by Jay Chin
Richard Wagner did not compose church music, nor did he profess a Catholic faith; in fact, he held some very anti-Catholic beliefs. Yet he, more than most composers, through his music, approached the mysteries of the faith. Wagner knew what he was doing. Throughout his fifty-year career, he pulled again and again at the heartstrings of those of us who do truly believe in love and in Christ; yet to him this meant little to nothing.
Tannhaüser, one of his early works, tells the story of the eponymous Tannhaüser and his struggle between the carnal love of Venus and the love of Christ. And in this struggle, the only
one who believes in this fallen man is Elisabeth, who sacrifices herself so that Venus can never tempt Tannhaüser away. And we, the spectators, really believe that there is something Venus has
that Elisabeth and her faith cannot provide; we hear that Vorspiel, a true sexual allegory, and quickly become enamored, but when Elisabeth has been laid to rest and all Tannhaüser, the great
poet, can do is whisper, “Holy Elisabeth, pray for me,” we hear the true music, which is none other than that Vorspiel, now with a chorus, played more slowly, and aimed towards Christ. And so we
learn that carnal, baseless love is not truly love, but a deficiency of true love, Christ. And it is through that very love that we are redeemed.
This theme, redemption through love, is in many of his works, but its most sublime manifestation is in Der Ring des Nibelungen, a four-part story of the struggle between a god and a dwarf for a magic Ring. The cycle is an intricate interweaving of leitmotifs, short melodies associated with characters and themes, the most important of them only occurring twice. It is first sung by Sieglinde, the mother of Siegfried, in Die Walküre. In a soaring phrase sung when she learns that she is with child, she states her will to live for the sake of her unborn child, that no matter how horrible the circumstances are, the experience of true love has given her a reason to keep on going. Her child, Siegfried, falls in love with Brünnhilde and revitalizes with the hope of joy. When she loses him due to the trickery in Götterdämmerung, she allows the entire world of jealous gods and Valhalla to be consumed by fire, permitting the world to be born anew. And as the world burns, we hear the same leitmotif that Sieglinde sung long ago. For amid such ugliness, the force that gives us hope for something better is love.
We find Christ most clearly in his final opera, Parsifal, where a nobody must right the wrong of God’s chosen Knights of the Holy Grail. These knights, in their suffering, find meaning. Each aria is beautiful. But they do not know how to empty themselves, which is what inconspicuous Parsifal does. Because he has nothing, he allows himself to be filled with divine mercy, another form of love, defeats the evil sorcerer, and allows Kundy, who was not allowed to die because she mocked Christ crucified, to finally rest in peace.
To Wagner, however, this meant nothing. Christianity was the religion of poor people, based on unqualified philanthropy, only to be abstracted and dogmatized by the rich. This artificial religion required art to breathe life into it. All that Christianity could do by itself is solve the problem of racial deprecation through hybridism, for we set aside our warring and nobleness of blood to bind ourselves “to all the lies and humbug of Church-rule.”
How can a man see so clearly what we so often as Christians fail to realize? How does one reach the heights of mystery and completely cast it aside? Why was he such a great conjurer and why did his own music never touch his heart as they do ours? Most importantly: Do we not see this same irony in ourselves? If we believe it, if we say it, if we sing it, why have we not allowed ourselves to be truly redeemed through love?