Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wagner and Buddha, Tristan and Isolde

Just over one hundred and fifty years ago Richard Wagner finished Tristan and Isolde, a work that many consider to be the greatest opera ever composed.  Less well known, is the fact that Tristan and Isolde can also be considered the first great artwork of western Buddhism.

From 1849 until 1858 Wagner spent almost ten of his most creative years in Zürich, Switzerland, as a German political refugee.  It was there in 1854 that he encountered Buddhism, via the work of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  Schopenhauer was the first mainstream European philosopher to take Hindu and Buddhist ideas seriously. His The World as Will and Idea had initially appeared nearly four decades earlier, in 1818, but had been all but ignored.  According to Schopenhauer’s Buddhist inspired ideas, behind the world of phenomena is one vast, timeless will.  All else, the world of perception and plurality, of space and time, objects and actions, is an illusion, the result of a process of individuation.  Schopenhauer even used the Buddhist term, “Maya” to describe this illusion. What is real is will, not phenomenal representations or Maya.  Most people live their lives within the veiled illusion of what is temporal and never discover reality. A blind attachment to temporal phenomena keeps the subject locked within the veil of illusion. To break free from this is possible, according to Schopenhauer, by means of detaching oneself from desire through the act of renunciation.

It is no exaggeration to say that Wagner reacted to this as if he had experienced an epiphany. His philosophical encounter with Schopenhauer and then Buddhism, changed the course of his career and, consequently, western music.  Many years later Wagner himself remembered his introduction to Schopenhauer’s thought as being “decisive for the rest of my life”. 
Wagner quickly threw himself into the study of the few primary works and secondary commentaries on Buddhism that were then available, reading not just in German but in French too.  Within a year he wrote that the deepest truths in history were those “purest revelations of most noble humanity in the old Orient”.  He followed Schopenhauer’s example and kept a statue of Buddha in his living room.  In 1856 he read Eugene Burnouf’s Introduction a l’histoire du bouddhisme and, in his memoirs, he remembered that “I even distilled from it the material for a dramatic poem which has remained with me ever since.”  This was, in fact, nothing less than a plan to write an opera about the Buddha, which he called The Victors.  He made a prose sketch of the three acts and it was clearly a work close to his heart, a project he would never quite give up on, but which would remain incomplete at the time of his death.  According to some recent commentators, however, he integrated most of the ideas that he had planned for The Victors into his final masterpiece, Parsifal. In 1883, while visiting Venice, he returned to his beloved project, The Victors, but died while writing at his desk.  His final words referred to the Buddha: “There is something pleasing about the legend which tells how even the Victorious and Perfect One (the Buddha) was persuaded into admitting women followers.”
There is no doubt that Wagner believed western civilization was suffering from the disease of materialism and its virtues had been warped through the pursuit of power.  He firmly believed that Eastern ideas, and in particular Buddhist thought, could save the west.  On a personal level he found consolation in Buddhism as he wrote: “Only the deeply wise postulation of the transmigration of souls could show me the consoling point at which all creatures will finally reach the same level of redemption”.  This belief in transmigration, an “appealing Buddhist doctrine” according to Wagner, came to influence his music. He perfected the use of leitmotivs, sequences of notes and chords that would be repeated throughout a work.  This is evident in his 16-hour opera The Ring of Nibelung, but became an essential part of his last, most metaphysical work, Parsifal.  By the time he came to compose this last work, he explained the use of the leitmotiv: “For the spirit of the Buddha, the previous lives of every being he meets are just as accessible as the immediate present…. I immediately recognized that this double existence could only be made clear to the feelings through the constant presence of audible musical reminiscences”.  As his wife, Cosimo Wagner, reported him as saying: “Only music is capable of rendering this, the mystery of reincarnation”.
By the summer of 1857 Wagner had reached the conclusion that to achieve nirvana would involve a turning away from the world of phenomena, with its senseless trivialities, and a renunciation of desire, especially sexual desire, would bring about salvation. Desire, including sexual desire, was something of which Wagner had plenty of experience. Although married, he had long been a serial adulterer.  His newest love, Mathilde Wesendonck, was young, intelligent, beautiful and married to Wagner’s multi-millionaire benefactor.  It is the happy confluence of Schopenhauer’s and Buddhist ideas, together with his increasingly erotically charged relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck, and the opportunity that this gave to practice renunciation, that led Wagner to Tristan and Isolde.  In the summer of 1857 Wagner commenced work on this, the greatest of operas. 
Mathilde Wesendonck by K. F. Sohn

Although the story is a medieval, Germanic tale, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is infused with Buddhist ideas.  The music alone is a lesson in Buddhist thought as it produces an aching desire in the listener, a yearning to satisfy this desire that is never fulfilled, but continually postponed until at last, with the final sound, discord is resolved and only silence remains. The opening chord, perhaps the most analyzed chord in music history, is known simply as “the Tristan chord”.  It produces two dissonances, evoking in the listener an inevitable aching desire for resolution, but this does not quite arrive.  Instead, one dissonance is resolved with the following chord, but not the other, and so one is left with the desire, the painful yearning for resolution, and a partial satisfaction that only leads to a growing, desire. And on it goes, an agonizing journey with partial fulfillment but never ending desire producing the suffering that is, according to Buddhists, a part of the fabric of the phenomenal world, until, at last, resolution is achieved, but only with the very final chord.  The music itself is Buddhist philosophy, not in words, but in musical chords.
Tristan and Isolde by J.W. Waterhouse

The lovers, Tristan and Isolde, attempt to achieve nirvana, or redemption, by fleeing the world of day and entering permanently into the world of night, a metaphor for the Buddhist act of renunciation or detachment. At first the lovers inhabit the phenomenal world of daylight, the world of illusion.  This light of day, the veil of illusion, in true Buddhist style, is the source of all pain.  As Tristan describes it:
               is there one grief
               or one pain
               that it does not awaken
               with its light? 
Night, a metaphor for the act of renunciation, is the place where the infinitude of will, and consequently the non-self, can be experienced.  Night lies beyond space and time, where knowledge and reason can be seen as nothing more than the veil of illusion.  Isolde sings to her lover how they will live in the night and experience:
               an end to deception
               where the presaged dream
               of delusion would vanish 
If one gives oneself to the dark, then those things of the daylight, like the pursuit of wealth and power, are scattered, in Tristan’s words:
             like barren dust in the sun 
The selfless love for each other that Tristan and Isolde feel in the realm of night is a metaphor for the discarding of the illusory, individual self.  They enter into the Buddhist realm of non-self. The opera ends when, with Tristan already dead, Isolde sings her now famous death song and is transfigured by a feeling of bliss as she enters into the vast wave of the world’s breath.  Her words must constitute one of the first times that Buddhist thought speaks in western art:
               In the surging swell
               in the ringing sound,
               in the vast wave
               of the world’s breath –
               to drown,
               to sink
               unconscious –
               Supreme bliss. 

Wagner finished Tristan and Isolde in Lucerne, Switzerland, in August 1859. The following year, in Paris, his new work was met with bafflement.  He felt alone and misunderstood and it had been years since any new work of his had reached the public. In a state of melancholy, he wrote to his muse, Mathilde Wesendonck: “I often turn my gaze towards the land of Nirvana.  But for me Nirvana turns rapidly to Tristan”.  In other words, for Wagner, to hear this exquisite music comes close to experiencing Nirvana.  We might disagree, but we can hardly doubt that Wagner was genuinely grappling with the Buddhist concepts that were than available to westerners.  He had started down a path that some are still following.

Wagner first recited the libretto for Tristan and Isolde and played the entire music on piano in Mathilde Wesendonck’s palatial villa overlooking Lake Zürich.  Today that villa, now known as the Rietberg Museum, is open to the public.  It is a museum of non-western art. By happy coincidence, this place that once saw the birth of the first great work of European Buddhist art, is now the home of an incomparable collection of Buddhist art. 
Villa Wesendonck, Zurich, 1857

For more on Wagner in Zurich see my A Stroll Through Wagner's Zurich


  1. Interesting, though I have read Wagner--at least after the Ring--renounced, to some degree, his earlier pagan and/or buddhistic beliefs. Schopenhauer's writings also influenced Nietzsche, and Nietzsche, while not giving his blessing to Gautama , seems to consider Buddhism worthier than judeo-christian tradition...

    That said, Schopenhauer's views on buddhism should not be considered equal to the new-agey leftist buddhism of 60s and 70s. Professional metaphysician I am not, but Schopenhauer most likely felt the eastern religions upheld a sort of immanent idealism closer to his own views--

  2. Hi J,
    Thanks for your comment and for putting a link to my article on your blog.
    I'm not sure about Wagner renouncing Buddhism after the Ring. The Ring itself is saturated with Buddhist and Schopenhaurian ideas. Even the musical score, with its hundreds of leitmotivs, signifies reincarnation (according to Wagner himself, not just according to me. Many believe that Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, was his most Buddhist. Then again, others see it as his most Christain - for instance Nietzche, who was disgusted by its Christianity and insipid nationalism - while others see it as a sort of gnostic, occultic work. Debussy considered it an esoteric work, literally. Hitler loved it but Goebbels banned it. Most recently Paul Scholfield has published a book claiming that Parsifal is actually the fifth opera of the Ring and that the entire cycle is Buddhist. I tend to agree to the extent that I think Wagner always continued to see himself, at least partly, as a Buddhist. A bad Buddhist maybe.
    You are of course right about Nietzche. He despised Christianity for giving so much importance to sympathy, an virtue according to him which implied a false sense of superiority. Buddhism, on the other hand, offers few false illusions.
    Thanks again for your comment.

  3. A brilliant piece of writing. Recently I was in Bonn and visited Beethoven's birthplace, reviving my interest in his 5th symphony and Mozart's 40th Symphony. I came to this page while searching for articles by Cosima Wagner.

    Much before even Buddha, six schools of philosophy had developed in India, in which time was considered as an illusion. There is no such thing as time. We need this concept when we have the need to measure a phenomenon- like our mortal life. As T.S.Eliot put it, all time is eternally present.

    Similarly space had no significance and the relativity of space was described in cosmic terms of movement of planets. Thus the earth would be a microscopic dust particle, and a life span could be no longer than a micro-second. The challenge for humanity thus was to create collective immortality through individual detachment, so that society could survive. Thanks.

  4. Thank you for your comment Janu. Indeed, India is the source of so many profound ideas and systems of thought and it is astonishing how often these are ignored by westerners.

  5. Great article. Thank you. I'm currently reading Bryan Magee's book, "The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy" where he elaborates on the ideas you bring up. However, one thing confounds me -- the business of sex being part of Desire and therefore needing to be renounced. And yet, sex serves as a great release for the lovers of Tristan and Isolde. As Magee writes (paraphrasing Schopenhauer's own thoughts): "Orgasm is not only the ultimate experience but a quasi-mystical one that carries us to the very centre of life's mystery."

    So is sex good or bad in the Schopenhaurian equation?

    And it goes without saying that Wagner himself was a very poor practicing Buddhist what with his profligate lifestyle and demanding only the best that money could buy. I wonder how he reconciled that with his newfound philosophy.

  6. Good point. I think sex or orgasm is quasi-mystical as magee says, but only in its sublimated symbolic form - when it is translated into art. This implies a denial of sex in its worldly sense, which, as you say, Wagner wasn't very good at doing. Thanks for you comment.

  7. Can the sublime be achieved without a rhetorical allusion to immortality in some form (in this case, Buddhist concepts)? Unfortunately, although the aria is great, for me the presence of ideology ("world-breath") in the lyrics weakens the humanity of a scene, which, like Ophelia's mad scene, already has a tenuous hold on reality.
    It's interesting but also somewhat disappointing to learn that Wagner linked the excellent mnemonic leitmotif technique with reincarnation.

    1. The ideology might be mistaken, but the music remains. I hope you can enjoy despite objections to some of the ideas.
      thanks for your comment Alphasun.

  8. Joseph Campbell introduced me to the Wagner-Schopenhauer-Nietzche-Gautama connection . Isn't Schopenhauer and Wagner doing what all beginner Buddhists do, confuse renunciation with abstinence? Applying end of life philosophy to all age groups is a great tragedy, each has its place. I see Tristan and Isolde (romantic) and Parsifal (compassion) as a duality and a progression (yes that seems paradoxical but everything can't be explained), up the chakra ladder. Giving up the one for the other aspersc risis. I am currently at that point so living this firsthand, not some intellectual exercise. Your article is helping me make more sense of my prior school philosophy and its influence (damage) from a personal perspective, and the east west connection.

    Buddhism saving the West...not so far fetched...I think it might save the entire planet, since it has always had respect for the natural world, embraced modern science, and that admits the by design its not so easy to see the big picture, if there even is one.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Richard. I'm glad you got something from the article. Good luck in your quest.

  9. Of all experiences in my seventy-six years, two memories of my adult life stand out as spiritually unique. They were brief sexual encounters with two different men, both unknown to me, at widely spaced different times and places.

    During those moments, I somehow crossed that frontier between the physical world of my "mortal illusions", passing freely into a realm of transcendent communion with two other beings . To this very day each erotic encounter has seemed at least mysterious, if not other worldly, perhaps even angelic.

    Since my early teen years, I have dwelled almost daily with the unresolved call of Tristan and Isolde. Its enigmatic music ceaselessly stirs within me, tugging at my consciousness as the years have morphed ever more distantly into memories.

    Yet, during all that time, two profoundly erotic "illusions", at once both Earthly and other worldly, have dwelled within me.

    Perhaps that transcendent realm of haunting emptiness and formless beauty awaits those among us who, in their own good time, enter unafraid.

    Richard Lager
    Colrain, MA

    1. Thanks for sharing these memories which have clearly had a profound impact on your life Richard. I can understand how the music of Tristan und Isolde speaks to them.

  10. A very interesting article and comments. I came across it while doing some reading before seeing the opera at the Royal Opera House earlier this week. It was the first time I had seen the opera, and I was left wondering just how well Tristan and Isolde did illustrate Schopenhauer’s philosophy.

    In Schopenhauer’s noumenal world there is no self, no individual will. Individuation is an aspect of the phenomenal world. So, in longing for the darkness what were they hoping for?

    One could imagine that they were hoping to have their desire for each other in some sense perpetually satisfied in the timeless world of the noumenal, the distractions of the phenomenal world having been taken away leaving only their souls together. A very romantic idea but is this Schopenhauer?

    Or were they hoping that the noumenal would bring an end to the suffering that their love for each other gave rise to, doing this through the cessation of their desire for each other? Not at all romantic, but perhaps more in line with the Scopenhauerian will.

    Another alternative is that I’ve missed the point!

    The influence of Buddhism on western philosophy is also very interesting. There is now a train of thought that David Hume encountered Buddhism while writing the Treatise at La Fleche, and that this may have influenced his own ‘no-self’ doctrine:

    “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.” Treatise

  11. Hi John,

    I hope you enjoyed the opera - sublime music. Yes, I think the option is that the darkness represents the end to suffering, therefore the end to desire, which is, as you pointed out, not very romantic.

    I've heard it said that there is a chance that Hume encountered a Jesuit who had been in the Far East as a missionary and who informed him of some of the basics regarding Buddhism.

    All the best,