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Erlösung dem Erlöser

Parsifal: Erlösung, Frevlerin, biet' ich auch dir.
(Parsifal act two)

open quotes We talk of the fact that in both, Parsifal and Die Sieger, more or less the same theme (the redemption of a woman) is treated.close quotes
[Cosima's Diaries, entry for 6th January 1881]


Salvation, Healing and Redemption

open quotes...knowledge [Erkenntnis] affords the possibility of the suppression of willing, of salvation [Erlösung] through freedom, of overcoming and annihilating the world. close quotes
[The World as Will and Representation, volume I, chapter 60, translated by E.F.J.Payne]

Anyone who is familiar with the canonical Wagner operas will know that they contain many references to "Heil" (salvation, healing, well-being) and to "Erlösung" (redemption or release). In the quotation from Schopenhauer shown above, Payne has translated "Erlösung" as salvation. In the context, it probably does not matter: the point is that for Schopenhauer, both salvation and redemption equate to "overcoming and annihilating the world". This is why Ulrike Kienzle, in her study of Parsifal in the light of Schopenhauer's philosophy, calls it "the work about overcoming the world"1. Analysis of the text of Parsifal shows that, excepting pronouns, "Heil" is the most frequently used noun and that related words (such as Heiland, Heiligtum, heilig) are prominent too. This suggests that the agenda of this opera is about salvation, healing, redemption and release. Although commentators on this work might disagree about aspects of it, there is a broad consensus that the central theme of Parsifal concerns salvation and redemption.

It is difficult to find any consistency in the usage of these words in the canonical operas. Senta speaks of the redemption (Erlösung) of the Dutchman. Brünnhilde tells Siegfried that she was "doch ewig zu deinem Heil!" (always working for your well-being!). It might be even more difficult to establish a consistent interpretation of the concepts behind these words, through the canon. The redemption of the Dutchman might be the same as the redemption of Kundry, given their similar situations and specifically that they are not allowed to die as the result of a curse: lifting that curse enables their redemption, although in the case of Kundry it is not sufficient. But the redemption of the Dutchman came before Schopenhauer and therefore before Wagner had understood redemption as "overcoming and annihilating the world". Kundry is a character very much based on Indian Buddhist concepts: for the Brahmans and for the Indian Buddhists, as Wagner knew, rebirth was a problem and escape to nirvana was its only solution.


Gurnemanz: Hier bist du; diess des Grals Gebiet, dein' harret seine Ritterschaft.
Ach, sie bedarf des Heiles, des Heiles, das du bringst! (Parsifal act three)


The Redemption of Amfortas

Franz Stassen: Parsifal healing King Amfortas

Many commentators on Parsifal have recognized that Amfortas' suffering is not primarily physical (see for example Ulrike Kienzle's "Das Weltüberwindungswerk" 1, page 141). Amfortas carries a burden of guilt. He seeks forgiveness for his sins but there is nobody in this world who can forgive them. Amfortas complains that he is damned, as the high priest of the Grail, to perform the ceremony that causes him both mental and physical pain. He lives in hope of the promised redeemer who will take over his dual role, that of priest and king. During the second act, in the aftermath of the kiss, Parsifal realises that he has a mission and that it involves the redemption of Amfortas. At the end of that act, Wagner's spiritual hero leaves the garden of destroyed illusions carrying the spear that was lost there by Amfortas. He tells Kundry that she knows where to find him again and she understands that he will take the spear back to the domain of the Grail. Following the myth of Telephus, Wagner decided that the spear that wounded Amfortas is the only cure for his wound. As Gurnemanz relates in the first act of the opera, only the "one", the prophesied redeemer, can heal Amfortas. When, after years of wandering, that redeemer arrives in the domain of the Grail, Gurnemanz recognizes that the fool has become the redeemer. Parsifal asks to be taken to Amfortas and declares that he will enter the Grail Temple as King. So, for Amfortas and the Grail, closure is brought by the redeemer: with the spear he heals the wound that would not heal; then he reunites the spear with the Grail. Parsifal declares that he will take over Amfortas' priestly function and the opera ends with the renewed ceremony in what might be a restored utopia.

All of this appears to bring closure, at least for the suffering king. On closer examination there are serious questions. For example: if Amfortas represents the suffering of the entire world, has Parsifal performed a redemptive act that will end that suffering? What happens next? Where does the community go from here?


The Redemption of Kundry

open quotes Kundry is living an unending life of constantly alternating rebirths as the result of an ancient curse which, in a manner reminiscent of the Wandering Jew, condemns her, in ever-new shapes, to bring to men the suffering of seduction; redemption[Erlösung], death, complete annihilation is vouchsafed her only if her most powerful blandishments are withstood by the most chaste and virile of men. So far, they have not been. After each new and, in the end, profoundly hateful victory, after each new fall by man, she flies into a rage; she then flees into the wilderness, where by the most severe atonements and chastisements she is, for a while, able to escape from the power of the curse upon her; yet it is denied to her to find salvation by this route. Within her, again and again, arises a desire to be redeemed [erlös't] by a man, this being the only way of redemption [Erlösung] offered by the curse: thus does innermost necessity cause her repeatedly to fall victim anew to the power through which she is reborn as a seductress. The penitent then falls into a deathly sleep: it is the seductress who wakes, and who, after her mad frenzy, becomes a penitent again. close quotes
[Wagner's Prose Draft]
Franz Stassen: Kundry

So when Parsifal arrives in the magic garden, she asks him, Bist du Erlöser, was bannt dich, Böser, nicht mir auch zum Heil dich zu einen? and hopes to be redeemed by him: in dir entsündigt sein und erlös't!. A few minutes later she hints, perhaps ironically, that he has a higher task: Die Welt erlöse, ist dies dein Amt? But it is not Parsifal who redeems -- or is it? -- or is he, without knowing it, the agent of the Grail? In a sense, Kundry delivers him too: she takes his innocence from him, although he retains his purity. He is no longer the pure fool (reiner Tor), but the Pure One (der Reiner). Her kiss, Wagner told King Ludwig, has brought Parsifal the knowledge of good and evil.

The most difficult aspect of the last act of Parsifal is Wagner's treatment of Kundry. After being a focus of the dramatic action in the first two acts, she is subdued, calm, almost silent throughout the third act, although she participates like a penitent Magdalen in the symbol-laden action. She silently acknowledges Parsifal as her redeemer. His first action as the enlightened and anointed king is to baptise this heathen woman. If this is meant to be a Christian baptism, which signifies a new beginning, then it seems strange that before the day is over Kundry has died. The redemption that the enlightened hero brings her, it would appear, is escape from samsara, the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. From then on Kundry is absent from the music but mentioned in the stage directions when, her eyes fixed on Parsifal, she falls lifeless to the ground, accompanied by a prominent A minor chord.

Clearly Wagner had some Schopenhauerian concept of Kundry, about denying the Will; she might be considered to represent suffering humanity, although Amfortas might represent it better. If her pacification at the start of the third act represents denial of the Schopenhauerian Will, then we might consider her to be a metaphor for that Will. In the first act she is described by Gurnemanz as "restless"; in the third act he remarks how much she has changed. It is clear, however, that Kundry's cyclical existence and her escape from that existence were conceived by Wagner in relation to the ideas about Buddhism (samsara, nirvana) that he had found in Schopenhauer's writings and in books to which Schopenhauer led him. In any attempt to interpret Kundry's cyclical existence and her redemption in Buddhist terms, we must keep in mind that Wagner saw Buddhism only in relation to Schopenhauer's philosophy: to which analysis of Parsifal constantly must turn. While working on the poem of Parsifal Wagner might also have been thinking about his next project Die Sieger and it is possible that Kundry absorbed some of the heroine of that unfinished drama,the outcast maiden Prakriti.

Franz Stassen: Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail

The Redemption of the Grail

open quotes That which, as simplest and most touching of religious symbols, unites us in the common practice of our faith and which, revealed anew in the tragic teachings of great spirits, uplifts us to the heights of compassion, is the knowledge, given in manifold forms, of the need for redemption. We already feel that we partake of this redemption in solemn hours when all the world's appearances dissolve away, as in a prophetic dream. Then no more do we fear the appearance of that yawning abyss, the gruesome monsters of the deep, the craving monstrosities of the self-devouring will, which the day - alas! the history of mankind, had forced upon us. Then we are able to hear the lament of nature, pure and yearning for peace, ring out: fearless, hopeful, all-assuaging, world-redeeming. Hearing this lament, the soul of all mankind is purified and made conscious of its own high calling, to redeem like-suffering nature. It now soars above the abyss of semblances, and, released from all that awful chain of becoming and passing away, the restless will, fettered by itself alone, finds its freedom. close quotes
open quotes Then, at a time when the world was most harsh and hostile, and when the faithful were hard pressed by the unbelievers and were in great distress, there sprang up in certain divinely inspired heroes, filled with holy charity, the desire to seek out the vessel - that mysteriously consoling relic of which there was ancient report - in which the Saviour's blood (Sang réale, whence San Gréal - Sanct Gral - The Holy Grail) had been preserved, living and divinely potent, for mankind in dire need of redemption. close quotes
[Wagner's Prose Draft]

One of the threads that runs through the opera is the need for redemption of mankind and of nature. In the last act, for example, Parsifal gazes on the beauty of the spring meadows and remembers the unnatural blooms of Klingsor's magic garden: Ich sah sie welken, die einst mir lachten: ob heut' sie nach Erlösung schmachten?.

The Grail is delivered by Parsifal from the guilt-stained hands of Amfortas. It is released from the shrine and, at Parsifal's command, is never more to be locked away (Nicht soll der mehr verschlossen sein). So the Grail is freed to work for the redemption of Mankind and Nature without constraint.

open quotes This final line of the work, Redemption to the Redeemer, expresses the fact that Parsifal has now fulfilled the request vouchsafed to him in his vision of the Redeemer which followed Kundry's kiss. When, in horror, he tears himself from Kundry's arms and feels Amfortas' wound in his heart, he is (according to the stage directions) completely lost to the world. He sees the Grail before him and hears the 'Saviours cry' [das Heilandsklage] ... The hands which are defiled and guilty are those of Amfortas, the sinful guardian of the sanctuary, as Wagner called him in a programme note dating from 1882. Redemption comes about when Parsifal, having resisted Kundry's attempt at seduction, brings back the sacred lance and replaces Amfortas as head of the Grail community. In this way he brings Redemption to the Redeemer.close quotes
[Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre, Dieter Borchmeyer, tr. Stewart Spencer, Oxford, 1991, pages 388-9]

Certainly that is one way of looking at it but perhaps it is too literal an interpretation. There are several layers of meaning in Parsifal. Borchmeyer probably did not mean to imply that Amfortas is a redeemer because obviously he is not. Amfortas — as I have described elsewhere — was for Wagner initially only a symbol. We can read in his letters to Mathilde about how the character developed in Wagner's mind, to the extent that Wagner feared that Amfortas would become the central figure of the work, drawing our attention away from Parsifal. In Wagner's original conception, as I have reconstructed it, Amfortas was a symbol of suffering. He became more than that, however, and in the end I believe that he came to represent the failure of Christianity. If the Grail community represents, in some way, the Christian world, then by showing the failure of that community Wagner might be pointing to the perceived failure of Christianity.

One might be allowed some reservations before accepting Borchmeyer's claim that the Redeemer referred to in Parsifal is none other than Christ. Note that when Wagner means to refer to Christ (who is never mentioned by that title), he consistently writes of the Saviour (der Heiland). The term redeemer (Erlöser) is more ambiguous, especially when Kundry gets the idea that Parsifal might be her redeemer and even more so when she tells him, redeem the world, if that's your mission. When Kundry perceives Parsifal as a potential redeemer, she introduces the idea (blasphemous or heretical to a mainstream Christian) that the Saviour might not be the only redeemer. Can we be certain that it is Christ, or the Christian God, who redeems her in the Good Friday meadow? Is Kundry redeemed by God or by man, that is, by Parsifal as a redeemer? Is this a substitute for Christ's redemption or is it some kind of participation in that redemption?

The Conclusion of Parsifal

open quotes Much about church and state; he says, "For me Christianity has not yet arrived, and I am like the early Christians, awaiting Christ's return." close quotes
[Cosima's Diaries, entry for 15th July 1879]


The first and most obvious reading of the concluding scene focus upon the healing of Amfortas, since in the most literal reading of the text, this is Parsifal's mission; as he himself realises at the moment of the kiss. The only person who seems to benefit directly is Amfortas; but if (and only if) we regard the health and vigour of the Grail King as intimately connected to the fertility of the land and the well-being of his people, then Parsifal also brings healing to the kingdom when he heals Amfortas. This interpretation is grounded in some of Wagner's sources, such as the First Continuation to Chretien's Perceval.

Franz Stassen: The Communion of the Holy Grail The ending is not that simple, however, because the resolution of Wagner's story is richer than that of any of his sources. Although when Parsifal is enlightened by the kiss his first thought is of the suffering Amfortas, he does not know, at that moment, what his mission might be. But by the end of the second act, Parsifal knows that he must bring healing not only to Amfortas but also to the Grail community. Only when he arrives at the domain of the Grail on Good Friday and meets Gurnemanz does Parsifal realise that he is to become Grail king. If we consider that Parsifal's mission is the redemption of the Grail, rather than the redemption of Amfortas (which occurs as a side-benefit of the redemption of the Grail), then the focus of the final scene should be upon the transfer of Amfortas' kingly and priestly role to his young and virile successor (Denn ich verwalte nun dein Amt). Amfortas' suffering was necessary, it seems, because it evoked compassion in his successor (Gesegnet sei dein Leiden, das Mitleid's höchste Kraft, und reinsten Wissens Macht dem zagen Toren gab!). The healing of Amfortas, in Wagner's usage of the myth, is not important for the land and its people: the healing of the king is unimportant if there is a successor. It is important, obviously, for Amfortas and for Parsifal.

But are we only concerned with the domain of the Grail here? Wagner said, What is important is not the question, but the recovery of the spear (Cosima's Diary, 30 January 1877). Obviously the recovery of the spear is important as a means to the end of healing Amfortas. Parsifal's arrival at the Grail Castle with the spear can also be seen as symbolising that he is the destined successor to Amfortas. But the connection of the spear with the Grail should also be considered. At the centre of the resolution of the work is the reunion of two symbols: the spear, representing the male principle, and the Grail, representing the female principle. (O! Welchen Wunders höchstes Glück! Der deine Wunde durfte schliessen, ihm seh' ich heil'ges Blut entfliessen in Sehnsucht nach dem verwandten Quelle, der dort fliesst in des Grales Welle.). The unhealthy situation of a male brotherhood of knights in one castle and a castle of maidens on the other side of the mountains has been swept away. The Grail had been locked in its shrine and the knights had been inward-looking, only concerned with their own problems. Now the Grail will be revealed to mankind, as the community of the Grail turns outward.

Borchmeyer is convinced that the end of Parsifal is a restitutio in integrum in which the Grail community is re-established, Klingsor's contrastive world is exorcized and nature is restored to its Paradisal innocence. He refers to the idea found both in early Christianity and in Stoicism (relevant because of Wagner's interest in the writings of Marcus Aurelius) of 'αποκατάστασις πάντον, a renewal of the world through the cyclical restitution of a perfect primordial state. In the ending of the Ring there is a new beginning (which can be traced, in that drama, back to the Eddic poem Volüspá in which the universe, i.e. the worlds connected by the world-ashtree, is destroyed at Ragnarök, only to begin anew), in which as in Isaiah 65:17 there are new heavens (the old gods are destroyed) and a new earth (in which there are, so far, no rulers). As Borchmeyer points out (Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre, page 391), the idea of 'αποκατάστασις is better symbolised by a spiral than it is by a circle. After the cosmic conflagration of Götterdämmerung, or after the return of Parsifal with the spear (and, just as importantly, with Kundry), there is a new beginning, in which it must be hoped the mistakes of the previous cycle (such as the exclusion of women from the Temple) will not be repeated.

Something that Borchmeyer does not mention is that the Ring was begun by Wagner in a Young Hegelian world- view, so that it is natural to see in its cyclical aspect the influence of Hegel's philosophy of history. This is especially significant in its emphasis on the role of the (Hegelian) hero, who destroys the old world and makes a new beginning, in effect taking society to the next level. Hegel's heroes, however, were individuals like Julius Caesar or Napoleon, rather different from Wagner's Siegfried or Parsifal. Despite this, it is possible to see the influence of the Hegelian idea of the hero completing the cycle, both in the Ring and in Parsifal, long after Wagner had moved from a Hegelian world-view to one that was strongly influenced by Schopenhauer. It was also influenced by Buddhism, which is also cyclical, so that it is possible (although a radical interpretation) to see Parsifal as the Buddha of a new age, as Shakyamuni is the Buddha of our present age.

The music, however, in the end returns to the key in which the opera began.

open quotes The conclusion of Parsifal reconciles many conflicts and suggests some sustainability of the present, as "Erlösung dem Erlöser" is repeated in different ways in a long circle of fifths that leads upward — from D major through A, E, B (=C flat) and further to G flat. In reaching D flat major, we arrive at the subdominant of A flat major, with which the prelude to Parsifal began. It is as if the rising circle of fifths carries the listener into exalted regions. The orchestral conclusion of Parsifal encompasses an expanded plagal cadence (from subdominant to tonic), from D flat major harmony to the concluding chords of A flat major. In Wagner's age, the plagal cadence was [still] a topos of sacred music. Many of Wagner's redemptive conclusions to his operas employ this gesture, often involving the minor subdominant. Yes in the midst of this process, Kundry sinks lifeless to the ground, as two D flat major triads enclose a dynamically emphasized A minor triad (3rd act bars 1123-25). A window into another world is briefly opened, into the nirvana that Kundry has longed for. This musical inflection sounded once before, at the end of the Grail liturgy in the first act. Now it closes the circle of rebirths and Kundry enters into the eternal presence of the divine as glimpsed in the Grail ceremony. The melody of the Communion theme, now freed from suffering, has the last word in the drama: "Erlösung dem Erlöser". close quotes
[From Ulrike Kienzle's fascinating essay Parsifal and Religion: A Christian Music Drama?, of which the German original appeared in her book, ...daß wissend würde die Welt! Religion und Philosophie in Richard Wagners Musikdramen (Wagner in der Diskussion, Band I, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 2005, pages 189-229). A slightly revised version of the essay has been included in A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal, ed. William Kindermann and Katherine R. Syer (Camden House, Rochester and Woodbridge, 2005, pages 80-130) in an English translation by Mary A. Cicora, from which I have quoted here.]

Redeeming the Redeemer (again)

Parsifal: Des Heilands Klage da vernehm' ich, die Klage - ach! Die Klage um das entweihte Heiligtum.
(Parsifal act two)


There can be no doubt that the work as a whole and, more than any other, this final scene are multilayered. There are musical, poetic, dramatic, mythological, religious, philosophical and even political layers woven together here. There is musical logic, there is mythical thinking and there are many ideas present together. The audience are left wondering what it all means: what is the message (or what are the messages) of Wagner's last major work?

open quotes Finally, in Parsifal, we have a more overtly metaphysical or ontological hypothesis about whether there exists something beyond Christianity. The question in Götterdämmerung is: What happens once the gods are dead? What happens is that humanity arrives on the scene. The question in Die Meistersinger is: What is the essence of Germany, given that it cannot be a historical or political essence? The answer is: high art. And the third question, in Parsifal, is: Is there something beyond Christianity?
The latter question, as you know, was also posed by Nietzsche. Opinions on this issue differ: is it really possible to break with Christianity? I'm inclined to say that Wagner's answer amounts to claiming that what is beyond Christianity is actually the full affirmation of Christianity itself. But it is important to understand what this means. It does not mean neo-Christianity or a heresy of any particular sort. On the contrary, it means that Christian figurality can be recovered and reaffirmed as a matrix ultimately constituting a world or universe that will be beyond Christianity. This world or universe will both save Christianity and in a way abolish it, since all the assumptions constitutive of Christianity will disappear through this affirmative operation and be replaced by a synthetic affirmation whose guiding principle will be "Redemption to the Redeemer".
"Redemption to the Redeemer" means: Christianity has ceased being a doctrine of salvation, and it is only through the figural or aesthetic reaffirmation of the Christian totality, which in a certain way de-Christianizes and de- idealizes it, that something beyond Christianity can be found. In other words, this is a very strange — Nietzschean, all in all — treatment of Christianity. But, where Nietzsche advocated a total break ... and in the end got bogged down and lost in his project of an absolute fracturing of the history of the world, Wagner, on the contrary, proposed a positive treatment. Parsifal is the eternal return applied to Christianity. Christianity returns but it does so in an aesthetically affirmed mode, that of the "Redemption to the Redeemer", as though it had to return as something different from, yet based on, itself. close quotes
Alain Badiou: Five Lessons on Wagner, translated by Susan Spitzer, Verso, London and NY 2010.

Remarks on Staging the Final Scene of the Opera

There are four possible endings (with infinitely many possible variations), in terms of whether Kundry or Amfortas live or die. This assumes no radical changes to the ending, such as returning to Wagner's 1865 idea of resurrecting Titurel (Titurel rises from his coffin and gives his blessing)2.

  • Kundry dies, Amfortas is healed and lives, Parsifal assumes the office of Grail King: this is Wagner's own ending. Therefore it is unlikely to be favoured by the current generation of opera producers. Before dismissing this ending, however, it should be noted that it is the logical conclusion of all that has gone before, seen from a Schopenhaurian viewpoint (or equally, from a Buddhist perspective). If Amfortas lives, it seems to be unnecessary for Parsifal to take over his office. In some of the medieval sources, after healing the Grail King, the hero retires to live as a hermit. But it would be more in keeping with Wagner's text to assume that it is the healed Amfortas who leaves at the end, perhaps to become a hermit himself.

  • Both Kundry and Amfortas die, Parsifal assumes the office of Grail King: it is not necessary for the Grail King to live once a successor has arrived. In some of Wagner's sources, the Grail King is healed, only to die peacefully a few days later. The healing that Parsifal brings, is revealed to be death. From a viewpoint of Schopenhaurian pessimism, this ending would be satisfactory. The old order has gone, and a new order begins under the rule of Parsifal.

  • Amfortas is relieved of his office and dies, the reborn Kundry lives, Parsifal assumes the office of Grail King: this is the inversion of Wagner's ending. Therefore it is currently very popular with opera producers. The only argument that this author can see in favour of this ending, is that Kundry might be reborn to some purpose, at the sight of the Grail. From a Christian perspective, she would have been saved through faith; from a Buddhist perspective, she might be on the road to enlightenment and an eventual escape from samsara.

  • Both the reborn Kundry and the healed Amfortas live: this is the feel-good ending. Although it would be inconsistent with Wagner's text (both of Parsifal and Lohengrin), it would be consistent with his sources to allow Amfortas to continue as Grail King, either keeping Parsifal as heir apparent, or allowing him to reject the crown (as he did in a recent ENO/SFO/LOC production) and to leave Monsalvat.

The last of these seems to be the most positive ending. On one level, it emphasizes that the Grail community, for so long turned inward, now turns outward (although there are other ways of showing this change). On another level, it corrects a weakness inherent in the Grail legend. In Robert de Boron's Perceval (at least it has been attributed to de Boron), for example, the sorcerer Merlin announces to Arthur and his knights of the Round Table that their companion Perceval has succeeded, and has become Lord of the Grail. From now on he will renounce chivalry and will surrender himself entirely to the grace of his Creator. At this news, Arthur and his knights weep; for their brotherhood has lost its spiritual purpose, and become worldly. The withdrawal of Perceval from the world is a lost opportunity; if he had brought back the Grail to the court of Arthur, the world might have been changed. By doing so, however, Perceval would have become God's representative on earth, a possibility that the medieval authors did not wish to contemplate. In Wagner's version, as we know from another of his stage works, Lohengrin, the Grail community under Parsifal remains hidden from the world, but its members can be sent out into the world, to anyone in need of their help.

Footnote 1: Recommended reading: Ulrike Kienzle, "Das Weltüberwindungswerk: Wagner's Parsifal — ein szenisch-musikalisches Gleichnis der Philosophie Arthur Schopenhauers" (The Work about Overcoming the World: Wagner's Parsifal — a Music-dramatic Parable of the Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer), Laaber 1992.

Footnote 2: Some years after I wrote this Postscript to my original article, inevitably, the resurrection of Titurel was actually restored, in a Berlin production.

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