Erlösung dem Erlöser
[Cosima's Diaries, entry for 6th January 1881]
[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 nirvāṇa was its only solution.
any commentators on Parsifal have recognized that Amfortas' suffering is not primarily physical (see for example Ulrike Kienzle's "Das Weltüberwindungs-werk" 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 from here?
[Wagner's Prose Draft]
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 saṃsarā, 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 (saṃsarā, nirvāṇa)
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.
[Wagner's Prose Draft]
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 (
[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
[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 many-layered resolution of Wagner's composite 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
ut are we only concerned with the domain of the Grail here? Wagner said, 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. (
orchmeyer is convinced that the end of Parsifal is a
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.
[From Ulrike Kienzle's fascinating essay Parsifal and Religion: A Christian Music Drama?, of which the German original appeared in her book, ...daß wissend würde die Welt! Religion und Philosophie in Richard Wagners Musikdramen (Wagner in der Diskussion, Band I, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 2005, pages 189-229). A slightly revised version of the essay has been included in A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal, ed. William Kindermann and Katherine R. Syer (Camden House, Rochester and Woodbridge, 2005, pages 80-130) in an English translation by Mary A. Cicora, from which I have quoted here.]
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?
Alain Badiou: Five Lessons on Wagner, translated by Susan Spitzer, Verso, London and NY 2010.
here are at least 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 (
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.
Footnote 1: Recommended reading: Ulrike Kienzle, "Das Weltüberwindungswerk: Wagner's Parsifal — ein szenisch-musikalisches Gleichnis der Philosophie Arthur Schopenhauers" (The Work about Overcoming the World: Wagner's Parsifal — a Music-dramatic Parable of the Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer), Laaber 1992.
Footnote 2: Some years after I wrote this Postscript to my original article, inevitably, the resurrection of Titurel was actually restored, in a Berlin production.