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Wagner's Prose Sketch for Die Sieger

A Story of Ananda & Prakriti

Wagner's Buddhist drama never seems to have progressed beyond this short sketch; if he wrote a prose draft, then it has not survived. It was based on an avadāna (a tale of noble and miraculous acts performed by the Buddha in any of his incarnations) from the collection Divyavadāna (folio 219a); called Sārdūla karnavadāna.

   Persons of the Drama

  • Shakyamuni [the future Buddha]
  • Ananda [his disciple]
  • Prakriti [a Chandala girl]
  • Her Mother
  • Brahmins
  • Disciples
  • Folk

Introduction: Wagner's Buddhist Drama

open quotes In the autumn of 1854 (if not earlier) Wagner had been introduced by Georg Herwegh to Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation). Thus stimulated, and parallel to this important new influence, he began to occupy himself intensively with India, especially with the teaching and legends of the Buddha. On 30 April 1855, he wrote from London to Mathilde Wesendonk, describing his reading of Adolf Holtzmann's Indische Sagen [Stuttgart, 1854] as his only joy here ... What a shameful place our entire learning takes, confronted with these purest revelations of noblest humanity in the ancient Orient. In the following winter, he studied Eugène Burnouf's monumental Introduction à l'Histoire du Buddhisme Indien (Paris, 1844). Both works can still be seen today in Wagner's library in the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth. Burnouf provided Wagner with the legends which formed the basis of The Victors. As late as 1868 he lent the book to King Ludwig II as an elucidation of the plan for the drama, which he had obviously described verbally to the king a short time before. We possess a short sketch of the project, which Wagner put on paper in Zürich on 16 May 1856, at a point between the composition of The Valkyrie and Siegfried:close quotes

[Richard Wagners Buddha-Projekt "Die Sieger": Seine ideellen und strukturellen Spuren in "Ring" und "Parsifal", Wolfgang Osthoff, Arkiv für Musikwissenschaft 40:3, 1983, p 189-211.]

Synopsis: Wagner's Outline for the Drama

open quotes The Buddha on his last journey. Ananda given water from the well by Prakriti, the Chandala maiden. Her tumult of love for Ananda; his consternation. —
Prakriti in love's agony: her mother brings Ananda to her: love's battle royal: Ananda, distressed and moved to tears, released by Shakya' [the Buddha]. —
Prakriti goes to Buddha, under the tree at the city's gate, to plead for union with Ananda. He asks if she is willing to fulfil the stipulations of such a union? Dialogue with twofold meaning, interpreted by Prakriti in the sense of her passion; she sinks horrified and sobbing to the ground, when she hears at length that she must share Ananda's vow of chastity.
Ananda persecuted by the Brahmins. Reproofs against Buddha's commerce with a Chandala girl. Buddha's attack on the spirit of caste. He tells of Prakriti's previous incarnation; she then was the daughter of a haughty Brahmin; the Chandala King, remembering a former existence as Brahmin, had craved the Brahmin's daughter for his son, who had conceived a violent passion for her; in pride and arrogance the daughter had refused return of love, and mocked at the unfortunate. This she had now to expiate, reborn as Chandala to feel the torments of a hopeless love; yet to renounce withal, and be led to full redemption by acceptance into Buddha's flock.—
Prakriti answers Buddha's final question with a joyful Yea. Ananda welcomes her as sister. Buddha's last teachings. All are converted by him. He departs to the place of his redemption.
close quotes

Zurich. May 16, 1856. [tr. William Ashton Ellis]

Burnouf's summary of the story, the basis of Wagner's sketch above, is this 1:

open quotesShakyamuni [the Buddha] appears, and he learns from the mouth of the young girl of the love she feels for Ananda, and the determination she has to follow him. Taking advantage of this passion, in order to convert Prakriti, the Buddha, through a series of questions that Prakriti can understand in the sense of her love but that he intentionally asks in a completely religious sense, succeeds in opening the eyes of the young girl to the light and inspiring in her the desire to embrace the ascetic life. Thus, he asks her if she consents to follow Ananda, that is to say, to imitate him in his conduct; if she wants to wear the same clothes that he does, that is to say, the clothes of monks; if she has the permission of her parents. These are questions that the law of the discipline requires to be addressed to those who wish to become Buddhist mendicants.close quotes

Eugène Burnouf, Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism, Paris, 1844: English translation by Katia Buffetrille and Donald S. Lopez Jr., Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010.

Prakriti, Ananda and the Buddha

Less than a year later, Wagner had changed the name of the Chandala girl from Prakriti to Savitri:

open quotes ... in the Victors what will happen is as follows: the girl (presumably Savitri) who, while waiting for Ananda in the second act, rolls in the flowers in utter ecstacy, absorbing the sun, the woods, the birds and the water — everything — the whole of nature in her wanton pleasure, is challenged by Shakya, after she has taken her fateful vow [in the third act], to look around her and above her, and is then asked what she thinks of it all? — Not very beautiful — she then says gravely and sadly, for she now sees the other side of the world. close quotes

[Letter from R. Wagner to Marie Sayn-Wittgenstein, 4 March 1857, tr. Spencer and Millington]

open quotes The plan underwent some modifications and additions in the following years. No doubt the most important was Wagner's entry in the Venetian Diary for Mathilde Wesendonk on 5 October 1858; this agrees with the sentences quoted [as the last item below], written just before his death:close quotes

[Osthoff, ibid]

open quotes Shakyamuni was initially opposed to the idea of admitting women into the community of saints. He repeatedly expressed the view of them that, by nature, women are far too subject to their sexual identity, and hence to whim and caprice, and far too attached to worldly existence to be able to achieve the composure and deep contemplativeness necessary for the individual to renounce his natural inclinations and achieve redemption [Erlösung]. It was his favourite pupil, Ananda, — that same Ananda to whom I have already allotted a part in my The Victors — who was finally able to persuade the master to relent and open up the community to women...
Without any sense of unnaturalness, my plan has been vastly and hugely expanded. The difficulty here was to make the Buddha himself - a figure totally liberated and above all passion - suitable for dramatic and, more especially, musical treatment. But I have now solved the problem by having him reach one last remaining stage in his development whereby he is seen to acquire a new insight, which - like every insight - is conveyed not by abstract associations of ideas but by intuitive emotional experience, in other words, by a process of shock and agitation suffered by his inner self; as a result, this insight reveals him in his final progress towards a state of supreme enlightenment. Ananda, who is closer to life and directly affected by the love of the Chandala girl, becomes the agent of his ultimate enlightenment. close quotes

[Letter from R. Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonk, 5 October 1858, Wesendonck-Briefe 108-10, tr. Spencer and Millington]

open quotes During the years that followed, the project appeared continually in letters and reports. The Munich Festival programme prepared for Ludwig II in 1865 included The Victors in firm plans for August 1870, August 1871 and August 1873, alongside Parsifal, which was at that stage similarly without libretto or music, and the still incomplete Ring and Mastersingers. In the above-mentioned letter to the king in 1868, Wagner was aware that his source — Burnouf's book — contained only a very short extract of the real legend [which Burnouf had translated from Sanskrit but not published in full] — and to what extent his own fantasy had already been used to fill out thin material. Sometimes Wagner expressed a wish to write The Victors as a drama without music and to have his son Siegfried then set it to music. We have a remark of Cosima's, a few months before his death, that he would not compose on the subject of the Buddha, for the reason that the images — mango-tree, lotus-flower, etc. — were not ones familiar to him, so that the poetry inevitably would turn out artificial. He had already foreseen similar difficulties in 1881 ... That completing Parsifal blocked a realization of The Victors can be inferred from the denial that Wagner felt he needed to make on 10 July 1882: close quotes

[Osthoff, ibid]

open quotes Dear friend, it amuses me to put your Berlin journal [Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung] in order on certain matters. Here is another report, not a word of which is true — which looks particularly impertinent given the tone of great assurance, as though the report were that of a close friend. More than 25 years ago I sketched out a scenario on a single side of paper and gave it the name: the Victors. Since conceiving Parsifal, I have altogether abandoned this Buddhist project — which is related to the former only in a weaker sense — and since that time have given no further thought to elaborating the sketch, still less of reading it aloud.close quotes

[Letter from R. Wagner to Otto Lessmann, editor, 10 July 1882, tr. Spencer and Millington]

open quotes It is a beautiful feature in the legend, that shows the Victoriously Perfect [der Siegreich Vollendete] at last determined to admit the woman. [In the margin:] Love — Tragedy. close quotes

[R. Wagner, On the Womanly in the Human, February 1883. The very last words that Wagner wrote.]

Footnote 1:

open quotesÇâkyamuni se présente en effet, et il apprend de la bouche de la jeune fille l'amour qu'elle ressent pour Ânanda et la détermination où elle est de le suivre. Profitant de cette passion pour convertir Prakriti, le Buddha, par une suite de questions que Prakriti peut prendre dans le sens de son amour, mais qu'il fait sciemment dans un sens tout religieux, finit par ouvrir à la lumière les yeux de la jeune fille et par lui inspirer le désir d'embrasser la vie ascétique. C'est ainsi qu'il lui demande si elle consent à suivre Ânanda, c'est à-dire à l'imiter dans ca conduite; si elle veut porter les mêmes vêtements que lui, c'est-à-dire le vêtements des personnes religieuses; si elle est autorisée par ses parents: questions que la loi de la Discipline exige qu'on adresse à ceux qui veulent se faire mendiants buddhistes.close quotes

Eugène Burnouf, Introduction à l'Histoire du Buddhisme Indien, Paris, 1844.