Monday 8 May 2023

Wagner & Desire

All things partake in the Oneness of Reality and therefore all things are interconnected. The sacred threads that weave through the various art forms reveal this truth. The interconnectivity of the ancient art forms is best depicted in the paintings of the nine muses of Greek mythology, who dance in a circle with joined hands to the music of Apollo’s lyre. The 19th century German composer, Richard Wagner had excelled in the binding of all art forms into a coherent whole. Through his works, he delved to the essence of the human condition, and along the way, presented a synthesis of the arts such as had never been experienced before. In this short essay, we will explore some of the spiritual and philosophical inspirations for Wagner’s operatic works and how the underlying themes of the Will and Desire can not only shed light on our human drama but reveal the correspondence of music with Nature.


Often the profoundest insights into the mysteries of existence appear to us in the simplest of guises: a crimson-petalled rose, a fractured prism of light, the rotating symbol (e.g. Tai Chi and the Ouroboros). But intimations of such deep significance also appear to us through the most familiar of sounds. In many cultures, the sounding of bells marks life’s transitions---from celebratory marriage bells to the sombre tolling of funeral bells. However, Buddhist temple bells (called Bonsho), have always carried the analogy of the impermanence of Man. The reverberations begin from an indefinable moment and resonate until dissipating into the silence from which it emerged. This interval comprises the totality of a person’s earthly life; a life which comes into being with a great cry, makes a noise in the world for a brief time, and comes to an end as its energy dims and diminishes toward Death. Such reminders of our transient nature impel us to regard life as valuable and intensely meaningful. It also reinforces the need to view ourselves with humility in the face of the cosmos.

The 19th-century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the first Europeans to encounter the ancient writings of Buddhism and Hinduism. These teachings informed his worldview and his contributions to philosophy. Although his understanding of these religious systems was not particularly orthodox, Schopenhauer became an instrumental philosophical link between the East and West—a divide much spoken about, but ultimately illusory in its deepest analysis. Schopenhauer’s incorporation of Buddhist and Hindu ideas heavily influenced the trajectory of Western philosophy as well as the life and work of German composer, Richard Wagner.

Many Buddhistic themes regarding reincarnation and karmic energies course through Wagner’s operas, particularly in Der Ring des Nibelungen (referred to here simply as The Ring Cycle) and Parsifal. In fact, many scholars, including a practising Buddhist monk, have hypothesized quite compellingly, that Parsifal is in fact the final opera of the Ring Cycle.1 It is argued that several of the major characters from the Ring Cycle reappear in reincarnated form as the main actors in the Parsifal opera, having to counterbalance, through specific meritorious (kusala) karmic deeds, the evil or non-meritorious (akusala) karma they brought into being at the beginning of the drama. These Buddhist notions were not accidentally stumbled upon. Wagner became familiar with Buddhist writings through the works of Schopenhauer which he industriously read and reread throughout his life.

It should be noted that Wagner’s intentions for the Ring Cycle (including Parsifal) was the creation of what he termed a “Bühnenweihfestspiel” or “stage festival play”. Combining the sacred symbolism and ritual of ancient Greek stage tragedy, with the musicality of Beethoven and poetic genius of Shakespeare, and further informed by Buddhist-inspired metaphysics and philosophy, he aimed at a “total synthesis of the arts” (Gesamtkunstwerk). In his operatic works music, theatre, aesthetics, philosophy, and mysticism hold hands and share the stage in portraying the human drama.