Theosophy – April 1896

RICHARD WAGNER'S MUSIC DRAMAS: I — Basil Crump

I - INTRODUCTORY

Art has ever been one of the moral teachers of humanity and its highest function is probably the drama as presented to us in this century by Richard Wagner, in whose extraordinary genius we find the most wonderful combination of arts that is known to history. He was a poet, musician and dramatist of the highest order, and in his prose works he bases all his theories on principles which are practically identical with those of Theosophy. His aim was to bring all arts to the service of the drama in order that it might be, like the Greek tragedy, "the noblest expression of the people's consciousness;" and he represents the culmination of an artistic evolution which is easily traced. In The Caves and Jungles of Hindustan the mysterious Gulab Sing says that music stands at the head of all the arts and has almost everything to do with the Vedas, the Sama Veda consisting entirely of hymns sung at the sacrifices to the gods. Pythagoras brought the art to Greece and Italy, and taught that the Logos was the centre of unity and source of harmony, and that the world was evolved out of chaos by the power of sound or harmony and constructed according to the principles of musical proportion. In Greece, however, there was no musical genius to join hands with such great dramatists as Eschylus and Sophocles, and so Greek tragedy had no more assistance from the divine art than could be provided by the chorus and a few primitive instruments. Like the Hindus they had more notes in the scale than we now have, but their harmony was crude and elementary to a degree. Then came the development of music once again as a separate art, chiefly through the great German composers, beginning with Bach and culminating in Beethoven, who in his last great symphony felt so imperiously the need of words to fully express the brotherhood that stirred his innermost being that he burst into song with Schiller's words, "Oh, ye millions, I embrace ye! Here's a kiss to all the world!" Music was now a full-fledged entity ready to take her proper place in the drama. The time was ripe; the greatest musical genius of the age had sounded the call, and Richard Wagner came to complete the work by reestablishing the Greek drama with the added power and glory of music. Hard and bitter was the fight with musical and especially operatic conventionality, but the soul that came to the work was that of a hero of old; he wielded Siegfried's weapon, the sword "Needful," which shore through all difficulties. For half a century he fought, says a biographer, "the bitterest opposition that ever obstructed the path of genius," and lived to see the beginning of his triumph. His greatest work, "The Nibelung's Ring," was first performed at Bayreuth in its entirety a few months after the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York.

The study of Wagner's works in rendered comparatively easy owing to his voluminous prose works, in which he describes not only his theories but also his own inner development. The chief theme of his dramas is the working of the two principles in human nature, known as, the Eternal Manly and the Eternal Womanly, or Creation and Redemption. He assigns poetry and music respectively to those two elements, speaking always of the Poet as the "man" who is redeemed from his egotism by the "loving woman," Music. This duality we know to be a truth on the mental plane, and we see it exemplified in Wagner, whose mind shows a remarkable union of the two faculties. Such a union when it embraces all experience produces the Adept, for the Thinker is sexless. First Creation, then Redemption; first the Poem, then the Music: such was Wagner's method of work. Following closely, as he himself says, the guidance of his inner self, he worked in accordance with natural laws, and herein was the secret of his strength.

He tells us that, having written the poem, the music then sprang naturally from the subject-matter, each mood (stimmung) being represented by a definite theme (leit-motif). These themes he wove into a harmonious tissue in strictest accordance with the exigencies of the drama, and it therefore forms an essential part of an entirely purposeful whole, and cannot fitly be compared with absolute music. It was the symbolic legend of the Flying Dutchman which aroused Wagner's inner nature and with it the burning desire to work for the elevation of humanity rather than for personal fame. The events of his youth leading up to the point where the figure of the lonely seaman first appealed to him will be traced in the next article. From then onwards he forsook all historical matter and sought only to portray the Tragedy of the Soul by using his marvellous gifts to expound the ancient myths and make them instinct with new life.

Too much emphasis cannot be laid on the fact that Wagner's dramas, like the Bhagavad-Gita, represent the dual, man, Krishna-Arjuna, on the field of battle. This is the more necessary since the conventional and narrow-minded charge Wagner with cloaking immorality under the glamor of his art; also because anything touching the dual nature in man is apt to be confused with the abominable doctrines and practices of the Lake Harris school and a certain class of Spiritualists.

Now Wagner said: "The incomparable thing about the mythos is that it is true for all time;" it sprang from a longing in man for "a seizable portrait of things, to know therein his very own essence — the god-creative essence." So in his dramas we are lifted out of the rut of petty personalities and made to feel that his characters are primal types in the great world-drama. It is perhaps something more than chance that he embodied his teachings in seven works, which show a steady advance in occult knowledge as well as a rapidly increasing power over the forces he wielded. He evolved the same philosophical ideas as Schopenhauer before he had read a line of his works, supplying, however, the element of redemption which is lacking in the thought of the great philosopher. Emerson says that "art universally is the spirit creative," and it was this image-making faculty of the mind which Wagner used as poet combined with the intuitional power obtained through the spirit of music which made him an optimistic artist. His contemporary, Schopenhauer, on the other hand used his analytical, reasoning faculties and through the over-development of the lower mind became a pessimist. Certainly no more striking example could be had of the totally opposite conclusions which may be reached from the same basic concepts.

Those in a position to know say that Wagner was a conscious occultist, and certainly he shows in his later works a most remarkable knowledge of the inner workings of the soul and of the forces of nature. He gives a hint or two as to this, speaking of a period of "conscious artistic will" to follow a path he had struck "with unconscious necessity." His was a great task nobly done, and the might of his beneficent influence has yet to be felt in its full strength; for he saw the future and worked for it.

(To be continued)


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