major development in European scholarship, and there is no doubt that Wagner’s most important works, from the mid-1850s until the end of his life, made use of it.

The argument went that Buddhist ideas had flowed westwards after the spread of Alexander’s empire to the Indus in 327 BC and had influenced Christian doctrine. Certainly, after Alexander, Western artistic values began to influence Indian art, particularly in the Gandhara region of North-West India, which Alexander had conquered. If some ideas were moving Eastwards, undoubtedly others were moving Westwards. In the 3rd Century BC the Buddhist Indian emperor Ashoka, who had close links with the Greeks, sent missionaries not only to lands adjacent to India but also to Syria, Egypt, and Greece. Whether or not Buddhism did, in fact, have any influence on Christianity, all that matters for our purposes is that Wagner believed that it did, and this belief shaped his works.

During the First Century AD, Buddhism spread westwards towards Egypt and the Mediterranean, and eastwards to China, where it became the most influential religion for many centuries. Even today, surprisingly, China has the world’s largest Buddhist population.

Tristan und Isolde, completed in 1859, and Parsifal, finished in January 1882, drew inspiration from the Hindu Upanishads in the case of Tristan, and Buddhist stories and teachings in the case of Parsifal. Schopenhauer was extravagant in his praise of the Upanishads, Hindu treatises written in Sanskrit between 800 and 400 BC and sometimes called the ‘Himalayas of the Soul’. He praised them especially for their recognition that our senses are only able to grasp a representation of the world, and that this representation (let’s think of it as the illusory world of ‘day’) stands like a veil between the subject and the hidden world of timeless reality, which Tristan and Isolde would call the world of ‘night’.

When Tristan and Isolde sing: “Then I myself am the world”, they are drawing on one of Schopenhauer’s favourite passages in the Upanishads: “I am all these creatures, and besides me there is no other being”, illustrating how someone contemplating nature necessarily draws nature into himself, transcending individuality and joining with the sublime. This image also finds an echo in the Good Friday scene in Parsifal when Gurnemanz draws even the humblest things in nature – the grasses and flowers of the meadow – into a greater reality. In both instances the music achieves an overwhelmingly beautiful ‘untroubled, pure harmony’, to use Wagner’s phrase.

In Parsifal we find a veritable cornucopia of Buddhist images. The innocent fool’s journey towards enlightenment follows that of the Buddha who, in his younger life as the prince Siddhartha, had left the sheltered environment of his father’s palace and encountered the sufferings of the world in the form of sickness, old age and death. Parsifal too, having left his mother’s protection, encounters these truths in the form of the wounded Amfortas, the immensely old Titurel, and Kundry’s shocking revelation that his mother Herzeleide had died pining for him.

A collection of Buddhist legends dating from the first century AD contains the story of a wounded swan, whose moral lesson, as in Parsifal, was the need for compassion, and its role in easing the suffering of all beings. The swan, used in both Parsifal and Lohengrin, has other significance too – as a symbol of the transmigration of souls which Wagner said, “almost certainly expresses the truth”. The swan in Parsifal is given the same distinctive music as the transformed swan in Lohengrin, which implies that it too may be a reincarnation of a human soul. “The orchestra must be like an invisible soul”, said Wagner, referring to this scene at the time of the Parsifal rehearsals in 1882.

In the Buddhist legends we also find the story of Mara, the tempter figure who, with the help of his seductive daughters, had tried to prevent the sage Siddhartha from achieving enlightenment. The imagery in Act Two of Parsifal, including that of Klingsor and the flower maidens, owes much to the Mara legend. Parsifal overcomes the knights, resists the maidens, and recovers the holy spear when Klingsor hurls it at him. Miraculously, the spear remains poised above Parsifal’s head. In the Buddhist legend, it was not a spear but a discus (some say thunderbolt) that was thrown by Mara at the meditating Buddha. This missile was transformed into a canopy of flowers that remained suspended over the Buddha’s head. Klingsor, like Mara, is defeated and, according to the stage directions, the castle sinks ‘as if by an earthquake’ and the garden withers to a desert; or as the Mara legend puts it ‘rocks, logs and trees are scattered everywhere’.

The Buddhist texts contain graphic descriptions of paradise, a place where beings go as a reward for especially worthy past lives, before returning to the world and the inevitable cycle of suffering. One account describes the giant flowers that grow in that celestial place, and we read of the nymphs’ “soft words, tremulous calls, wanton swayings, sweet laughter, butterfly kisses and seductive glances”, descriptions that could easily apply to Klingsor’s magic garden and its inhabitants in Act Two of Wagner’s Parsifal.

Kundry is a tormented creature, longing for sleep and death but condemned to endless rebirths. In the First Act, Gurnemanz wonders aloud whether she carries a burden of sin resulting from actions in a previous life, which is a curious remark for a Christian knight to make. In time we learn that in a former life she had laughed at the Saviour on the cross, which is the very antithesis of compassion. His own compassionate gaze fell on her, she says, and now she seeks him again ‘from world to world’ – which is to say, from life to life. Even the innocent fool Parsifal declares in the final act: “Ah! What transgression, what burden of guilt must my foolish head have borne from eternity.” In the First Act, he reveals that he has had many names but has forgotten them all; and in the Third Act he speaks of all that lives and will live again. Reincarnation is definitely woven into the Parsifal story.

The parable of Kundry, Amfortas and Parsifal is an illustration of fundamental truths recognised by the Buddha, that worldly existence is suffering, and that the cause of this suffering is desire and attachment to worldly things. But the Buddha also taught that release from suffering is possible through the ‘blowing out’ of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. Klingsor had revealed the means by which Kundry could achieve this release when he told her: “He that rejects you will set you free.” By rejecting every stratagem and enticement that Kundry could devise, Parsifal not only frees himself from the wounding affliction of desire but also ‘blows out’ the fires of Kundry’s suffering. He is therefore, truly the instrument of her redemption. And so, Western myths and Eastern beliefs come together in Parsifal in a unique way.

In May 1868, in the diary he called ‘The Brown Book’, Wagner jotted down some correlations between Hindu/Buddhist concepts, dramatic imagery and modes of musical expression. He identified truth and reality with night, and selfishness and illusion with day – both central to Tristan und Isolde. Interestingly too, Wagner equated Nirvana with ‘untroubled, pure harmony’, the most perfect example of which comes in the final bars of Isolde’s Verklärung or ‘transfiguration’, the so-called Liebestod, when she is joined at last with her Tristan in mystical union.

Wagner first read Schopenhauer’s ‘The World as Will and Representation’ in September 1854 and found in it a coherent explanation of his treatment of Wotan. His intention – which he had arrived at instinctively – had been to show nothing less than the breaking of the god’s proud spirit, not by an external and greater force but by ‘willing his own destruction’, something that Schopenhauer would call the annihilation of the will – the negation of compulsive wanting, striving, and yearning that leads inevitably to disappointment and pain. The Buddha would have called it the renunciation of craving and desire, which lies at the root of suffering.

The first European scholar to provide a comprehensive and informed account of Buddhism was the Frenchman Eugène Burnouf, who in 1844 published his Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism. It was this book that Wagner devoured during a period of convalescence in Zürich in the winter of 1855, before sketching out his unfinished Buddhist opera Die Sieger inspired by Burnouf’s material. “What a shameful place our entire learning takes” Wagner told Mathilde Wesendonck, “confronted with these purest revelations of most noble humanity in the old orient”.

Interestingly, one of the first things that his son, Siegfried, did on reaching adulthood was to travel to the Far East in 1892, visiting Canton, Macao, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and the Philippines. Siegfried’s watercolour paintings have survived, depicting Buddhist temples in China, amongst other things.

Wagner’s interest in Buddhism was no passing fad, and as late as October 1882, just four months before his death, he told Cosima that Buddhism was a flowering of the human spirit, against which everything that followed was decadence. For Wagner, who lived in exile for much of his creative life and had become seriously disenchanted with politics, Buddhism was a way of answering his three most fundamental questions: What does it mean to be German? What does it mean to be Christian? What is art? In his view, Buddhism was not remote from German thought but intrinsic to it.

This connection can be demonstrated by one piece of music composed for Die Sieger that ended up in the Ring. According to Cosima Wagner’s diary entry for 20 July 1878, it had been composed for the Buddha himself. These days, it is misleadingly labelled ‘the motive of the world’s inheritance’, but it was described by Wagner’s assistant Heinrich Porges as the ‘redemption theme’. The phrase in question is first heard in its grandest form in the Wanderer’s final scene with Erda. What he once resolved in despair he will now do gladly. And at that point, we hear in the orchestra the majestic theme once intended for the Buddha. During the first rehearsals, Wagner said that this passage “must sound like the proclamation of a new religion”. Indeed, it does.

Wagner was especially attracted to Die Sieger’s secondary theme of reincarnation as a vehicle for his compositional technique of emotional reminiscence or leitmotifs. “Only music” he said, “can convey the mysteries of reincarnation.” Die Sieger was never developed beyond a sketch, but some of its ideas and characters were used again in Parsifal.

The clearest and perhaps most important Buddhist connection with the Ring came with a change to the text for the closing scene of Götterdämmerung in 1856, written contemporaneously with the sketch for Die Sieger, and within months of the first sketch for Parsifal. By 1856, Wagner’s preoccupation was no longer with redemption through love but with redemption through renunciation. And, of course, the vehicle for this change was Brünnhilde.

Consider how Brünnhilde was depicted in the medieval German Nibelungenlied of 1200 AD, and how great the difference is between that depiction and the way she came to be presented in Wagner’s Ring. In the Nibelungelied, she is Queen Brunhild of Iceland, renowned not only for her beauty but also for her great strength, as well as for her skill at throwing the javelin, hurling a weight, and leaping a great distance. Any man who sought to marry her was required to better her in these three contests. The prize for victory would be Brunhild herself, but the penalty for defeat was the loss of one’s head. Many would-be suitors had challenged the fair Brunhild but no one had defeated her, and all had lost their heads. This might remind you of the Turandot story! King Gunther wanted to woo Brunhild, but Siegfried advised against this and, out of loyalty to his expected brother-in-law (for he wanted to marry Gunther’s sister, Kriemhild) he offered to assist Gunther. With the aid of a cloak of invisibility and the strength of twelve men, Siegfried did win Brunhild for Gunther, although he came to regret this. The remainder of the Nibelungenlied features details that also appear in Götterdämmerung, but, again, the biggest change is to be found in the closing pages of Wagner’s opera shaped by his encounters with eastern beliefs and, in particular, with the teachings of Buddhism.

In Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the nature of Brünnhilde’s insight which had transformed her from an insanely angry woman at the end of Act II to the redeeming figure at the conclusion of Act III, is explained in a remark by Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck in 1858 about his difficulties in depicting the Buddha in Die Sieger.

“I have now solved the problem” he wrote, “by having him reach one last remaining stage in his development whereby he is seen to acquire a new insight, which – like every insight – is conveyed not by abstract associations of ideas but by intuitive emotional experience; in other words, by a process of shock and agitation suffered by his inner self; as a result, this insight reveals him in his final progress towards a state of supreme enlightenment”.

In a prose draft for the ending of Götterdämmerung, Wagner wrote as follows:

“Brünnhilde, having set fire to the pile of wood, turns to those left behind: she wishes him who has fallen [that is, Siegfried] no re-birth; in contrast, she prophesies for Hagen a long series of re-births, before he attains the salvation to which she is now going; for she knows that she will not be re-born”.

In the metrical version intended for singing (though in fact never set to music), Brünnhilde refers to herself as the ‘enlightened one’, and she anticipates her own release from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. The text that Wagner wrote for her reads:
“I depart from the home of desire, I flee forever from the home of delusion; the open gates of eternal becoming I close behind me: to the holiest chosen land, [she means Nirvana], free from desire and delusion, the goal of world-wandering, redeemed from rebirth, the enlightened one now goes.”
World-wandering and redemption from rebirth also feature in Parsifal.

And how did Brünnhilde achieve this enlightenment? “The blessed end of all things eternal” she says, “do you know how I attained it? Grieving love’s deepest suffering opened my eyes: I saw the world end.”
“I saw the world end” doesn’t mean that Götterdämmerung is about the apocalypse or nuclear war or any other geo-political encounter, although some productions do show Valhalla disappearing in an atomic mushroom cloud! Rather, it describes Brünnhilde’s pain – the ‘shock and agitation’ (Wagner calls it) of Siegfred’s death, or, as Brünnhilde herself puts it: “Grieving love’s deepest suffering”. This is what has brought her to a state of enlightenment.

Brünnhilde’s insight was born of her overwhelming, grieving love for Siegfried. And that, to my mind, is what the end of the Ring is all about. So Brünnhilde exemplifies Wagner’s application of the eastern religions to his greatest works for the stage, and the final orchestral ending of Götterdämmerung expresses the composer’s most profound thoughts and his hopes for all humanity.

Peter Bassett

Comments are closed.