How Richard Wagner became “the high priest of a dark new religion”

A photo portrait of Richard Wagner by Franz Hanfstaengl, in 1871.

Since the triumphant creation of Tristan and Isolda, in 1865, in Munich, the “phenomenon” Richard Wagner (1813 -1883) never ceased to provoke an unleashing of passions. In the 1970s, there were already more than 50,000 books devoted to the subject. Artists, thinkers, philosophers, poets – from Nieztsche to Julien Gracq, from Mallarmé to Proust, from Debussy and Saint-Saëns to Boulez – have offered their vision of this protean sphinx.

It is more than ever necessary to dissociate the musical corpus, this irresistible tidal wave which propels us from ghost shipe (1843) to Parsifal (1882), (too) numerous prose writings: several hundred essays, reviews and miscellaneous articles, in addition to an enormous correspondence. These testify to a life marked by almost permanent suffering, periods of exaltation following the extreme dejection of a man caught in the trap of most often aberrant contradictions.

A “demon” turned towards Jesus and Buddha

In modern language, the character is manic-depressive but he still corresponds much more to the Greek idea of dæmon (“demon”), which fascinates and thwarts analysis. Wagner is “possessed” by a creative power, which knows no limit or guilt.

An insatiable reader endowed with a prodigious memory, he was the ideal receptacle for the ideological wanderings of the 19e century. His meetings with the anarchist Bakounine in 1849 or with the Comte de Gobineau, theoretician of racial inequality, in 1876, triggered the same enthusiasm on his part. Faced with the grandiose construction of his operas, his writings reflect a great confusion, which gives rise to all the polemics, but which will not have been enough, despite everything, to alter the dimension of genius.

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However, two figures light up the sky on this chaotic and often poisonous journey. The first, unexpected, is that of Buddha, a discovery linked to his meeting with Schopenhauer (remember in passing that Wagner was a vegetarian and a militant defender of the animal cause). The second is the image of a Jesus Christ “sublime, of divine essence but not identified with God”as the musicologist and composer Jacques Chailley points out (Parsifal by Richard Wagner. Initiatory operaBuchet-Chastel, 1979).

Two sketched opera projects will never see the light of day: jesus of nazarethin 1848, and the Buddhist drama Winnersthe libretto of which was completed at the time of Parsifal. Incidentally, one cannot overlook the disturbing coincidences of Wagner’s music with the melodic frameworks, the ragas, of Indian classical music: infinite melody, perpetual transformation of musical elements, loss of the traditional notion of musical time.

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