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 –
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