Theosophy – July 1896



It has already been pointed out in the previous article that Wagner's work, like that of all true artists, is in one aspect the expression of his own inner development. It will be well, therefore, in approaching the subject of his first mystical drama, briefly to trace the events of his early life which led up to the point where the mysterious figure of the lonely seaman first presented itself appealingly to his inner gaze. (1)

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born of humble parents, at Leipzig, on May 22d, 1813, and began to sketch out tragedies on the model of the Greeks, at the age of eleven. He also learnt English in order to study Shakespeare, and wrote a grand tragedy which was "almost nothing but a medley of Hamlet and King Lear. Two and-forty human beings died in the course of this piece," he remarks, "and I found myself compelled, in its working-out, to call the greater number back as ghosts, since otherwise I should have been short of characters for my last act." A little later he heard Beethoven's music to Goethe's Egmont and it made such a profound impression upon him that he promptly determined to become a musician in order to provide his "now completed tragedy with suchlike music." In his sixteenth year he "was on fire with the maddest mysticism" and had visions by day in semi-slumber in which the Keynote, Third, and Dominant of the scale took on living form and revealed to him "their mighty meaning."

At eighteen no one had a better knowledge of Beethoven's works, and such was his application to the study of theory that he soon mastered all the technical difficulties of composition. He married an actress at the age of twenty-six and became shortly afterwards musical director of the theatre at Riga. During his leisure he began to sketch an opera of the largest dimensions, based on Bulwer Lytton's Rienzi, with which he hoped to win fame at Paris. He also about this time came across Heine's version of The Flying Dutchman, which at once exercised a weird fascination over him, though not till later did it acquire an insistent force.

Rienzi and the fame it might bring him was the greater attraction and he followed the conventional operatic lines only, striving to outdo in magnificence all that had hitherto been attempted. Yet he felt a genuine sympathy for the Roman Tribune, and there are many fine passages in the work which foreshadow his future genius. When it was nearly finished he set off for Paris by sea and the stormy passage he encountered brought the figure of the Flying Dutchman vividly before his mind once more. "From my own plight," he writes, "he won a psychic force; from the storms, the billows, the sailors' shouts and the rock-bound Northern shore, a physiognomy and color." These impressions receded for a time before the glittering show of Paris, but the refusal of Rienzi and the poverty and dejection which followed threw him back on his inner self where the true artist lay hidden. He thus describes the transition period of his career: —

"It was a sorrowful mirth — the mood to which I then was turned; it bore me the long since brooding Flying Dutchman.

"This was the first Folk-poem that forced its way into my heart and called on me as man and artist to point its meaning and mould it in a work of art. From here begins my career as poet and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts.

"My course was new; it was bidden me by my inner mood, and forced upon me by the pressing need to impart this mood to others. In order to enfranchise myself from within outwards, i. e., to address myself to the understanding of like-feeling men, I was driven to strike out for myself, as artist, a path as yet not pointed me by any outward experience; and that which drives a man hereto is Necessity, deeply felt, incognizable by the practical reason, but overmastering Necessity."

What, then, is this Flying Dutchman? Wagner tells us that in him the "Spirit of the Folk" has effected a blend of the characters of Ulysses and the Wandering Jew, and that they all symbolize the weary Soul tossed hither and thither on the waves of earthly experience. As the embodiment of the "Will to Live" this Dutchman has sworn that he will round the Cape despite a fearful gale, and has thus brought upon himself the Curse that he shall battle with the unresting waves for ever.

The Phantom Ship with blood-red sails may well stand for the body we inhabit on this plane of "illusion" with its propelling forces of desire and passion. But every seven years the wanderer may go ashore and seek redemption from the Curse at the hands of a woman "faithful unto death," — the "Will to Die." Wagner significantly says that it is the "yearning for death that spurs him on to seek this woman" Voyage after voyage in the Phantom Ship; incarnation after incarnation, and the "Will to Live" is nearly exhausted. The Drama opens as the Dutchman draws near for the last time to the haven where he will at length find rest.

The Overture prepares us for what is coming in wondrous and eloquent tone-language. It opens with the Curse motif; a bare fifth on the keynote and dominant, accompanied by stormy wind and raging sea which presently die down, and the beautiful motif of Redemption steals gently forth, soon to be lost again in the roar of the storm as the listener is prepared for what is to come. The storm is abating as the Phantom Ship drops her anchor in the Norwegian haven, and the Dutchman steps ashore once more. He has met on the voyage a native skipper, Daland, who, moved by his sad tale and tempted by his wealth, has agreed that his daughter Senta ein treues Weib shall become his wife.

This Haven represents the inner shrine of the soul, the quiet spot where alone rest from the storms of life is found. Senta sits at home with her spinning maidens and gazes sadly at the portrait of the Dutchman which hangs on the wall, singing, in the tones of the Curse motif, of his unhappy fate; then, as she tells of her desire to save him, the beautiful Redemption motif is, heard.

Presently her father arrives with his mysterious guest. The meeting is of the deepest significance; they stand gazing at each other transfixed; and here in the very first of his occult dramas Wagner gives us a hint of reincarnation, for the Dutchman breaks the silence with the words:

"Like a faint vision through the dim past stealing,
This maiden's face appears to me;"

And Senta murmurs:

"Dwell I in worlds with wondrous fancies teeming?
Is this a vision of the past?"

Yet even now, on the threshold of union with his higher nature, doubt of its divine power still harasses the earthly wanderer. But the motive is unselfish, for he fears to involve her in his doom. He endeavors to dissuade her, but she is immovable:

"To whom my troth I give unfearing,
I'll true be unto death."

Senta has a lover, Eric, with whom she now has a stormy interview. He represents "selfish desire," and bitterly resents her attachment to the stranger. The latter, intruding by accident, thinks Senta has betrayed him, and in the despair of doubt he rushes off to the ship, whose sails are already set. But the inner nature is now too strong; Senta follows him, and, in a supreme act of self-sacrifice, throws herself into the sea and breaks the spell.

The power of illusion is conquered; the Phantom Ship sinks with all her crew, and the glorified forms of Vanderdecken and Senta are seen rising from the waves, united in that "mystic death" which is but the birth of the soul into a higher state.

In the closing bars of the music we hear the Curse motif, changed by the addition of the major third, into a joyful shout of victory, as the now liberated Soul returns to the state of Unity from which it first emanated.

Such is a very brief epitome of this soul-stirring myth, moulded by a master-hand into a living work of art which must appeal to all.

(To be continued)


1. The quotations which follow are Wagner's own words. — B. C. (return to text)