Swans and Geese: Wagner's Wildfowl
the end of the first act of Wagner's Parsifal, the
knight Gurnemanz notices that the young fool is still standing in the hall. It is obvious that he does not understand
what he has seen and heard there.
Dort hinaus, deine Wege zu!
Doch rät dir Gurnemanz:
lass du hier künftig die Schwäne
und suche dir, Gänser, die Gans!
Off with you, be on your way!
Take advice from Gurnemanz:
In future leave our swans
go seek -- you gander --
hese words are ironical. Gurnemanz
sends the young man, whom he thinks is nothing but a fool, on his way. Gurnemanz does not realise that he has changed
the direction of the young fool's life, or that the way that the fool will find, will in the end lead him both to wisdom and back to Gurnemanz. In the next act, the young gander will find a (metaphorical) flock of geese.
he mention of geese is a subtle reference to Wagner's medieval sources. It is
well-known that Wagner first encountered the story about the young fool who stumbles upon the Grail Castle in a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wolfram's primary source was an unfinished poem by Chrétien de
Troyes, Perceval or The Story of the Grail.
have described, in another article, Perceval's visit
to the Grail Castle. The young lad awakes in the castle, now deserted. He bangs on doors and shouts, but nobody appears. Then he goes out into the courtyard,
and finds his horse saddled, his lance and shield leaning against the wall. As he rides out through the gate and on to the drawbridge, it begins to rise. Horse and
rider jump to the bank, and he looks back to see who raised the bridge. Seeing nobody, he calls out, but there is no reply. Wolfram
expands on the story:
A page who had remained hidden pulled the cable
so sharply that the end all but toppled [Parzival's] horse into the moat. Parzival looked back
in hope of learning more. 'Damn you, wherever the sun lights on your path!' shouted the page. 'You silly goose!'.
The incident of the swan: Wieland Wagner's Parsifal in 1956.
agner's scene also has a voice whose owner is unseen, but it is heard by Gurnemanz and not by the young fool. After Gurnemanz has pushed Parsifal out of the door and slammed it shut behind him, he walks across the stage and, as he does so, a voice is heard from up above.
Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor (Made wise through compassion, the pure fool); the words of the prophecy, once delivered to Amfortas. To which a heavenly choir adds,
Selig im Glauben! (Blessed in faith).
here is another episode in Wolfram's Parzival
that involves a goose, a real one this time. But before we consider whether that episode has any relevance to Wagner's Parsifal, we need to consider a
episode in Parsifal that has puzzled commentators, is the
shooting of the swan in the first act. There is no direct parallel in Wolfram, although it has been suggested by Lucy Beckett that two passages in Parzival could have inspired this scene. Firstly, in Wolfram's
account of Parzival's boyhood:
[Wolfram's Parzival, book 3.]
bogen unde bölzelîn
die sneit er mit sîn selbes hant,
und schôz vil vogele die er vant.
Swenne abr er den vogel erschôz,
des schal von sange ê was sô grôz,
sô weinder unde roufte sich,
an sîn hâr kêrt er gerich.
bows and arrows
he fashioned with his own hands,
and shot at the flocks of birds there.
But when he had shot a bird
that had been singing loudly just before,
he would burst into tears
and tear out his own hair.
uch later, in Parzival's
wanderings, he comes across a goose that has been wounded by King Arthur's falcon. Three drops of blood fall on the snow; the red on white reminds Parzival of his distant wife, Condwiramurs. In contemplation of the
blood on the snow, he falls into a trance.
Amfortas Bathing, oil painting by Franz Stassen.
Here is the episode of the swan in Wagner's Prose Draft:
While the King is bathing in the sacred lake, a
wild swan circles over his head: suddenly it falls, wounded by an arrow; shouts from the lake: general indignation, who dares kill an animal on this sacred spot?
The swan flutters nearer and drops bleeding to the ground. Parzival emerges from the forest, bow
in hand: Gurnemans stops him. The young man confesses to the deed. To the violent reproaches of the old man he
has no reply. Gurnemans, reproaching him with the wickedness of his act, reminds him of the sanctity of the
forest stirring so silently around him, asks whether he has not found all the creatures tame, gentle and harmless. What had the swan, seeking its mate, done to
him? Was he not sorry for the poor bird that now lay, with bloodstained feathers, dying at his feet? etc.,- Parzival, who has been standing riveted to the spot, bursts into tears and stammers, 'I don't know!'.
he connection with the first of the two passages in Wolfram seems to be much closer than the second, which does not seem relevant. Even so, there is quite a difference between Wolfram's brief episode and the more complex scene at the lakeside. Carl Suneson has suggested that two passages in
Indian literature could have contributed to Wagner's episode. The first of these, a story about a dispute between the future Buddha and his cousin Devadatta, about
a goose that the cousin had shot down, is related to Mathilde Wesendonk's poem about the wounded swan. Suneson points out that, in the 19th century, it was common for the word hamsa to be mistranslated as swan (Schwan) rather than
goose (Gans). One possible source for Wagner was an article in German, written in 1851 by Anton Schiefner, in which he had translated from a Tibetan text
of 1734 (the Sanskrit text not being available in the west until half a century later). Schiefner's articles on Buddhism were among those recommended in the 1854
edition of Arthur Schopenhauer's Über den Willen in der Natur. A second possible, perhaps stronger, candidate for an Indian
inspiration, according to Suneson, is an incident in the epic Ramayana, which Wagner was reading with great enthusiasm a few
days before writing the 1865 Prose Draft. Combined with the first passage in Wolfram, this is a credible basis
for what Wagner wrote in that draft.
Parsifal Act 1 in the 1989 Bayreuth production by Wolfgang Wagner. Parsifal: William Pell, Gurnemanz: Hans Sotin. ©Bayreuther Festspiele.
agner's abhorrence for any act of cruelty to an animal, and his sympathy for
their dumb suffering, was something that he discovered was shared by Arthur Schopenhauer (as it was by his beloved Mathilde Wesendonk). In Arthur Schopenhauer's ethics, Wagner found a rational basis for his instinctive belief in
the rights of animals. Both men rejected the Christian attitude to animals, taken from the Old Testament, that they had been given to man to use as he wished, as
part of nature entrusted to man's stewardship by the Creator God. Also the modern, philosophical view introduced by Descartes, in which animals were only
The moral incentive advanced by me as the
genuine, is further confirmed by the fact that the animals are also taken under its protection. In other European systems of morality they are badly provided
for, which is most inexcusable. They are said to have no rights, and there is the erroneous idea that our behaviour to them is without moral significance, or, as
it is said in the language of that morality, there are no duties to animals. All this is revoltingly crude, a barbarism of the West, the source of which is to be
found in Judaism. In philosophy it rests, despite all evidence to the contrary, on the assumed total difference between man and animal. We all know that such
difference was expressed most effectively and strikingly by Descartes, as a necessary consequence of his errors... And so we must remind the Western, Judaized
despiser of animals and idolater of the faculty of reason that, just as he was suckled by his mother, so was the dog by his. Even Kant fell into this mistake of
his contemporaries and countrymen; this I have already censured. The morality of Christianity has no consideration for animals, a defect that is better admitted
than perpetuated. This is the more surprising since, in other respects, that morality shows the closest agreement with that of Brahmanism and Buddhism, being
merely less strongly expressed, and not carried through to its very end. Therefore we can scarcely doubt that, like the idea of a god become man (avatar), the
Christian morality originates from India and may have come to Judaea by way of Egypt, so that Christianity would be a reflected splendour
of the primordial light of India from the ruins of Egypt; but unfortunately it fell on Jewish soil.¹
[Arthur Schopenhauer, Über die Grundlage der Moral, section 19, 1839.]
... modern research has succeeded in proving
that pure, uncontaminated Christianity is no more and no less than a branch of the venerable Buddhist religion which, following Alexander's Indian campaign,
found its way to, among other places, the shores of the Mediterranean. In early Christianity we can still see traces of a total denial of the will to live, and a
longing for the end of the world, i.e. the cessation of all life.
[Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt on 7 June 1855, Liszt-Briefe II, 73-80, tr. Spencer and Millington]
ere, in Arthur Schopenhauer's assertion that animals
had rights, and indeed rights equal to those of human beings, Wagner found a morality consistent with his own instincts. He accepted Schopenhauer's argument that
the origins of Christianity were in the religions of India, which had reached Judaea in the centuries before Christ; and that there the
teaching that animals had rights had been rejected, in favour of the Old Testament teaching in which animals were objects with no more rights than those of rocks.
In the western world, as Wagner expressed it, the Pentateuch had won the day (An Open Letter to Herr Ernst von Weber, PW VI, p 202). Wagner's concern for
animals, together with the advice of his doctors, eventually led him to become a sympathiser with, if not actually a practitioner of, vegetarianism.
nce Wagner had been seized by enthusiasm for the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, an enthusiasm that unusually for Wagner was long-lived, he not only sought out and read everything that the philosopher
had published, but also other books that he had recommended. This included books on Buddhism, where Wagner read about the Buddhist attitude
to animals, including of course birds. Here again he encountered something that Schopenhauer had mentioned, the idea of reincarnation. The respect of the Buddhist
for animals was a natural consequence of the belief that he could be reborn as an animal and that the animal could be reborn as a human, or even divine, being.
t is not difficult to find hints of a belief in reincarnation in Wagner's later
works, and expressed in his writings. In 1858 Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk that he had come to believe in reincarnation, although
it is not clear which of the different doctrines he had accepted. In his projected Buddhist drama Die Sieger (The Victors), the Buddha Shakyamuni was to
reveal that the Chandala girl Prakriti was atoning for guilt in her previous lives; which is the way Gurnemanz describes Kundry in the first act of Parsifal. When Parsifal arrives, he tells Gurnemanz that he has had many names, but forgotten them all. This could be
read as an awareness that he has lived previous lives, of which the details have been forgotten.
n a book about her friend Richard Wagner, written in 1882, Judith Gautier wrote about the scene in which Siegfried rests under a Linden tree and listens to the Forest Bird:
parle, en effet; ne serait-ce pas là l'âme de sa mère? (indeed, the bird speaks to him; would this not be the soul of his mother?) Which is reminiscent of a
letter that Wagner wrote to his own mother in September 1846, in which he writes that he thinks of her during country walks, listening to a
bird. In the poem of Der junge Siegfried, in fact, there are lines that Wagner did not set to music in the drama that he later called
Siegfried. In the scene to which Judith refers, young Siegfried hears the bird and sings,
Mich dünkt, meine mutter singt zu mir! (I think
my mother is singing to me!). This suggests that, as early as 1851 and therefore before Wagner had encountered either Schopenhauer or
Buddhism, he was thinking in terms of a transmigration of souls, by which Sieglinde became a bird that watched over and helped her son,
n Parsifal the bird is a swan, which also provides a musical connection
(see number 33 in the leitmotif catalogue) between Parsifal and his son Lohengrin. In 1860, in another letter to
Mathilde Wesendonk, Wagner had written about the relationships between characters in Lohengrin, Parsifal and Die
Only the deeply wise idea of the transmigration of souls could show me the consoling point at which all creatures will finally reach the same level
of redemption. Lohengrin might be a reincarnation of his father Parsifal (an odd suggestion, since the text of the Grail
Narration in Lohengrin suggests that Parsifal is then still alive), while the all-too-human Elsa could reach the karmic
level of Lohengrin through a series of rebirths. Given this preoccupation with the idea of reincarnation, it is tempting to speculate that Herzeleide, Parsifal's mother, might have been reincarnated as the swan.
n Wieland Wagner's interpretation of Parsifal, the spiritual hero
progressed from the realm of mother and matter, symbolised by the swan, to the realm of father and spirit, symbolised by the dove. In this interpretation the
incident with the swan can be seen as the starting point of Parsifal's journey and the descending dove as the end of that journey. In Wieland's famous Bayreuth
production (1951-1973), however, the dove was omitted. Perhaps because this symbol suggests a parallel between Parsifal and Christ, one that Richard Wagner
repeatedly denied had been his intention.
Schopenhauer was not alone in seeing the possibility that Indian religious ideas had diffused to Judea. Later
Wagner would read the following:
Perhaps some of those wandering Buddhist monks who overran the world, as the first Franciscans did in later times, preaching
by their actions and converting people who knew not their language, might have turned their steps towards Judea, as they certainly did towards Syria and Babylon?
On this point we have no certainty. Babylon had become for some time a true focus of Buddhism. Boudasp (Bodhisattva) was reputed a wise Chaldean and the founder
of Sabeism. Sabeism was, as its etymology indicates, baptism — that is to say the religion of many baptisms — the origin of
the sect still existing called Christians of St. John or Mendaites, which the Arabs call el-Mogtasila, the Baptists.
[Ernest Renan, The
Life of Jesus
, 1863, pages 70-71.]
© Derrick Everett 1996-2018. This page last updated (adjusted layout, again) --- Fri 25 May 2018 19:30:00 ---