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Meyerbeer's Robert and Wagner's Parsifal

Allegory and Antithesis

Both Richard and Cosima Wagner hinted that there were secrets in Parsifal. Certainly, it is a work with many levels, dimensions and external references. One of the most fascinating of these references is to an opera by another composer who had at one time been Wagner's mentor and benefactor. It has been suggested that Wagner had modelled the second act of Parsifal upon part of an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer. If so, was it because Wagner trying to convey some message about the relationship of his Gesamtkunstwerk to the operatic tradition? Or does it have more to do with his relationship to Meyerbeer?

Wagner and Meyerbeer

Although Meyerbeer had encouraged and promoted the young Wagner, the younger composer came to resent his erstwhile patron. It seems that this resentment festered into virulent anti-Semitism, as expressed in the essay Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music). In Wagner's letters to Meyerbeer, he addresses his patron in terms of adulation and self-abasement. Several of them begin with My deeply revered Lord and Master. In one of these letters he wrote:

open quotes... you will readily understand me when I tell you that I weep tears of the deepest emotion whenever I think of the man who is everything to me, everything ... But my head & my heart are no longer mine to give away, - they are your property, my master; - the most that is left to me is my two hands, - do you wish to make use of them? - I realise that I must become your slave, body & soul, in order to find food and strength for my work, which will one day tell me of my gratitude. I shall be a loyal & honest slave ... close quotes
[Richard Wagner to Giacomo Meyerbeer, 3 May 1840; tr. Spencer and Millington]

It is not surprising that Wagner looked back upon his relationship to Meyerbeer with repugnance. Wagner tried to explain himself to Liszt:

open quotesTowards Meyerbeer my position is a peculiar one. I do not hate him but he disgusts me beyond measure. This eternally amiable and pleasant man reminds me of the most turbid, not to say most vicious, period of my life, when he pretended to be my protector; that was a period of connections and back stairs when we are made fools of by our protectors, whom in our inmost heart we do not like. This is a relation of the most perfect dishonesty; neither party is sincere towards the other; one and the other assume the appearance of affection and both make use of each other as long as their mutual interest requires it. For the intentional impotence of his politeness towards me I do not find fault with Meyerbeer; on the contrary, I am glad not to be his debtor as deeply as, for example, B[erlioz?]. But it was quite time that I should free myself perfectly from this dishonest relation towards him. Externally there was not the least occasion for it, for even the experience that he was not sincere towards me would not have surprised me, neither did it give me the right to be angry, because at bottom I had to own that I had intentionally deceived myself about him. But from inner causes arose the necessity to relinquish all considerations of common prudence with regard to him. As an artist I cannot exist before myself and my friends, I cannot think or feel, without realizing and confessing my absolute antagonism to Meyerbeer, and to this I am driven with genuine desperation when I meet with the erroneous opinion even among my friends that I have anything in common with with Meyerbeer. close quotes
[Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt, 18 April 1851; tr. Francis Hueffer]

Robert le Diable

Image: Robert le diable

Left: Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. Lithograph by J. Arnout. ©Bibliothèque de l'Opéra, Paris.

In view of the above, it is most surprising to find that there are dramatic and musical parallels between the third act of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, a work that Wagner knew intimately from before his time in Paris (he conducted a performance of the work in 1838), and the second act of Parsifal. This has been demonstrated by Walter Keller. [Tribschener Blätter, xxx, December 1971, pp.6-12; translated in Wagner, v13 nr2, May 1992, pp.83-90.]

Parallels in Dramatic Structure

The obvious parallels in the respective action of the two acts suggests that Wagner was, either consciously or unconsciously, thinking of Robert le Diable when he wrote his Prose Draft of 1865. Wagner had last heard Meyerbeer's opera at the Paris Opera in 1860. Keller lists the following parallels.

Robert le diable Parsifal
A hall in the ruined convent of St. Rosalie, with cloisters to the right and a cemetery to the left. Centre stage is a marble statue of St. Rosalie herself, holding a green cypress branch in her hands. Klingsor's enchanted castle, in the inner dungeon of a tower that is open to the sky. The foot of the tower is shrouded in darkness.
Scène et évocation
Bertram, the prince of darkness, conjures up the shades of those formed nuns who were unfaithful to their vows: Nonnes qui reposez sous cette froide pierre, relevez-vous!
Using his magician's powers, Klingsor conjures up Kundry's soul; her spirit appears in the shadows. Herauf! herauf! Zu mir!
Procession des nonnes
Swathed in their funerary shrouds, the nuns rise slowly from their graves and, roused to a brief semblance of life, foregather in the hall.
In the blue light, Kundry's figure rises up. She seems asleep. She moves like on awaking. Finally she utters a terrible cry.
Bertram announces Robert's imminent approach and orders the nuns to seduce him.
Klingsor announces Parsifal's imminent approach and orders Kundry to seduce him.
The nuns cast off their veils, revealing seductive dancing costumes underneath. They join in a lively bacchanale but withdraw on Robert's entrance.
Magic Maidens scene. From all sides rush in the Flower maidens clad in light veil-like garments, first singly, then in groups, forming a confused, many-coloured throng. They seem as though just startled out of sleep.
Robert enters through the cloisters.
Parsifal jumps down into the garden.
Premier air de ballet
The nuns attempt to seduce Robert by plying him with drink.
Deuxième air de ballet
The nuns attempt to seduce Robert through gambling.
Troisième air de ballet
They try to seduce him through love.
The maidens deck themselves with flowers. They dance in a graceful, childlike manner about Parsifal, caressing him gently. Parsifal is at first fascinated and then repelled by them: Lasst ab! Ihr fangt mir nicht!
Although the abbess Hélène succeeds in persuading Robert to drink and gamble, he recoils from the cypress branch. Finally, however, drunk with love, he steals a kiss from the abbess, then tears the branch from the statue's hands and disappears through the cloisters. Parsifal attains to knowledge through Kundry's kiss. He repulses her.
Choer dansé
Demons rise up out of the ground, seize the nuns and disappear with them underground. The nuns' shrouds remain lying on the floor of the stage.
Parsifal catches the Spear which has been hurled at him, whereupon the castle falls as by an earthquake. The garden withers to a desert; the ground is scattered with faded flowers. Kundry sinks down with a cry. Parsifal, hastening away, pauses on top of the ruined wall, and turns back to Kundry. Du weisst, wo du mich wieder finden kannst! He hastens away.

Parallels in Key Structure

What is more surprising, however, is the discovery that the key structure of the two Stollen (in Lorenz's analysis) of the second act of Parsifal, follows the key structure of the finale to act 3 of Robert. Keller lists the following parallels.

Robert le diable Parsifal
Number Key Period Bars Action Key
Conjuration b minor 1 1-131 Conjuration b minor
2 132-193 Awakening e flat minor
Procession c minor 3 194-213 First refusal c minor
4 214-267 Klingsor's boast b minor
5 268-298 Conjuration b minor
Recitative E flat major 6 299-386 Parsifal storms the castle E flat major
Bacchanale d minor
Bacchanale D major (rel. major) 7 396-426 Klingsor's delusions b minor
8 427-498 Arrival of maidens g minor
Recitative E flat major (rel. major) 9 499-520 Noch nie sah ich c minor
10 521-702 Maidens flirt with Parsifal A flat major
11 703-735 Du Zager und Kalter A flat major
Premier air de ballet G major 12 736-805 Departure of maidens G major


If this is a conscious reworking of Meyerbeer, is then Wagner's Abgesang, the Tristanesque scene between Kundry and Parsifal, intended to prove the superiority of Wagner's art? If we look for them, references to Wagner's life and his quest for the Gesamtkunstwerk are not hard to find in Parsifal: the near quotation of the Swan motif from Lohengrin in the first act, and the allusions to Tristan, not least in the three periods following the kiss. Perhaps the autobiographical message of Parsifal is that Wagner had broken free of the spell cast upon him by his antithesis, his Klingsor: Giacomo Meyerbeer.


Coincidence or intentional?

Since writing the above, I have become more sceptical about the parallels that Keller claimed to have detected between Robert and Parsifal. It is quite possible, even likely, that the parallel in dramatic structure of the corresponding parts of these two dramas arose by coincidence. It does not even seem necessary to suppose an unconscious influence, although that too is a possibility. What seems more likely, in my view, is that Wagner realised that his scene with Parsifal and the magic maidens resembled Meyerbeer's scene with Robert and the nuns -- and that he chose to emphasise, rather than conceal, the parallel when he composed the music.

The tonal parallels too might be coincidental. The tradition of associative tonality dictates that b minor is the villain key, which Wagner therefore associates with Klingsor, while G major is the mother-child key, which Kundry employs when she reminds the boy of his mother. So in my opinion, the question of whether Parsifal contains real references to Robert remains open.

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