A Letter from Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck
Introduction: An Informative Letter
he following notes concern the extract from a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck reproduced on the preceding page. Wagner's letters to Mathilde are of great value in understanding his Parsifal. This letter in particular, when read with an awareness of what Wagner had been reading and writing elsewhere during the years 1854-1860, not only explains several aspects of Parsifal but also opens up a perspective on the work that is at odds with its interpretation in the 20th century. In order to show why this true, unfortunately, it will be necessary to venture out into the deep waters of philosophy and religion.
nyone who has read Lucy Beckett's book on Parsifal will know that, in her interpretation, the
work is thoroughly and exclusively Christian. So much so, she tells her readers, that Nietzsche was understandably shocked by Wagner's
apparent conversion to the slave-morality of Christianity. For Nietzsche, when Wagner wrote about purity he was promoting
chastity, a subject on which, Nietzsche remarked with typical sarcasm, Wagner was a leading authority. Beckett's view of Parsifal is often encountered; most recently it was summarised in the program book for the latest Covent Garden production, which
states that Beckett's book
ucy Beckett's view of Parsifal is one that is rooted in the English tradition. Initially at least Parsifal was received in England as a work of Christian mysticism. A century ago it was not unusual for English Wagnerians to prepare for a performance of Parsifal, in Bayreuth or elsewhere, with prayer and fasting. Beckett follows Jessie L. Weston in regarding Parsifal as a work in which there is a tension between pagan elements (drawn from Celtic and Germanic mythology) and Christian elements, a tension that originates in Wagner's medieval sources. Weston took the view that the primary source and inspiration for Wagner's last drama was Wolfram's Parzival and this was uncritically accepted by Beckett. While this misunderstanding is excusable where Weston -- who was relying on Wagner's own account in his autobiography -- was concerned, it is inexcusable that Beckett -- writing half a century later -- ignored other medieval sources that relate to the inner and the outer action of Parsifal. It is at best a half-truth.
nother interpretation of Parsifal has been influential during the last thirty years. It was put forward by Robert
Gutman in the last chapter of his Richard Wagner: the Man, his Mind and his Music. In this bizarre interpretation, which seems to be accepted as absolute truth by the current generation of
stage directors, Wagner created Parsifal as the gospel of Nazism, an ideology that Gutman and his followers believe to have been Wagner's invention. In this
interpretation, when Wagner's text refers to purity, he means racial purity. In Parsifal, according to Gutman, Wagner
Right: Mathilde Wesendonck portrayed by K.F. Sohn in 1850.
he more perceptive of his biographers recognise that the most important event in Richard Wagner's life was his discovery, in the autumn of 1854, of the
philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose book The World as Will and Representation changed Wagner's life by changing his understanding of the universe. In the
course of a year he read the book four times and also (according to a letter he wrote to Hans von Bülow) read Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena and then
(according to Wagner's Annals) some of his
ust over four years later, in August 1860, Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck that he had accepted
Schopenhauer explained in the 1859 edition of his magnum opus -- an edition which Wagner had not yet read
when he wrote this letter -- he had experienced some difficulty in understanding the difference between metempsychosis (the doctrine taught by the Greeks and also found in
Hinduism =Brahminism) and the subtler Buddhist doctrine of palingenesis. (Schopenhauer explained that he had understood more after reading the Manual of Buddhism by
Robert Spence Hardy. That Wagner subsequently also read at least part of Spence Hardy's book is
suggested by an addition that he made to the second act of Parsifal in 1877). So what Wagner had understood as a
Left: Mathilde Wesendonck and son, portrayed by E.B. Kietz in 1856.
t might strike the observant reader as strange that Wagner, when he wrote this letter, was thinking of Lohengrin as the reincarnation of Parsifal, since his Lohengrin speaks of his father as if he were still alive. The most likely explanation is that Wagner was trying to reconcile two different concepts of reincarnation: one of them an imperfectly understood Buddhist/Brahmin doctrine, the other a concept introduced by Schopenhauer. As the philosopher belatedly realised, reincarnation was a logical consequence of his doctrine of the pacification of the will. If the will was not pacified, then suffering would continue; hence his doctrine that suicide, or death in general, was not a way out. Wagner illustrates this doctrine in Parsifal when Amfortas expresses the belief that the prophesied one who will come to end his suffering is death. His desire for death then becomes the cause of the distress and suffering of the community. In Schopenhauer's doctrine of reincarnation, it is the individual will (which is in fact a manifestation of the universal Will) that is passed on from generation to generation. It can be passed on from parent to child, even while the parent is still alive; this aspect of the doctrine clearly is related to the sexual nature of the Will, which causes new generations to be born to suffering. Even if Wagner was aware that the Buddhist doctrine (in which it is a karmic record that is inherited) and the Schopenhauerian doctrine (in which the will of a parent or ancestor is inherited) were incompatible, he was quite capable of believing in two incompatible doctrines at the same time!
nother writer who has examined Wagner's fascination with the concept of reincarnation is Wolfgang Osthoff, the author of the definitive study of Die Sieger. He points out that the original reason for legend on which Wagner's sketch was based, that of showing the Buddha teaching against the tradition of caste, was of little interest to Wagner. Osthoff notes that the story had two other main points, ones that were of interest:
n fact, as I have suggested elsewhere, a comparison between the Buddha's compassion for Prakriti in the last act of Die Sieger and Parsifal's compassion for Kundry in the last act of Parsifal is the key to understanding what happens in the Good Friday meadow. Returning to Wagner's letter to Mathilde, Wagner continues:
if this letter were not obscure enough for modern readers already, Wagner has changed the name of his heroine from Prakriti to Savitri, who was the heroine of a different story entirely. Osthoff comments:
Left: Mathilde Wesendonck portrayed by J.C. Dorner, early in the 1860's.
t is not beyond all possibility that Wagner intended the swan to represent a reincarnation of Parsifal's mother, Herzeleide. Another bird that appears in Siegfried, in a scene that Wagner was scoring during the summer of 1856,
might also be interpreted as a reincarnation, in this case of Siegfried's mother, Sieglinde. H.C. Chamberlain, writing in the Bayreuther Blätter in 1933, claimed that Wagner had described the
ne does not have to look to external references in order to find ideas concerning reincarnation in Parsifal. In the first act Gurnemanz thinks aloud:
Above: the Rietberg Museum in Zürich. Formerly the Villa Wesendonck.
hen Nietzsche read the text of Parsifal, he interpreted Wagner's references to purity in terms of chastity. The Grail community were pure in the sense that they abstained from sex and all forms of sensuality, and this was the source of their power and strength. By deserting the Grail in the service of love (Minne dienst), Amfortas had lost that protection and therefore he was wounded by the spear when he tried to use it against Klingsor. Nietzsche's reading was understandable but wrong.
hen Gutman read the text of Parsifal, he interpreted Wagner's references to purity, following a suggestion by Adorno and notes made by Wagner in 1882, in terms of race. The Grail community were pure in the sense that they had pure blood, untainted by that of inferior races. By his erotic misadventure with the mysterious seductress (Kundry), Amfortas had lost the protection of the Grail etc. Gutman's reading was understandable but wrong.
t is incredible what interpretations can be imposed on Parsifal if one ignores what Wagner actually wrote about it! In this letter to Mathilde, Wagner states clearly and unambiguously that when he refers to the purity of Parsifal, he means the hero's karma (i.e. merit or demerit) acquired in previous lives, when the youth had those many names that he has now forgotten. It is
through his merit (purity=karma or more accurately, karmic merit) that Parsifal is able to resist Kundry. It is on account of his merit
(purity=karmic merit) that the Spear will not harm him, instead it rests in the air above his head (like the magic weapon did in the account of the life of
the Buddha that Wagner, according to Karl Heckel, found in Spence Hardy's Manual of Buddhism). It is by means
of his merit that Parsifal is able to find the path of salvation, at the end of which he achieves total enlightenment (perhaps even becoming a Buddha himself) after which, transferring his superabundance of merit (purity= karmic merit) to Kundry, allows her to achieve Nirvana. Osthoff is surely right when he states:
Parsifal Act 1 in the Norwegian Opera production. Parsifal: Reiner Goldberg, Gurnemanz: Manfred Schenk. ©Den Norske Opera.
agner's Parsifal is not a Buddhist drama, even if it draws on Buddhist traditions and makes use of Buddhist ideas
(dharma). After 1860 Wagner continued to study the history of religions and in 1874 he acquired an edition of Sutras translated into English by M. Coomára Swámy. The "religion" of Parsifal,
which Wagner referred to as a
hese brief notes cannot be expected to review Schopenhauer's metaphysics. The following are the relevant points to this discussion; the reader is recommended to read The World as Will and Representation for the full story. Schopenhauer's starting point is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher whom Schopenhauer greatly respected. This did not inhibit him from correcting what he regarded as Kant's errors, both in his metaphysical teachings and his ethical teachings. Kant taught that human beings (actually he wrote about "rational beings", for which Schopenhauer -- who had obviously never seen Star Trek -- took Kant to task, saying that the only known rational beings were human, and even some of them were not noticeably rational) interpret the world through sensory phenomena (what our senses tell us about "things in themselves") and interpret this data using mechanisms hard-wired into our brains. These mechanisms (which in Schopenhauer's terms amount to "the world as representation") include a "world-view" that is defined by the a priori institutions of three-dimensional space and the dimension of time, together with some general concepts or "categories". As he developed his critique of Kant, Schopenhauer eventually arrived at a philosophy that was radically different from contemporary western philosophy, while still recognisably Kantian.
n Schopenhauer's development of Kant's ideas, there are no individuals, since the "principle of individuation" is no more that a concept hard-wired into our brains. There are no separate individuals, whether living beings or inanimate objects. Furthermore, events are neither separated in space nor ordered in time, since these dimensions are also no more than a priori fictions that our brains use to interpret sense-data. Developing ethical ideas from these metaphysical ideas, Schopenhauer arrived at the conclusion that what we do to others, we really do to ourselves, since there are no separate individuals. He also concluded that the world is characterised by suffering and that the only escape from suffering is to correct the error of existence. He was delighted to discover that these ideas, which he had developed from western philosophy, had been taught by the Buddha and his followers for more than two millenia. In other words, Schopenhauer's philosophy was a rational basis for something very close to Buddhism.
hus Wagner, following Schopenhauer and Kant, wrote that
he illusion or delusion of
ow Parsifal knows that he is one with Amfortas, he feels the pain in his own heart, he experiences the temptation and wounding of Amfortas as if it were happening to him here and now, because here is also there, now is also then. This revelation is impossible to describe in words but, as Schopenhauer revealed in The World as Will and Representation, of all the arts, music alone can express the "world-as-will" because it belongs to the "world-as-will". Here we have central ideas of Wagner's Parsifal that are ignored by those who, like Lucy Beckett, deny the influence of Schopenhauer on this most Schopenhauerian of all dramas.
n his book Parzival und der Gral in der Dichtung des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit, Wolfgang Golther attempted to establish what Wagner had written in the lost sketch of early May 1857. He realised that there was a basis for such a reconstruction in Wagner's letters to Mathilde. This letter of August 1860 tells us something of particular importance, namely, that in Wagner's original (1857) conception, Kundry did not appear in the second act. In other words, originally, the maiden whose kiss provoked in Parsifal his first taste of enlightenment was not Kundry. In a stroke of genius, now Wagner made the nameless maiden into a transformed Kundry, so that she became not only the source of the compassion that would enable his final enlightenment (exactly parallel to what happened to the Buddha Shakyamuni in the last act of Die Sieger) but also the source of his first taste of enlightenment.
Left: Waltraud Meier as Kundry, Bayreuth 1989.
here did Wagner get this idea? In his autobiography Wagner relates that on that spring morning in 1857, when he conceived his Parsifal, he had not looked at Wolfram's poem Parzival for twelve years. It was only after he had told Mathilde about his ideas, indeed after the crisis which forced him to relocate to Venice, that she found a new edition of Parzival and sent it to him. This enabled Wagner to refresh his acquaintance with the medieval romance. He would have found, among other details that are easily missed on a first reading, that there were two Condries. One of them was the hideous messenger of the Grail, a heathen sorceress (originally from India) and the other was "Condrie la Belle", sister of Gawain, who was one of the women imprisoned in Clinschor's magic castle. It is highly probable that this gave Wagner the idea of making his Kundry a double character, who appears in the domain of the Grail as the messenger but in the magic castle as a "fearfully beautiful" maiden. This maiden was originally the nameless princess who attempted to seduce Josaphat in another medieval poem, a key source that Weston, Beckett and other commentators have completely ignored.
nce we realise that, in the 1857 conception of Parsifal, Kundry did not appear in the second act, then
n this note on Wagner's letter to Mathilde of August 1860 I have tried to show how important aspects of the work, ones that must be taken into account in any interpretation, have been overlooked by some earlier commentators such as Weston, only partially understood by other commentators such as Golther, and ignored by more recent commentators, notably Gutman and Beckett. A rejection of their respective interpretations, which inform many current productions of Wagner's Parsifal, and attention to what Wagner wrote to his beloved Mathilde, might allow audiences to discover Parsifal anew.
Footnote 1: In the Oupnekhat, a version of the Upanishads translated by Anquetil Duperron from Persian into Latin. Schopenhauer fell in love with this book in the winter of 1813-14 and for the remainder of his life read a few lines from it every night. It was partly through his first reading of the Oupnekhat that he discovered that some of the ideas that he had described in his first philosophical treatise, The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, were similar to doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism. In his later writings, Schopenhauer would illustrate his philosophical system with examples and parallels not only from classical philosophy and literature but also from such books of oriental scripture and pious legend as had become available in European languages. When he came under the influence of Schopenhauer, Wagner acquired and studied many of these books that the philosopher recommended, naturally including the Oupnekhat. The Upanishads are part of the ancient Indian scriptures called the Vedas. Much of Vedic scripture, like the scriptures of other religions, consists of hymns and chants, rules and regulations; but the Upanishads belong to another part of the Vedas, their books of knowledge and wisdom. The older and canonical Upanishads are thirteen books that were written between 900 and 600 BCE. Since they are the concluding parts of each of the Vedas, these books are also known as Vedânta, or the end of the Vedas. Their primary concern is with the knowledge of the ultimate reality and of man's relationship with it.