Erlösung dem Erlöser
Parsifal: Erlösung, Frevlerin, biet' ich auch dir.
(Parsifal act two)
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.
[Cosima's Diaries, entry for 6th January 1881]
...knowledge [Erkenntnis] affords the possibility
of the suppression of willing, of salvation [Erlösung] through freedom, of overcoming and annihilating the world.
[The World as Will and Representation, volume I, chapter 60, translated by E.F.J.Payne]
nyone 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.
t 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
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)
any 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.
ll 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
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.
o 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.
he 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.
learly 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.
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.
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.
ne 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?.
he 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.
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
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.
[Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre, Dieter Borchmeyer, tr. Stewart Spencer, Oxford, 1991, pages 388-9]
ertainly 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.
ne might be allowed some reservations before accepting Borchmeyer's claim
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?
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."
[Cosima's Diaries, entry for 15th July 1879]
he 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.
he 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 (
verwalte nun dein Amt). Amfortas' suffering was necessary, it seems, because it evoked compassion in his
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.
ut 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.
orchmeyer 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.
omething 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.
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".
[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
Parsifal: Des Heilands Klage da vernehm' ich, die Klage - ach! Die Klage um das entweihte Heiligtum.
(Parsifal act two)
here 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?
Finally, in Parsifal, we have a more
overtly metaphysical or ontological hypothesis about whether there exists something beyond Christianity. The question in Götterdämmerung is:
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:
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.
Alain Badiou: Five Lessons on Wagner, translated by Susan Spitzer, Verso, London and NY 2010.
here 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
- 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
he 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.
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.
Some years after I wrote this Postscript to my original article, inevitably, the resurrection of Titurel was actually
restored, in a Berlin production.