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Richard Wagner and Buddhism

Wagner’s Buddhist opera project

Though Chinese and Japanese Buddhist texts had been studied by European missionaries from the 16th century, scriptures in Sanskrit were only researched and translated from the 1820s. Following Schopenhauer’s annotated reading list on Buddhism and his Indologist brother-in-law's advice, Wagner bought Eugène Burnouf’s Introduction à l'histoire du Buddhisme Indien (1844), the first book-length study of Sanskrit Buddhist texts. In Burnouf’s book Wagner encountered the Buddhist legend that inspired his Buddhist opera project of 1856.

Richard Wagner and Buddhism

by Urs App

Wil (Switzerland) / Paris: UniversityMedia, 2011. 102 pages. ISBN 978-3-906000-00-8. 

It is little known that Richard Wagner was among the very first Westerners to appreciate Buddhism and that he was the first major European artist to be inspired by this religion. In 1856, in the prime of his creativity, the 33-year-old artist read his first book about Buddhism. Madly in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, a beautiful but happily married woman, he conceived two deeply connected opera projects: Tristan und Isolde which he went on to compose and stage, and Die Sieger (The Victors), an opera scenario based on an Indian Buddha legend translated from Sanskrit. These two projects mirrored Wagner’s burning desire for the consummation of his love and the necessity of renunciation.

This Buddhist opera project occupied Wagner’s mind for decades until his death in 1883. Indeed, the composer’s last words were about the Buddha figure of his scenario and his relationship with women.

Urs App–the author of The Birth of Orientalism (University of Pennsylvania Press), winner of the 2012 book award of France’s Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and world-renowned authority on the early Western reception of Buddhism–tells the story of Richard Wagner’s creative encounter with Buddhism and explains the composer’s last words.

UniversityMedia offers both an English and a German edition of this book by Urs App. They are on sale at all major internet bookstores. For direct orders of 10 or more copies we offer discounts; please contact our representative.

A fascinating account of the events and motives that led to Wagner’s 25-year attempt to create a Buddhist opera: The Victors. Yet this book is much, much more. At its heart is a question that, as Mr. App shows, tormented Wagner’s life and pervaded his operas: is human suffering overcome through love, or through the renunciation of love, experienced as an endless craving that itself is the cause of suffering? Salvation through love or salvation from love? This is presented as Wagner’s fundamental personal and artistic dilemma.

Mr. App makes the compelling argument that this same contradiction: salvation through love versus salvation from love, is present in each of Wagner’s operas from The Flying Dutchman on. In Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, while the former dominates, the latter is never lacking. In Tristan and Isolde, The Ring of the Nibelung, Parsifal, and the never realized Buddhist opera The Victors, Mr. App states: “the tension between the wish to extinguish desire altogether and the will to attain its ultimate gratification became increasingly powerful as a dramatic engine.” … In sum: a volume that will be savored by all those interested in Richard Wagner, in Buddhism, in Schopenhauer, and in love. Amazon review

PDF file of the index of this book for download.