Was Wagner a Sufi?
Gustav Mahler once observed that it is not the music that is composed, but the composer himself. So this path enters unexplored territory in search of what composed Mahler's demigod Richard Wagner, and en route uncovers some surprising links between Wagner and paranormal experiences and the Sufi tradition. The meandering journey of exploration starts with artist Phil Travers who in the late 1960s created a series of album covers for rock group the Moody Blues. His creations, which included the Threshold of a Dream artwork above, were a visual extension of the Moodies' credo that an album was a total sensory experience rather than a succession of unrelated music tracks. This approach was shared by other bands and evolved into the concept album, a genre which included Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from the Beatles, Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys, The Wall from the Pink Floyd and Tommy from the Who, as well as other albums from the Moody Blues.
Concept albums were a game changer for rock music because they fully engaged their audience, and for this reason pioneering projects using extended sensory experiences to engage new audiences for classical music have received extensive coverage On An Overgrown Path - these include James Westwater’s photo-choreography and Norman Perryman’s kinetic art. Exploiting the link between the visual and the aural has some scientific justification, and the neurological condition of synesthesia - when sounds trigger a visual response – is often cited. But there is another state that links music and other sensory experiences which has received much less attention, probably because it comes under the umbrella of the controversial discipline of para-psychology rather than orthodox medical science. But it is well worth exploring as it is credited with inspiring several celebrated composers, and is reputed to have channeled the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold - the phantasmagorical image below is from a video of the Palau de les Arts, Valencia Rheingold production.
Hypnagogia is the transitional state between sleep and wakefulness during which lucid dreaming, hallucinations and out of body experiences can occur. It is not an identifiable medical condition like synesthesia, but is a state of mind that potentially can be experienced by anybody as they hover on the threshold of sleep. In Music, Witchcraft and the Paranormal Melvyn Willin reports that “Wagner believed himself to be lying at the bottom of the Rhine whereupon from his entranced imagination the opening music of Das Rheingold came to him (cited in Abell, 1955)". Melvyn Willin, who incidentally is a B.Mus(Hons), M. Mus, LRAM and PhD, also quotes Bruch -“My most beautiful melodies have come to me in dreams”- and Berlioz -“I dreamed one night that I was composing a symphony and heard it in my dreams… on waking next morning I could recall nearly the whole of the movement”- to illustrate how the composition process flourishes on the threshold of a dream. While elsewhere Beethoven is among those claimed to have been inspired by hypnagogia.
Wagner may have been referring to hypnagogic experiences in his revelation to Engelbert Humperdinck that “I am convinced there are universal currents of Divine Thought vibrating the ether everywhere and that anyone who can feel those vibrations is inspired, provided he is conscious of the process and possesses the knowledge and skill to present them in a convincing manner...” This revelation takes us into the esoteric realm, and there is growing awareness of the links between Wagner and Eastern spiritual traditions. But so far research has focussed on the composer's interest in Buddhism while the parallels with Sufism found in the passage above and elsewhere remain unexplored. The digitally heretical and deeply unfashionable – which means definitely worth exploring – concept of “universal currents… resonating through the ether” is found in Sufi teachings ranging from al-Kindī in the ninth century to Hazrat Inayat Khan in the twentieth century. The symbolic act of raising a curtain or veil which provides provides the dynamic for several Wagner operas is found in Sufism as al-kashf, while the Arab-Andalusian Sufi Ibn ‘Arabī drew attention to the intermediate realm of al-barzakh between the known and unknown worlds where transformations and revelations occur, a realm corresponding to both the the transitional state of hypnagogia and the twilight zone of the Ring.
Other Wagnerian themes such as the quest for purification - Parsifal - and the tensions between a dawning modernist world and one based on traditional and esoteric values - the Ring - are also central to Sufism. And that mention of how Wagner's “entranced imagination” visualised the opening of Rheingold - in which a trance-like atmosphere is created by repeating an E flat chord for one hundred and thirty six bars until the Rhine Maidens make their entry - links directly to the use of music to inspire trance in Sufi spirit possession rituals. In her book about Moroccan Gnawa trance music Deborah Kapchan has a chapter synchronisticaly titled ‘On the Threshold of a Dream’; this quotes an observation by Ibn ‘Arabī (via William C. Chitiick) that provides both an interesting counter to the many Jungian interpretations of Wagner’s music dramas and another connection to hypnagogia:
Dreams are interpreted; but that which is perceived by sense perception is not interpreted. However, when man ascends in the degrees of gnosis, he will come to know through both faith and unveiling, that he is a dreamer in the state of ordinary wakefulness and that the situation in which he dwells s a dream.It is known that Wagner studied Buddhism, however there is, to my knowledge, no evidence that he was acquainted with Sufism. But Sufi poetry had reached Western Europe as early as the Middle Ages, and it has been suggested – see footnote below - that Sufi allegories influenced Chaucer and Shakespeare. There are also overlooked similarities between Sufism and Buddhism – see Common Ground Between Islam & Buddhism by Reza Shah Kazemi – and today's path was sparked by a mention of the link between Wagner and hypnagogia in Sufi adept Robert Irwin's Memoirs of a Dervish, and by the following observation made by the Sufi master and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1921: "Wagner did but repeat the teachings of the mystics of the East, when he said that he who knows the law of vibrations knows the whole secret of life". Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream opera - see visual of De Nederlandse Opera's production below - has done much to raise awareness of the links between Wagner and Eastern mysticism; let us hope that this productive topic will be explored further during the Wagner bicentenary at the expense of any more coverage of the indisputably important but grossly overworked links between his music and the Nazis.
'Was Wagner a Sufi?' is more than a Twitter-friendly headline. One of the many wide-ranging definitions of a Sufi is a seeker of inner wisdom, and using this definition Wagner and many others can be categorised as adepts. However there is no concrete evidence to link the composer to Sufism using the more rigorous definition of the tradition as an esoteric form of Islam. But, despite this, there are persuasive precedents for presenting classical music as an extended sensory experience. These include Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk - synthesis of the arts – which found expression not only in his music dramas but also in presentation innovations such as the Schalldeckel – cowling - at Bayreuth which removes the visual distraction of the orchestra from the audience sight lines. There is another Moody Blues album with a Phil Travers cover- see below - titled In Search of the Lost Chord. As we celebrate the Wagner bicentenary next year will total sensory experiences created by a synthesis of the arts be the lost chord that resonates with new audiences? Are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner?
* Sources include:
- Sufism & Surrealism by Adonis
- Music, Witchcraft and the Paranormal by Melvyn Willin
- Wagner: a Documentary Study edited by Herbert Barth, Dietrich Mack and Egon Voss
- Introduction to Sufism by Titus Burckhardt
- The Mysticism of Sound and Music by Hazrat Inayat Khan
- Memoirs of a Dervish by Robert Irwin
- Adventures in Afghanistan by Louis Palmer (almost certainly a pseudonym for Idries Shah or one of his followers)
- Music: Mirror of the Arts by Alan Rich
- Traveling Spirit Masters by Deborah Kapchan
- Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner, Palau de les Arts production on four DVDs.
- Sir Adrian Boult from Bach to Wagner: EMI eleven CD set
* The hypothesis that Wagner had Sufi tendencies is mine only and I accept full blame for it. But there are other speculative links between Western masterpieces and Sufi culture. Respected academic Dr Martin Lings has identified Sufi themes in Shakespeare’s plays, while "Louis Palmer" - see bibliography below – suggests that there are “striking similarities” between the ancient Afghan romance Adam and Durku and Romeo and Juliet, however I can find no other reference to this latter specific example. Elsewhere the somewhat more controversial author and teacher Idries Shah – who may also have written under the pseudonym Louis Palmer – suggests that some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are based on stories by Sufi poets Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Attār and Mevlana Rumi.
* In 1983 Peter Hall – explorer of esoteric traditions and director of the celebrated film adaption of the Sufi parable The Conference of the Birds – directed the anniversary Ring at Bayreuth conducted by Sir George Solti. But, sadly, this proved to be far from a Sufi Ring, with one reviewer describing the traditionalist staging as “musty and tacky”.
* Apocrypha seems to be a constant on this past, so it is worth recounting one tale that links the launch of the Moody Blues’ career to classical music. A story tells how the band was commissioned in 1967 by Decca to record a rock version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony to demonstrate the company’s new Deramic stereo format, but instead used the studio time to secretly record their first best selling album Days of Future Passed. This story is repeated by the band's producer Tony Clarke in the documentation for the 1994 Polygram The Moody Blues: Time Traveller retrospective, but is dismissed in an excellent article in Sound on Sound magazine that also gives useful technical information on the Days of Future Passed sessions. The Moody Blues were rare among supergroups for being able to replicate their studio sound at live gigs, and the Time Traveller compilation contains an impressive sounding bonus disc recorded live with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Red Rocks. I saw the Moody Blues live twice, once at a Reading University student’s union ball (1969?) and again a few years later at Wembley indoor arena. Yes, all very 1960s, but it started me on the path of music as a total sensory experience and led me to Wagner and beyond. Which takes this path full circle and back to engaging new audiences...
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