The Wagner Journal

Peter Bassett, The Use of Eastern Concepts in Wagner’s Stage Works

Peter Bassett, The Use of Eastern Concepts in Wagner’s Stage Works

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July 2020, Volume 14, Number 2, 4–24.

Richard Wagner’s greatest works were composed during the last three decades of his life, from the mid-1850s onwards, and it was no coincidence that during that time he embraced both the philosophical writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and the religious insights of ancient India. Nine months after declaring that he had become preoccupied with Schopenhauer ‘who […] has entered my lonely life like a gift from heaven’, he wrote to Franz Liszt in June 1855 extravagantly praising ‘the oldest and most sacred religion known to man […] Brahman teaching, and […] its final transfiguration in Buddhism, where it achieves its most perfect form’.

In the years after 1854, Wagner read a wide array of Buddhist and Brahmanic material including the Ramayana, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and he drew on these works in Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde, an unfinished Buddhist opera Die Sieger and Parsifal. So imbued was he with the spirit of these ancient texts that as late as June 1878, twenty-three years after his 1855 letter to Liszt and within five years of his own death, his wife Cosima wrote in her diary: ‘then he goes to the summerhouse, reads the Bhagavad-Gita, and then reads to me a fragment from it which I feel could have been written by him: he, too, is quiet in deed, active in repose; he, too, creates free from desire’.

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