Richard Wagner’s interest in the East had been stimulated by his brother-in-law, the orientalist Hermann Brockhaus, who had married Ottilie Wagner in 1836. It was the Brockhaus family firm that had first published Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical masterpiece The World as Will and Representation, a work destined to make a profound impression on the composer.
Schopenhauer’s knowledge of the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhist scriptures dated from the end of 1813, by which time he had formulated many of his own insights from the vantage point of Western philosophy. Nevertheless, he relished the discovery that his views had much in common with key doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism.
There is an interesting parallel here in the relationship between Wagner’s ideas and Schopenhauer’s writings. The impact of those writings on the composer sprang less as a direct source of ideas but from the fact that they seemed to confirm and clarify notions that were already apparent to him, though difficult to explain. Wagner first read The World as Will and Representation in 1854, and found in it a coherent explanation of his treatment of Wotan. His intention had been to show nothing less than the breaking of the god’s proud spirit by, what Schopenhauer would call, the annihilation of the will—the negation of compulsive 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.
During the last three decades of his life, Wagner demonstrated a serious interest in the two great religions of India. He cited contemporary research suggesting that Buddhist ideas had flowed westward after the spread of Alexander’s empire to the Indus in 327 B.C., and had influenced Christian doctrine (a view shared by Schopenhauer). This notion shaped Parsifal which, despite its overtly Christian setting, is replete with Buddhist imagery. Tristan und Isolde contains echoes of both Buddhism and the Upanishads.
For Wagner, Buddhism was not remote from German thought but in harmony with it, something that was demonstrated in one splendid musical passage composed for his unfinished Buddhist opera, Die Sieger. This music ended up in Siegfried. According to Cosima Wagner’s diaries, it had been written for the Buddha himself. The phrase in question is first heard in the Wanderer’s final scene with Erda. He wants her to tell him how to stop a turning wheel, but she cannot help him. In Buddhist teachings, the turning wheel of Karma is the inexorable working out of the consequences of one’s actions. After a pause, the Wanderer tells Erda that he is no longer concerned about the end of the gods and, in fact, consciously wills it. We then hear in the orchestra the so-called “world inheritance” theme once intended for the Buddha.
The most significant Buddhist influence on the Ring came in 1856 with a revised text for the closing scene of Götterdämmerung when Brünnhilde, made wise through suffering and love, refers to herself as the “enlightened one.” Eventually though, words proved inadequate, and Wagner left it to the orchestra alone to articulate the sublime ending to the whole drama.