Sunday, September 06, 2015

Wagner's Buddhist dream becomes reality

Jonathan Harvey described his acclaimed opera 'Wagner Dream' as "a fantasy, based on fact but following it way beyond what is known". The opera is a fictional account of the last days of Wagner's life; but it is informed by historical knowledge of Wagner's interest in Buddhism and the existence of his short prose sketch for a Buddhist themed opera titled Die Sieger (The Victors). 'Wagner Dream', which dates from 2007, is the best known musical conflation of Wagner and Buddhism; however, my research recently uncovered another little-known conflation dating from almost a century earlier.

Paul Carus was born at Ilsenburg, Germany in 1852 into a Protestant family. He studied in Germany and served in Bismark's army, but his increasingly liberal views prompted him to emigrate to the United States in 1884. As managing editor of Open Court Publishing, a publisher devoted to philosophy, science, and religion, he wrote pioneering books and articles promoting interfaith dialogue. Buddhism was a particular passion, and Carus' 1894 book The Gospel Of Buddha played an important role in the introduction of Buddhism to the West. When the influential Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki - who numbered John Cage among his disciples - first came to the States in 1897 he lived and studied with Paul Carus, and was an editor at Open Court Publishing for eleven years. Carus' goal was cultural translation, and to this end he produced a Buddhist hymn book setting texts from the Dhammapada and other sources. In the introduction to the hymns he wrote:

I have set some of these Buddhist poems to music, which, as I am fully conscious, is a bold innovation, but may be welcome to some musical friends of Buddhism. Music is a comparatively recent invention, but the religious services of ancient India at an early time were possessed of a melodramatic recitative, or better, a chanting, which came very near to being real music and may be characterized as the initial stage of sacred music.
'Buddhist Hymns' was published in 1911 by Open Court Publishing and is available online. The sixteen "bold" settings are to music by, among others, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Carus himself, with the 'Bridal Chorus' from Lohengrin accompanying Carus' own Buddhist-inspired doggerel - see header image. Compared with Jonathan Harvey's 'Wagner Dream' and Holst's 'Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda', these Buddhist hymns are mere trivia. But we should not dismiss them because of that. The Dalai Lama's Twitter account, which is nothing more than a trivia mill, currently has 11.8 million followers. If a recording was made of 'Buddhist Hymns' and just a fraction of those 11.8 million followers bought it, the album would become an instant classical best seller. Universal Music or Warner Classics, what are you waiting for?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

No comments: