Esoteric Aspects of Wagner’s Music & Libretti

Posted May 1, 2011
Mark Twain once quipped that Richard Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds. Not surprisingly, Rudolf Steiner had an entirely different attitude: for him Wagner’s music was profound and sacred. So much so that Steiner went so far as to say that Wagner’s Parsival opera was superior to the prose story of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s thirteenth century version, mainly due to the music.(5)

According to Steiner, Wagner’s music, by itself, has a profound influence on our souls; even without our consciously grasping the words, concepts and ideas. In Wagner’s opera Parsival the music itself contains all the truths associated with the story. The music produces health-giving effects on the etheric bodies of those who hear it, even if they understand nothing about it. (The etheric body gives life to the chemicals which our physical bodies are made up.) The melodies contain vibrations and rhythms which prepare the etheric body for the cleansing and purification requisite prior to receiving the Mysteries of the Holy Grail. (6) Language is incapable of expressing higher levels of consciousness, but musical tones, in the hands of the right composer, can.

Wagner did not, by any means, limit himself to musical tones in conveying his subtle messages. Like other artists with esoteric messages, he made continuous use of allegories in his stage settings and in his libretti. Why allegories? Wagner was a prolific writer, perfectly capable of writing a dissertation; however, if Wagner had written a dissertation on the problems of materialism, for instance, it may have been censored, it may have gotten him in trouble with the government and his benefactors, and it probably would have been read by, at most, a few people already interested in the subject. By conveying his ideas through an art form and employing allegories, he could reach people from all walks of life and with many different interests, regardless of their level of consciousness. Ultimately, The Ring and Parsival are about the evolution of consciousness, but for those who were not up to hearing that message there would be something, too – mythology, a children’s story, an adventure story, a romance, a story about the evils of materialism or the struggle of good-vs.-evil. His music and stories could contain higher meaning without being didactic, and even in those conscious only of an adventure story, seeds would be planted; Wagner’s higher meanings might blossom when the hearers were ready, be it in this incarnation or a future one.

The Ring allegories begin before the curtain rises, within the music. Das Rhinegold begins with a single e-flat note. Allegorically this could be taken as the state which existed before the ‘fall’, or it could, as Rudolf Steiner said, represent the beginning of ego consciousness.(7) This progresses into an e-flat major chord which expresses the expansion of consciousness.

The curtain rises and the allegories continue, this time with the stage setting. Wagner gives specific instructions, which he insisted be followed. He did not want artistic directors altering the stage in ways that would undermine what he was trying to convey. As we will soon see, the opening stage setting would symbolize the esoteric version of creation: that of a progression from a state which is usually compared with warmth or fire, to a more condensed state of gas or air, to a fluid or watery state, and finally to the solid or earth state. “Greenish twilight, brighter towards the top, darker below. The upper part of the stage is filled with swirling waters that flow restlessly from right to left. Towards the bottom the waters resolve into an increasingly find damp mist, so that a space a man’s height from the ground seems to be completely free of the water . . .”(8) Even the direction of the swirling waters is significant; right is the esoteric spiritual side and left the mundane side. I signifies the direction the “fall” is taking.

Wagner consciously set out to create an art that would marry the best of works by two men he admired: Beethoven and Shakespeare. He knew from his study of Beethoven that music could convey only so much of what he wanted to convey. To overcome this limitation, Wagner used the libretto. He also knew from his study of Shakespeare that words could accomplish only a limited amount; but by combining the libretto, drama, music, and stage settings, Wagner knew he could create stories which would show, in Steiner’s later words, “laws far deeper than the outer eye can perceive are working between one character and another.”(9)

The libretto is filled with allegories.(10) Just one example is the killing of Mime by Siegfried, which takes place in the third of the Ring Cycle operas. Mime is Siegfried’s foster father, who has taken in the orphaned infant only because he sees him as a way to power and wealth. Siegfried recognizes Mime as evil, and hates him, but remains with him. Finally, as a young man, Siegfried forges his own sword from the fragments of his true father’s sword (a metaphor for reaching a higher stage of initiation). With this sword in hand, Siegfried is sent on a fool’s errand by Mime, who hopes that Siegfried will slay the gold-guarding dragon and die in the process. Siegfried does slay the dragon, and the dragon’s blood that has splattered on him gives him the ability to hear other’s thoughts. After clairaudiently hearing Mime’s subsequent plan to murder him, Siegfried kills Mime. Did he murder him in cold blood, or did he rise above an evil element in his life without malice or violence, by eliminating Mime from his consciousness? I think that Mime’s death is an allegory, showing that Siegfried has eliminated evil from his consciousness. (Note that Siegfried’s methods, and its results, are not all positive; and that Wagner’s hero will take a different approach in Parsifal.)

Steiner obviously had a great deal of respect for Wagner. He even goes so far as to say “it is everywhere apparent that in the depths of his being, Richard Wagner was connected with the teachings of Spiritual Science.”(11) But in this post-Holocaust age, we are left with the uncomfortable fact that some of Wagner’s works were used by Hitler. (An understanding of Wagner’s work shows that Hitler’s interpretation was profoundly distorted.) Was Wagner an anti-Semite? Steiner did not believe so, nor do I, and it is a fact that Wagner had many Jewish friends and co-workers, which makes no sense if he were an anti-Semite. Through twenty years of studying, I have concluded that Wagner did not hate or dislike anyone for being Jewish, but that he did dislike Judaism, insofar as he disliked any dogmatic, authoritarian belief system. I believe he would feel the same way about most forms of Christianity today. When Wagner converted to Christianity in the mid nineteenth century, he adopted an esoteric form based on Manichean principles. Out of this conversion came his opera Parsifal, in which the hero goes beyond the levels of initiation expressed in The Ring. With respect to Judaism, Wagner felt it had served its purpose in the past but now was putting restraints on the proper evolution of consciousness.(12) Is it any wonder that he conveyed his higher beliefs in the form of allegories?

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This article may be reproduced in full or in part, as long as credit is given to the author as follows:
George Hastings is the author of Richard Wagner, Rudolf Steiner, and Allegories of the Ring: From the Mundane to the Esoteric. Bennett & Hastings Publishing, Seattle, 2011, http://www.AllegoriesoftheRing.com.

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