Notes on Wagner's Parsifal Act 1

Parsifal act 1, Bayreuth Festival 1966, Wieland Wagner.

The Naming of the Hero

A thread that may be followed from the Celtic story of Peredur to Wagner's story of Parsifal, is the revelatory encounter between the young boy and a female relative. In the story of Peredur, they meet immediately after the boy leaves the Grail Castle.

Left: Act I of Parsifal in Wieland Wagner's production for the Bayreuth Festival 1966.

Wolfram fragments this encounter. He gives this cousin the name, Sigûne, and she also appears in his misleadingly-named poem, Titurel. Parzival meets her before he arrives at the Grail Castle, as well as after. She reveals to him his true name. 'Upon my word, you are Parzival!' said she of the red lips. 'Your name means, pierce-through-the-heart.' In Wolfram's poem, the news about Herzeloyde's death is not revealed until the Good Friday meeting with the hermit, and it is he and not the cousin who breaks the news to Parzival.

This is one of many points on which Wagner seems to have had some direct or indirect knowledge of Chrétien or other sources, since he does not follow Wolfram at all. The fate of Herzeleide is revealed to Parsifal in the forest before he is admitted to the Grail Castle, not by Sigûne but by Kundry, and it is also the latter who calls him by his true name, on her second entry in Act 2.

The literary motif of a hero who does not know his own name -- suggesting that he has not yet discovered who he is -- is one that is found not only in the Grail romances but also in a group of stories (or variants of the same story) about The Fair Unknown.

Wagner's sketch for the headdress of the Grail Knights
Left: Wagner's sketch for the knights' headdress.

The Community of Knights

It is clear both from Wagner's libretto and this Prose Draft, that the community of knights had been actively opposing evil from the foundation of the brotherhood by Titurel until its recent defeats by Klingsor. In particular, the loss of the spear and wounding of Amfortas, which have left the knights without effective leadership. As Gurnemanz relates, they now waste their time in fruitless adventures or in dreaming of the recovery of the spear. They have turned inwards. The hollow banality of their ceremonial song suggests that the community is divided and decadent. It is possible that Wagner intended this as a metaphor for the state of the German Volk, awaiting a revival of the German spirit.

A modern version of the Grail knights costumes, Berlin Staatsoper 2007

It is sometimes claimed that Wolfram described the Grail knights as Templars. This is incorrect. The word that he used was Templeisen, which might be rendered into English as Templists, or something similar. As in Wagner's version of the story, the knights serve the Grail and therefore also the Grail Temple. Nor did Wagner state that his knights were Templars, only that their costumes resembled the dress of knights belonging to the Order of Templars.