Wagnerians and Vegetarians: And the Rest of Us

Sep 8, 2010

I was recently reading "The Face on Your Plate" by Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson, who has written eloquently about the emotional lives of animals in other books, such as "When Elephants Weep" and "The Pig Who Sang to the Moon."

In his most recent book, he makes a strong case for not eating meat (or eggs or dairy products, for that matter) based largely on ethical concerns about the exploitation and mistreatment of animals (but he also discusses the environmental and human health issues involved).

Although this is not the forum for discussing the pros and cons of vegetarianism versus meat-eating, I couldn't help but wonder whether this issue was of concern to any classical music composers or performers in the past and if it affected their art. I was a little surprised where that led me.

I knew there were famous philosophers, scientists, writers and artists who were vegetarians (or who at least promoted the idea), such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras, and Leonardo Da Vinci, and more recently, Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Einstein.

Today, there are many others. And while there are other strands to this story as it relates to classical music, the one that led from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler provided possible musical examples of their feelings about the treatment of animals.

In addition to the history of philosophy, Schopenhauer (1788-1860) had a great influence on psychology, literature and music. He's best-known for his philosophy of pessimism and the idea the "Will" as an elemental aspect of all life.

But Schopenhauer was also one of the few Western philosophers to extend ethical concerns to animals and promoted the idea of animals rights on moral grounds. Even though the idea of kindness to animals was not new or unique at this time, its serious consideration by a major philosopher made a deep impression on many people, including Wagner.

Wagner based much of his artistic aesthetic on Schopenhauer's ideas (one could sum up the whole idea of the opera Tristan und Isolde as the unattainability of love or happiness in this life). But I had never noticed before the ethical concern for the humane treatment of animals (the subject of an important scene in Parsifal). And while many of Wagner's political ideas are rightfully controversial and discredited, I find it interesting that he apparently tried to become a vegetarian, based on ethical reasons, several times in his life and would sometimes encourage others as well.

He and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche debated the issue of vegetarianism and at different times took opposite views. There were also young Wagnerian would-be vegetarians meeting in cafes in Vienna discussing these topics, including Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler.

Later, Arnold Schoenberg, a disciple of Mahler, became interested in vegetarianism for a time (but he also read Schopenhauer). John Cage, a student of Schoenberg, became a life-long vegetarian.

As for the music itself, with the foregoing in mind, the first appearance of the title character in Act 1 of Wagner's Parsifal can be understood in a startlingly direct manner. Wagner's operas are loaded with heavy symbolism, and Parsifal has more than its fair share, with interpretations ranging from esoteric Christian theology, medieval Romantic traditions, to political ideas justifying National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and '40s.

But at a universal human level, the opera is about suffering and compassion. Parsifal, "the innocent fool enlightened through compassion," shoots a swan out of the air in the forest surrounding the castle of the Holy Grail. Knights of the Grail find him and lead Parsifal to the elderly and wise Gurnamanz, who reprimands him for killing an innocent animal: "You could murder, here in this holy forest, where tranquil peace surrounded you," and goes on to describe in detail the wounds of the killed swan, which then awakens the first signs of compassion in the young hero of the story.

Mahler, who had conducted Parsifal, makes an interesting reference to animals of the forest in his First Symphony. The third movement, which is a funeral march based on a minor key version of the children's song "Frere Jacques," was inspired by a woodcut Mahler saw called "The Hunter's Funeral Procession." It's apparently from an old book of children's fairy tales, and the animals of the forest are carrying the dead body of the hunter to his graveā€”a satirical reversal of what usually happens, to say the least. The sympathy is clearly with the animals who accompany the coffin of the hunter in a manner that seems more celebratory than solemn ("Whew! At least this one's not going to get us."). This same ambiguity can be heard in Mahler's music in this movement.

I'm sure there are more examples in music than these two, but I had to stop somewhere. Whatever your feelings may be about meat-eating versus vegetarianism, it's fascinating to notice that it's been the subject of serious concern to many people for a long, long time, including some of the great musical figures of the past and present.

The ambivalence this topic generates can be confusing, and everyone has to work it out for him or herself. But the one thing I notice more and more is that most people will agree it is important to treat the animals we use for our benefit in a humane and compassionate manner. Who knows, it may be one of the first steps in the quest for the "Holy Grail" of a life well lived.