An Introduction to Wagner's Parsifal
his web site presents and assesses a wide range of views about, and reactions to,
Wagner's Parsifal, together with some primary material, some source material, comparisons of the opera with that source material, and even some background
to the source material. It is an attempt to help those who are intimidated by Parsifal and a guide through the controversy and confusion surrounding it.
This introduction has been added to give the reader a starting point. The web site was conceived as a single hypertext document, in which internal links will take
the reader to related material, or in some cases to a glossary, to biographical notes or to the bibliography. After following a link, you can use the back-button of your web browser to return to the page you were reading earlier. You will also
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This present opera was Parsifal. Madame
Wagner does not permit its representation anywhere but in Bayreuth. The first act of the three occupied two hours, and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing ...
In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz, who stands on the stage in one spot and practises by the hour, while first one and then another character
of the cast endures what they can of it and then retires to die.
[Mark Twain writing from Bayreuth, At the Shrine of St. Wagner, 1891]
If we regard it as a festive, magic opera; if we
ignore, as we often must in any case, its logical and psychological impossibilities and its false religious- philosophical pretensions, we can find in it moments
of artistic stimulation and brilliant effectiveness.
[Eduard Hanslick writing from Bayreuth, Neue Freie Presse, July 1882]
arsifal is widely regarded as one of the more demanding works in the
operatic repertoire, not only for the performers but also for the audience. Those who come to the work without preparation -- and sometimes even those who have
prepared, since "standard" reference works such as Kobbé's Complete Opera Book or the New Grove Dictionary of Opera provide only incomplete and
sometimes even inaccurate information about it -- can find Parsifal perplexing. Understandably when those who write those "standard" reference books, and
even those who write books about Wagner's life and works, lack a clear understanding of what it is about, or even what it is that happens in the course of the drama.
Typically these writers excuse their inability to explain it by stating that the work is ambivalent and obscure (which it is), or that it is inconsistent (which it
is not), or that it has many layers and dimensions (which is true) and that these are equally important (which is untrue).
Right: Parsifal (John Treleaven) with the Grail, in a recent production at the Wels Festival, Austria.
ince 1882 Parsifal has been widely regarded as a religious work, even as a
Christian mystery-play. Yet there are grounds to doubt that it is a religious work, at least in the sense that a Bach Passion or
Händel's Messiah are religious works. By decision of the composer it was reserved for his own theatre at Bayreuth, and performed only in the Wagner
festivals, until the copyright expired at the end of 1913 despite attempts by the Wagner family to get an extended copyright granted to them. Many interpreted all
this as an indication that the work was too sacred to be performed on a profane stage. Earlier, however, Wagner had wanted to restrict his other stage
festival-play (Bühnenfestspiel), the Ring, to Bayreuth and was only prevented from doing so by economic necessity. Like Parsifal,
the Ring was intended only to be performed for a Festival audience, with the extended rehearsal that Wagner believed these works needed and which only a
Festival could provide. Since Parsifal was the only work written for Wagner's theatre and with a knowledge of its special acoustics, he called it his
stage-dedicatory festival-play (Bühnenweih- festspiel).
he Festspielhaus is, after all, a theatre and not a temple or church, except in the
sense that it is a temple to high art. One that sells beer and sausages (which are always excellent, incidentally) during the intervals. Nietzsche condemned Parsifal as
a work of perfidy and stayed away in 1882, mainly because he had been offended in 1876 by the
consumption of beer and sausages. He had wanted Bayreuth to be a temple to Apollo; he certainly did not want it to become a temple to the God of a slave
morality. Wagner, who was puzzled and amused by Nietzsche's reaction to the libretto of Parsifal,
sent him (in December 1877) a copy of the printed libretto with a dedication from the high Church councillor Richard Wagner. Nietzsche did not get the joke.
f it is not a religious work, then perhaps Parsifal is a work about
religion, or about religious ideas? Michael Tanner 1 has suggested that it is about the psychopathology of religion. Obviously it
contains a good deal of religious language, with even more references to redemption (Erlösung) and salvation (Heil) than in Wagner's
earlier dramas, to which it adds references to a Redeemer (der Erlöser) and the Saviour (der Heiland), who might or might not be
coincident. So religion certainly is on the agenda. When the work was first performed, in 1882, the presentation on stage of a kind of Holy Communion (in which
blood apparently turned into wine and bread) caused offence to some, although a mainstream Christian might find
more to take offence at in the libretto, such as the implication that Parsifal redeems himself through his works,
or that he is able to redeem the heathen Kundry, without, it seems, the Christian
God being involved. Some commentators have suggested that it is not about religion at all, pointing to Wagner's statement, made in 1880:
becomes artificial, it is reserved for art to save the core of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols. In other words, when religion
has failed or become artificial or even obsolete, the myths and their symbols are up for grabs by the artist. Wagner actually agreed with Nietzsche's view that
Christianity, or at least institutional Christianity, was dead or moribund. Paradoxically, however, he saw the need for religion, not only
our need to believe in something but also our need for rituals and sacraments (he was particularly keen on baptism, as both
Parsifal and Die Meistersinger confirm; and it should be noted that there many more instances of ritual and formalized custom in the latter than in
Travellers to the East. Richard Guhr, 'Trias der Wende' (Trinity of Transition). © Richard- Wagner-Gedenkstätte.
n closer examination the libretto of Parsifal
reveals hints of religious concepts and even doctrines, although few of them are familiar to most westerners. Wagner was a traveller to the East, to use Hermann Hesse's term; following the lead of Schopenhauer (on the left of the picture, holding a statue of
the Buddha, one that he kept by his desk), in 1856 Wagner began to read about oriental religions, in particular those of India, Ceylon, Nepal and Tibet. He read
about rituals and ritual objects, doctrines, legends, saints and sages.
Some of these esoteric elements found their way into the libretto of his Parsifal, although they are so unfamiliar to a western
audience or to a western producer, even today, that they tend to be overlooked even when they are structural rather than decorative, essential rather than
incidental. In the 1870's Wagner's reading turned to the origins of Christianity (in the works of Strauss, Renan and Gfrörer), although he also found time to read
(among much else, as Cosima's Diaries reveal) the Oupnekhat (a version of the Upanishads that was in effect Schopenhauer's
Bible) and Buddhist Sutras translated from the Pali Canon. Hence the richness of the religious language and symbolism in the
libretto that he completed in the spring of 1877.
he unfamiliar and eclectic nature of the material from which this tapestry was
woven, together with the obscure and elliptical style of the text, has had some unfortunate consequences. Producers, who are often given all too short notice to
prepare a production of Parsifal and who all too often tackle it as their first Wagner opera (perhaps taking seriously Noël Coward's observation that
Parsifal is much like Camelot, only funnier) find the libretto impenetrable and look for short cuts. Every few years, it
seems, one of them, about to direct his first Wagner opera, gives a press conference or interview in which he or she says that they have decided to
strip away the
religious varnish from Parsifal. So they proceed to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater! Most of them choose to ignore Wagner's stage
directions entirely, forgetting that they too are part of the text and therefore that they deserve attention, if only to help the producer understand the score
(especially in the third act of this drama, in which Kundry's role is only defined in the stage directions and the music). Unable to
understand Wagner's symbolism and (like Hanslick, quoted above) lacking an appropriate frame of reference for the religious and
philosophical ideas underlying his drama, producers give us their distorted versions of Parsifal, in which symbols such as the
Grail or the sign of the Cross are left out, or even (as in a recent SNO/WNO production) make desperate attempts
at comedy. At best these productions give us the outer action but do not make visible the inner action; so that the symbolic and allegorical significance of the
restless Kundry and her balsam, the swan, the Grail, the Spear, Amfortas and his wound, ancient Titurel and
their adversary Klingsor are obscured.
o make matters worse, there are scribblers (like those whom Wagner called
Vielschreiber), many of them academics or professional music critics, each with his or her angle, agenda or hobby- horse, who take advantage of the general
confusion about Parsifal and add to it by presenting (in books, pamphlets, lectures and reviews) their patent interpretations of the drama. These
are often fanciful and far-fetched, usually building an elaborate edifice of interpretation upon a few details, whilst ignoring elements of the work revealing that
Wagner was concerned with other matters entirely, together with all of the elements of Wagner's drama that cannot be accommodated on the Procrustean bed of their own
interpretation. Of the more intelligent and better informed writers, Millington and Beckett are
widely regarded as authorities. Barry Millington claims that Die Meistersinger is anti-Semitic (but not racist) while Parsifal, he asserts at every opportunity, is racist (but not anti-Semitic). Lucy Beckett, whose Cambridge Opera Handbook to Parsifal is to be found in every academic library, asserts that Die
Meistersinger is Wagner's
most Schopenhauerian work but denies that Parsifal is Schopenhauerian 3. It is entirely
possible that the intention behind her statements is to provoke the philosophers, Bryan Magee and Michael Tanner, who recognize that
both Tristan and Parsifal were conceived in a Schopenhauerian world-view, and that Schopenhauer's ideas were only
grafted on to Die Meistersinger late in the development of Wagner's poem.
f the "standard" reference books (in which discussion of Parsifal these
days tends to be monopolized by the omnipresent Barry Millington) do not explain Parsifal, and none of the many Wagner
biographies do much better, then the scribblers can make up whatever suits their fancy and they can find in Parsifal whatever they want to find there. It is
a game that anyone can play. Thus we read that Parsifal is a work about homosexuality, or vegetarianism, or about seduction by vegetables. Barry Millington (who has written a great deal about Wagner
and his works, not least Parsifal, a work which he has evidently studied closely), has stated 3 that there is, in his view,
abundant evidence that Parsifal is filled with ideas about racial purity (although the phrase racial purity does not occur in the libretto, nor is anything like it mentioned there). After denouncing the work for containing ideas that it does not actually contain, Millington wails in frustration:
And why is there not a single expression of anti-Semitism to be found in Parsifal?. No
doubt he will tell us about the work's inherent anti-Semitism when, through persistence, he has found it. As well as being allegedly racist,
both the work and its author have been accused, by various commentators, of being nazistic or misogynist, or
Parsifal is the most enigmatic and
elusive work in the Wagnerian canon. No attempt to eludicate its mysteries can afford to ignore any of its elements, whether its Christian, pagan, Buddhist or
Schopenhauerian ideas, or its concepts of racial purity and regeneration... The juxtaposition of sublimity with such richly ambivalent symbolism and an underlying
ideology disturbing in its implications creates a work of unique expressive power and endless fascination.
[Barry Millington in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, entry for Parsifal.]
Attempts made since the Second World War to
represent Wagner as a sort of proto-Nazi have included interpretations of Parsifal as a racist, and even more specifically as an anti-Semitic, opera --
which would make it, among other things, a work whose primary concerns were not metaphysical or transcendental at all. Some such writers have claimed that the
ideational content of Parsifal consists of social and political ideas that are among those that Wagner was discussing during his final phase as a
journalist, at the same time as he was working on the opera. But such interpretations are self-disqualifying. Denial of the will, and rejection of the world, are
incontestably among the things that Parsifal is most centrally "about", and whereas at least these, at any rate, might be made compatible with an
interpretation in terms of Christian mysticism, they are wholly incompatible with politico-social programmes of any kind. Writings in this vein are an extreme
example of attempts to explain the greater in terms of the less, art in terms of journalism, the subtle and sophisticated in terms of the crude, the insightful and
revealing in terms of the imperceptive, and altogether the profound in terms of the superficial. I cannot refrain from the observation that the writers are often
people who are themselves given to looking at serious and deep concerns in terms of journalistic ideas, if not of ideology.
[Wagner and Philosophy, Bryan Magee, 2000, page 279]
o what is the ordinary opera-goer to make of all this? Many of them take it for
granted that the libretto of Parsifal, like that of Tristan, is impenetrable, and simply enjoy the music. Some of them
read all of the interpretations and the pronouncements of the "great Wagner experts" and become even more confused than they were before. The problem with
the "experts" is that, at least where Parsifal is concerned, the "expert" knows many details but fails to see the big picture; without which, they fail to
distinguish between those details that are essential and those that are incidental. The Wagner expert who came closest to understanding Parsifal was
Carl Dahlhaus 5, although even he sometimes failed to see the wood for the trees. Lucy Beckett, in her valuable survey of critical appraisals of Parsifal, concludes that Dahlhaus' assessment of the work
probably the most widely acceptable account yet given. Another "great Wagner expert", the critic Ernest Newman, provided an
account of Parsifal which is misleading in some details because he sometimes misread Wagner's poem. He showed his grasp of the essentials, however, when he
described the work as Wagner's
supreme song of love and pity.
You can't get to know works of art or of nature
when they have been finished; you must grasp of them while they are coming into being in order to gain any degree of understanding of them.
[Goethe to Zelter]
... I suddenly said to myself that this was Good
Friday and recalled how meaningful this had seemed to me in Wolfram's Parzival. Ever since that stay in Marienbad, where I had conceived Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had not taken another look at that poem; now its
ideality came to me in overwhelming form, and from the idea of Good Friday I quickly sketched out an entire drama in three acts.
[Wagner's autobiography, My Life, tr. Andrew Gray]
Right: The cottage which Wagner called "das Asyl" or "the asylum". Although much rebuilt since Wagner lived there, it still stands beside the Wesendonk Villa,
which is now the Museum Rietberg. Those who get a chance to visit Zürich should visit the "Asyl", the museum's wonderful collection of Buddhist art, and the linden
trees at the bottom of the garden, under which Wagner must have sat (like Siegfried) or lain (like Tristan) while he was working on the score of Siegfried
and the libretto of Tristan und Isolde
y ideality here, Wagner meant the ideas of Wolfram's poem Parzival (of about 1210). Some of them interested him and some of them did not. What he did not explain in the passage
quoted above, or anywhere else, was what his own ideas were on that spring morning, a few days after Richard and Minna Wagner had moved into a cottage (das
Asyl) close to the Wesendonk villa. He said only that he was inspired by
the idea of Good Friday, the day on which Christ
suffered and died. Perhaps he was reflecting on the subject of suffering, which is a central theme of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Perhaps
he was thinking about the sheltered boyhood of Wolfram's hero Parzival, which he might have realised was like the sheltered boyhood of
another hero about whom he had been reading only recently: a central character of a drama he had sketched almost exactly a year before, The
Victors: the Buddha.
hen Parsifal first appears on stage, bursting in upon a placid but troubled
religious community who have concealed themselves and their temple deep in a pathless forest, the boy has only recently left his mother. She has kept from him all
knowledge of old age, sickness and death. Emerging from this sheltered childhood, not yet an adult, he does not know the distinction between good and evil. He does
not even know his own name, who he is or what he is; although he vaguely remembers that he has had many names, all now forgotten. At this stage Parsifal's life lacks
purpose; if he has had any goal or mission, then it has been forgotten. Subsequent events, both onstage and offstage, influence his moral and spiritual development,
which Wagner describes in words and music. As the more insightful commentators have realized, the drama has an inner action which is distinct from the outer action.
The inner action is internal to the title character: the impact of new experiences upon the mind of the spiritual hero. Whilst, in the outer action, Amfortas, Titurel and Kundry are independently-acting
characters, they also function as symbols in the inner action, developing in the consciousness of Parsifal.
agner later confessed to Cosima that there was an error in the autobiography that
he had dictated to her. It was not a Good Friday at all, he admitted, just
a pleasant mood in nature that made him think, this is how
a Good Friday should be. On this spring morning in 1857, Richard Wagner was inspired to make his first sketch (since lost without trace) for his drama Parsifal.
t is often said that Wagner's Parsifal is based on the medieval Grail romances, and in particular Wolfram's Parzival (although Chrétien's
Perceval and the Welsh Peredur are often mentioned too, and it is known that Wagner studied these romances). This tends to lead
the reader of, for example, an opera program into believing that Parsifal is a work of Arthurian romance, which the opera-goer expects to see shining in
Celtic twilight. As Carl Suneson has pointed out, however,
Wolfram's colourful medieval world, full of contrasts, with its tumble of
characters, tournaments and battles, is marked by its almost total absence in Wagner's drama. Wagner's increasingly emphatic and often bad-tempered denials that he had based his drama on Wolfram's epic poem, while they might overstate the case, confirm
that he had not simply followed in the footsteps of the medieval poet. Wolfram's Parzival is a story about constancy or fidelity,
whereas Wagner's Parsifal is a story about the importance of compassion. Wolfram's
Parzival is the story of a foolish and ignorant young man who becomes a perfect knight; but Wagner's Parsifal is the story of a foolish and
ignorant young man who becomes a saint. The fool becomes a sage, and the wise old knight, who gives the foolish lad moral guidance in the
first act, has (according to Wagner's Prose Draft) become a
childish old man by the third act, when the perfected knight and sage
returns to Monsalvat and finds his mentor again.
o one of the key ideas in Parsifal is the concept of a saint or sage. In
the widest possible sense -- Wagner wrote of the true geniuses and true sages of all ages -- and also in a specific, narrow sense, the character Parsifal is an
instance of an archetype, the saint or sage. In Wagner's terminology, he is a member of the race of saints, as well as being a member of the
race of heroes. Wagner's use of the word Geschlecht, which can be translated as "race", has been much
misunderstood. When he wrote of a race of saints, for example, he did not mean that saints were a biological breed or strain; he meant the
class of individuals, whom we call saints. His Parsifal is both a hero and a saint; he is a spiritual hero, who overcomes the
world. In this sense he is victorious. Carl Suneson, in his insightful monograph about Wagner and India,
suggested that a particular kind of Buddhist saint was the model for Wagner's Parsifal:
Parsifal is obviously also a kind of
Christ-figure, one who suffers the torments of Christ, although Wagner's understanding of Christ is highly individual, complicated, and in some ways incompatible
with the Saviour known to Christian theology. Christ is, for Wagner, both Erlöser and in need of Erlösung (recall "Die
Gottesklage" in the second act: [Richard Wagner och den Indiska Tankevärlden, Carl Suneson, Stockholm, 1985, tr. present author]
erlöse, rette mich aus schuldbefleckten Händen! ) and there is between him and Parsifal [at the end of the third
act] a kind of reciprocal pacification. On closer examination of Wagner's text, it is not unreasonable to perceive in his Parsifal-Christ figure a suggestion of
the Buddhist bodhisattva-ideal. In later Buddhist tradition, a bodhisattva is one who is on the way to becoming a Buddha and who has vowed to postpone
their final transition to Buddhahood, to work for the salvation of all sentient beings and in a totally self- sacrificing manner to serve them. The bodhisattva
doctrine includes a description of the transfer of merit from a bodhisattva to those in need of help. The being who receives this help is freed from further
rebirth and the consequences of their actions in earlier lives, karma, are not brought to maturity but absorbed in the depths of the bodhisattva's
boundless sea of mercy.
he relevance of this kind of Buddhist saint, the bodhisattva as he appears in the
Maháyána scriptures, had not (as far as the present author can determine) been mentioned by earlier commentators on Parsifal, although that there
are references in Parsifal to Buddhism and to the life of the Buddha was first explained more than a century ago. Most
commentators since then have mentioned that there are Buddhist elements in the libretto, without expanding on this statement. In view of the fact that Wagner had
been reading (early in 1856) the first detailed account to appear in any European language of the Maháyána doctrines, Burnouf's Introduction à l'histoire du Buddhisme indien, the book in which he found the legend on which he based the sketch for
The Victors, this influence is plausible. Seen in connection with what Wagner wrote in 1860 about Parsifal's purity, the doctrine of the transfer of merit, to which Professor Suneson refers, helps to explain
what happens in the Good Friday Meadow. As Parsifal, the newly anointed priest-king of the Grail, baptizes the
heathen Kundry as his first act in his new role, there is a complementarity of Christian and Buddhist doctrines. As a Christian saint,
Parsifal absolves Kundry of her sins; as a Buddhist saint, Parsifal transfers to her some of the merit that he has gained through good
works in countless earlier lives. Thus Kundry is
freed from further rebirth and the consequences of [her] actions in earlier lives,
karma, are not brought to maturity but absorbed in the depths of the bodhisattva's boundless sea of mercy.
he presence of Buddhist or pseudo-Buddhist elements in the libretto of
Parsifal has long been recognized and the more intelligent and better-informed commentators writing about Parsifal have acknowledged that in the
formative years of this drama, Wagner's thinking was more influenced by Buddhism than it was by Christianity. Regrettably too much of the literature concerning the
Buddhist and oriental elements of the work has been speculative and inaccurate (see the review of this literature at the beginning of Suneson's monograph; unfortunately it is only available in Swedish and German). Even Carl Suneson's analysis of
the Buddhist and Hindu ideas in Parsifal fails to penetrate Wagner's libretto, although Suneson's suggestions that Monsalvat was in part inspired by the
forest ashrams of Valmiki's Ramayana, that the incident of the swan draws on some famous lines of Sanskrit attributed to Valmiki, and that Parsifal
follows the path of the bodhisattva (see above) are all persuasive and deserve to be more widely known. It is remarkable that none of the commentators who have
considered the Buddhist and oriental ideas in Parsifal have understood that a critical event in the life of the Buddha determines the structure of the first
act of Wagner's drama, even though most of them (following Heckel) acknowledge that another critical event in the Buddha's life underlies
the action of the second act, whilst only Suneson approaches an understanding of what happens in the central scene of the third act.
Where religion becomes artificial, it is reserved
for art to save the core of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in a literal sense, and by
revealing the deep truth hidden in them through ideal representation.
[Wagner's essay Religion and Art, 1880, tr. William Ashton Ellis]
Left: Bayreuth postcard
showing Kundry, reclining on what G.B.
a Gower Street sofa
and attempting to seduce Parsifal (act two). Wagner joked,
Really she should be lying there naked, like a Titian
. His reference to Venus is fitting , since his ideas about Kundry were finalized in 1860
while he was writing the Venusberg
scene for the Paris Tannhäuser
y ideal representation here, Wagner meant the representation of
ideas, specifically those that he regarded as deep truth. The quotation above has been taken from the opening of an 1880 article by Wagner, one of
a series of increasingly cranky essays that he wrote in 1878- 1882 for publication in Wolzogen's journal, the Bayreuther
Blätter. There has been much attention given to these essays in recent decades. Authors such as Robert Gutman, Hartmut
Zelinsky and more recently Barry Millington 6 have attempted to explain the ideality of
Parsifal on the basis of these so-called regeneration writings, so called because they are full of ideas that preoccupied Wagner
in 1878-1882 (although in fact the arguments advanced by Gutman et al are based on passages, taken out of context, from Religion and Art of July
1880 and its supplements), including his concern about the supposed degeneration of the human race and his hope for its regeneration. The
main ideas connected together in these essays were not Wagner's own but those that he had found during the 1870's in the writings of the naturalist Charles Darwin,
combined of course with Wagner's interpretation of Schopenhauer, and from 1880 the vegetarian Gleizès and the racial theorist Count Gobineau. To the extent that these essays contain references to Parsifal, which Wagner was completing in this period, they do tell us about how he saw the work in the light of his current preoccupations. Since none of these ideas had
been considered by Wagner during the development of the text of Parsifal, however, Gutman, Zelinsky and Millington are gravely in error when they propose to explain the ideality of Parsifal on the basis of these late essays.
A less savoury aspect of Parsifal that
should neither be overlooked nor exaggerated out of proportion is the fact that it was composed at the period in Wagner's life when his views on racial
purity were finding their most extreme and strident expression. In the series of essays from his last years, sometimes known as the regeneration writings, a number of ideas are propounded at considerable length: blatant racist ideology partly derived from Gobineau's ideas on
miscegenation; unabashed anti- Semitism in by now familiar tirades; the role of religion and of Christ the Redeemer in a process of regeneration.
[Wagner in Dent's Master Musicians series of biographies, Barry Millington, 1984, pages 268-9]
he error of which Barry Millington (following
Robert Gutman, although with some reservations about Gutman's more eccentric ideas) has convinced himself (and unfortunately too
many other people), is that the ideas that preoccupied Wagner in 1880-1882 found expression in Parsifal, the libretto of which he
completed in the spring of 1877. A comparison of the libretto with the Munich Prose Draft of 1865, one which the
reader is invited to make for themselves, shows that Wagner in 1877 closely followed what he had drafted in 1865, the main difference being that the Spear assumes greater importance in the later version. Lucy Beckett concludes that the
plan for the opera ... was
in all essentials and most details complete by 1865. Those who, like Gutman, Zelinsky and Millington, believe otherwise can only do so by ignoring much of the hard evidence. The ideas of the 1865 Prose
Draft, and therefore the ideas that inform the libretto, are those that preoccupied Wagner in the years 1856-1865. Not those that
engaged his interest in 1880-1882.
lready in 1855, under the influence of Schopenhauer and
in particular the section On Religion in his Parerga and Paralipomena7, Wagner had begun to develop unconventional
views about religion:
... modern research has succeeded in showing that
pure and unalloyed Christianity was nothing but a branch of that venerable Buddhism which, after Alexander's Indian expedition, spread to the shores of the
Mediterranean. In early Christianity we can still see distinct traces of the perfect negation of the will of life, of the longing for the destruction of the world,
i.e. the cessation of all existence.
[Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt on 7 June 1855, Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt, Tr. Francis Hueffer, vol. II, page
Left: In H-J Syberberg
's. Parsifal film the flower maidens are presented as women oppressed by men, to whom they are only playthings, and
Klingsor is a pimp.
or Schopenhauer and for Wagner, the teachings of Jesus,
presented only in distorted form in the Gospels, had been inspired by ideas that had spread from India. The deep truth that Jesus had
recognised and taught, they believed, had been lost from sight in Christendom, until it was rediscovered by Schopenhauer, who then found
that some of his key ideas had been taught in India centuries before Jesus. Christianity was, for Wagner,
necessary error. He came to believe in his own definition of true Christianity, which was a
religion of compassion. Wagner's
frequent references to Christianity should always be read with these statements in mind. When Wagner described his Parsifal as a
Christian work, he meant that it was a drama that expressed his idea of true Christianity; and what was taught by the
vicars and parsons was, for Wagner, not his idea of true Christianity.
t is hardly surprising that none of the many attempts that have been made to
interpret Parsifal in terms of Christian theology has succeeded. This failure has been excused by Lucy Beckett, in her
Cambridge Opera Handbook to Parsifal, on the grounds that the drama is inconsistent (an evaluation that was echoed by Millington in his biography
of Wagner), since, according to Beckett, in Parsifal Wagner had attempted to reconcile pagan and Christian ideas, resulting
unresolvable friction. Therefore in terms of her proposed interpretation of Parsifal as a work of Christian mysticism, the work is not
only inconsistent but broken. Certainly there are influences of Christian mysticism detectable in the work but it is hard to find any
paganism; except for the pagan classical myth of Telephus. Wagner recognized, as he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk, that the Grail legend, like other supposedly Christian myths, had a pagan origin; but does any paganism remain in
elements that Wagner chose from the Grail romances and adapted to his own purposes? And if so, does it matter? After all, elements such as
the holy spear and the Grail, after their transignification in the Grail romances, passed into European culture as Christian symbols, despite their pagan origins.
For Wagner it did not matter whether these elements were Christian or pagan so long as he could manipulate them to suit his artistic ends. Beckett does not seem to
be concerned about the pagan origins of the Grail:
The Grail in Parsifal, for all the bits
and pieces of pagan legend that Wagner retained [from the romances], demands to be taken in its full Christian sense as the perpetually renewed chalice of the Last
Supper which represents Christ's continuing presence among men. If it is not so taken, many of the words used to describe it and its place at the centre of the
drama, itself needing redemption from the plight to which Amfortas' failure has brought it, become meaningless...
[Beckett, page 140]
ere it might be noted that Beckett, like most commentators on Parsifal,
assumes that Wagner developed his libretto by compressing material from Wolfram's Parzival and supplementing it with "bits and pieces" from other Grail
romances. The reader is advised to read the accompanying article on Wagner's sources for a more accurate picture of where Wagner quarried
his raw material; even better, to read Wolfram and try to identify anything in it that is referenced directly in Wagner's opera. Unfortunately Beckett's narrow view
of the sources led her to the mistaken conclusion that the "pagan" (non-monotheistic) elements of Wagner's ideality were either residues from the distillation of
Wolfram's poem or taken from other Grail romances. But this is certainly not the case: consider (as Beckett does not) the early medieval poem Barlaam and Josaphat, which this author would argue was the inspiration for more of Wagner's text than was Wolfram's Parzival. The former
is a "pagan" story (originally about the Buddha) that passed through a Christian filter to become a story about two (fictional) Christian saints. Does any "paganism"
remain in the version of this story that Wagner had on his bookshelf in Dresden?
here is another aspect to this business of pagan and Christian elements in Wagner's
text: even today, western audiences are likely to recognize symbols such as the Grail, as well as the rituals in the opera, as deriving from Christian traditions.
Since western audiences are less likely to be familiar with Wagner's non-Christian sources (say, the Ramayana or accounts of the life of the Buddha), it is
understandable that audience members experience the work in a Christian context; taking the Grail, as does Beckett, in its "full Christian sense". Wagner used
Christian language, especially in the temple scenes; but it should be noted that even these scenes are set in a temple and not in a church. If audiences have
mistakenly seen this opera as a work of Christian piety, then Wagner is to blame for his use of Christian symbols and religious language borrowed from the Christian
n the other hand, although it is less obvious to a Christian audience (or at least
to one that is more familiar with Christianity than with Buddhism), there are suggestions in Parsifal of
Buddhist doctrines and Buddhist legends. These influences are immediately recognised by Buddhists and by those who have studied Buddhism
when they attend a performance of Parsifal. Recently the present author spoke to a German film-maker, who had been commissioned to make a film about the
life of the Buddha Shakyamuni. When he began studying the film-script, this producer realized that he had seen some of this before; these incidents were in Wagner's
Parsifal! In fact this is not all that remarkable, given that Wagner had already been working on (or at least, researching) a drama about the Buddha
(The Victors or Die Sieger) during the year (May 1856 to April 1857) before his "Good Friday" inspiration.
The title was inspired by the Jinas, Indian holy
men whose name in Sanskrit means "victors". Their victory was over human passions. Die Sieger dealt with an event in the legendary life of the Buddha, one
of whose titles was Jina -- the Victor. Wagner himself described the sketch as being based on a simple legend of a low-caste maiden (called Prakriti), who is
received into a pious order of mendicants [Wagner's Parsifal: the Journey of a Soul, Peter Bassett, 2000. This book is highly recommended
as the best introduction to Parsifal currently available.]
as a result of her painfully intense and purified love for Ananda, the chief disciple of the Buddha. Wagner was
especially attracted to the story's secondary theme of reincarnation as a vehicle for his compositional technique of Emotional Reminiscence, usually referred to by
the term "Leitmotiv".
Only music he said,
can convey the mysteries of reincarnation.
agner's interest in reincarnation, a
doctrine in which he confessed his belief in 1860, is another aspect of Wagner's religious and spiritual outlook of which evidence can be
found in Parsifal. Not only reincarnation, in fact, but also the theory of karma
fascinated Wagner. The reader will be able to find a discussion of how these ideas were reflected in Wagner's works in the studies by Wolfgang Osthoff and Carl Suneson respectively. As Schopenhauer had pointed out,
reincarnation had been taught throughout the world in antiquity, and not only in India. It is
probable that Wagner believed that Jesus had taught a doctrine of reincarnation, which his disciples had failed to
understand. Thus it was an element of his true Christianity, of which Parsifal was an expression.
wo of Wagner's later dramas are more closely related than is widely recognized. It
is almost certain that neither Tristan und Isolde nor Parsifal would exist, had not Wagner discovered the philosophy of Schopenhauer in the autumn of 1854. The most important difference between these works, in relation to this philosophy, is that Tristan
expresses some of Schopenhauer's metaphysical ideas, while Parsifal is more concerned with his
ethical ideas and especially with the primary importance that Schopenhauer assigned to compassion 8. Compassion (Mitleid) is at the centre of Parsifal just as
longing (Sehnen) is at the centre of Tristan und Isolde 9.
Of course the answer could be that Wagner's
intention was to produce a Christian drama, in the most straightforward way, but that he failed and therefore the work is broken- backed. But here we have to turn
to our actual experience of it, which is, one or two brief passages apart, marvellously unified and coherent, and to remain true to that. The work is primarily
about Parsifal's progress to enlightenment through compassion, and his subsequent ability to put the Hall of the Grail in order... It is only in terms of this
ethic of compassion, founded on a metaphysic of the unity of living things, that Parsifal makes sense.
[Wagner, Michael Tanner, 1996, pages 198-9.]
Redemption to the redeemer (ogg format,
mono, duration 3.5 min.)
Right: Bayreuth postcard
showing the traditional ending of Parsifal
From the dome a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal's head. Kundry, with her gaze resting on Parsifal, sinks lifeless to the ground. Amfortas and
Gurnemanz kneel in homage before Parsifal, who swings the Grail over the worshipping knights.
learly Michael Tanner's experience of the work
differs from that of Lucy Beckett. Both Parsifal and Tristan reflect the Schopenhauerian (and also Buddhist)
doctrines according to which suffering is an inevitable part of life, and desire is the cause of suffering. In Tristan we are shown that even the desire to
escape from this world causes suffering. In Parsifal we see a
marvellously world-demonic woman who brings to men
the suffering of seduction
and how an attempt at seduction can bring a flash of enlightenment (unlikely as this might sound, there is a precedent for such an experience in one of the Buddhist
scriptures). In Tristan and in The Victors Wagner was still resisting Schopenhauer's teaching that sexual love, as a manifestation of the erotic and demonic will or will-to-live, was a hindrance to salvation. By the
time he wrote the libretto of Parsifal, Wagner had almost let go of his belief in
redemption through love. In the second act
of Parsifal we see the opposition of two different kinds of love: Kundry offers Parsifal sexual love, 'έρως or amor, and he responds (to her confusion) by offering her loving-kindness, 'αγάπη or caritas.
The former, according to Schopenhauer, leads only to suffering, while the latter can lead to salvation.
osima Wagner records a statement by Richard about how Kundry had experienced Isolde's transfiguration many times. Isolde dies in the hope that she will be united with Tristan in the realm of
eternal night. Kundry in Parsifal and Brünnhilde (who in the 1856 ending of Gütterdämmerung declares herself
redeemed from rebirth) die in the knowledge that they will not be reborn. If one believes, with Schopenhauer and Wagner, that
existence is a burden and this world a vale of tears, then the death of Kundry at the end of Parsifal is something positive:
after centuries of wandering she has found eternal rest in a blissful nirvana. Parsifal remains in the world, however,
to work for the
salvation of all sentient beings and in a totally self- sacrificing manner to serve them. So, although it is by no means life-affirming, the ending of Wagner's Parsifal is, in a way and against all the odds, optimistic.
Footnote 1: The Total Work of Art
by Michael Tanner, in The Wagner Companion
, ed. P. Burbridge and R. Sutton,
Footnote 2: Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
, ed. John Warrack, chapter 4: Sachs and Schopenhauer
Richard Wagner: Parsifal
, ed. Lucy Beckett, chapter 6: A Proposed Interpretation
. For Wagner's opinion of academics the reader is referred to
the third installment of his article The Public and Popularity
(August 1878), PW 6, pages 70-81.
Footnote 3: Wagner
in Dent's Master Musicians Series
, 1984, pages 269 to 271. This ill-judged section of the
chapter on Parsifal
disfigures what is otherwise a well-written and informative biography. See also Millington's article on Parsifal
the New Grove Dictionary of Opera
. Many Wagnerians are still waiting for Barry Millington to present the
that he claimed
supports his view that Parsifal
Lucy Beckett provides a perceptive and polite refutation of Robert Gutman
's bizarre and
fantastic interpretation of the work in her Richard Wagner: Parsifal
, pages 121-3.
Footnote 5: Richard Wagners Musikdramen
, 1971. The chapter on Parsifal
is on pages 204-223 of the Reclam edition. It
has been translated into English by Mary Whittall as Richard Wagner's Music Dramas
, 1979; pages 142-155.
Footnote 6: Robert Gutman
's strange and often inaccurate Wagner book is Richard Wagner: The Man,
his Mind and his Music
, 1969. Scarcely any of H. Zelinsky's polemics are available in English, although some of his ideas were discussed by Barry Millington
in the journal Wagner
, vol. 8, 1987, pages 114-20 (Parsifal: A Wound Reopened
). The most substantial article, despite its brevity, about
the work by Millington is Parsifal: Facing the Contradictions
, in Musical Times
, 1983, pages 97-8.
Volume 2, chapter XV.
For an understanding of the ethical foundation of Parsifal
, the reader is advised to study Schopenhauer
's On the Basis of Morality
, which is sometimes found in one
volume combined with the essay on the freedom of the will as The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics
. Those who prefer to read the original German will
find the former essay in Schopenhauer
's Collected Works, volume III, pages 632-815. For a general introduction to the philosopher, see
Bryan Magee's book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer
. The only extended discussion of Schopenhauer
's ideas in Wagner's Parsifal
is to be found in Ulrike Kienzle's Das Weltüberwindungswerk: Wagners
. Unfortunately Kienzle concentrated on the ideas developed in The World as Will and Representation
and neglected the essay on the
foundation of morality
, which is more directly relevant to Parsifal
Footnote 9: Wagner and Philosophy
, Bryan Magee, 2000, page 215. (US title: The Tristan Chord