Wagner's Sources for Parsifal
uring his Dresden years (1843-49) Richard Wagner found many ideas for stage works in medieval literature. Some of those ideas he would develop into operas or music-dramas (such as Lohengrin, the Ring, Die Meistersinger and Parsifal) while others remained no more than possible subjects for musical and dramatic treatment (such as Wieland der Schmied). The starting point for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, as every Wagnerian surely knows, was a Middle High German epic, the Nibelungenlied. Wagner's studies for the Ring did not end there, however; he proceeded to read other medieval sagas, chivalric epics, books full of Arthurian legend and knightly chivalry. He also examined studies of medieval literature by scholars such as the Grimm brothers, medieval poems in modern translations and the recently translated Eddas.
far as scholars have been able to discover, Wagner's first contact with the myth of Parsifal was the epic poem Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which he read at Marienbad in 1845. The first opera that resulted from his reading of Wolfram was Lohengrin, which was in outline based upon the last section of Wolfram's poem.
ore than a decade later, when Wagner returned to Parzival 1, he found (as he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk) the poem unsatisfactory as the basis of an opera. As with the Ring, Wagner began to explore other versions of the same legend. Of the many versions of the Percevalian myth, at least three were available to him (in the 1860's and 1870's): Wolfram's Parzival (in various translations including that by Görres), Chrétien's Perceval (in the modern French translation by Potvin) and the anonymous Peredur (first in the French translation by de Villemarqué and later in a German translation by San-Marte).
Left: Die heil'ge Quelle selbst... The Forest Well in Marienbad, drawn in 1840. Wagner came to this spa to drink the mineral waters in 1845.
olfram's work is based on an unfinished poem by Chrétien de Troyes, concerning the Quest for the Holy Grail, together with at least two other sources that have not survived. There is some evidence, although only at
third hand, that Wagner had read Chrétien's Perceval: The Story of the Grail and its so-called Continuations, in
a modern French version, in 1872. (This is mentioned in Du Moulin Eckhart's biography of Cosima, in which he records that Wagner
hrétien had drawn upon a tradition of Celtic stories, including possibly an early version of Peredur son of Evrawc; or, alternatively, the tale of Peredur might have been based on an imperfect recollection of Chrétien's poem. This story appeared in the Comte de Villemarqué's Contes populaires des anciens Bretons,which Wagner is known to have read while in Paris in 1860. Chrétien's Perceval (or li Contes del Graal or Perceval le Gallois) roughly follows the story of Peredur (or the reverse) up to and including the meeting with the hermit on Good Friday. Wagner's Bayreuth library also contains a volume by San-Marte of tales from the Mabinogion (Die Arthur-Sage und die Märchen des rothen Buchs von Hergest).
he same Celtic stories inspired other writings in which the Grail became a Christian symbol. This variation was also adopted by some of the authors who attempted to complete Chrétien's unfinished poem. Wagner may have found this interpretation, which he claimed for his own, there or possibly in a summary of another work: Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie. This poem tells the story of Joseph and his family, guardians of the Christian Grail; its first part is based on the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. There are two sequels, the poems Merlin and Perceval, the second of these either not written by de Boron or completed by another hand. Although there is no evidence that Wagner had any direct knowledge of Robert de Boron -- whose writings were rediscovered in the early 19th century and first published in modern French in 1841 -- indirect knowledge of de Boron's work cannot be ruled out.
rail romances were by no means the only sources drawn upon by Wagner as he developed his libretto. There are other works of literature (in various genres including poems, novels and scriptures) that beyond all reasonable doubt provided ideas for Wagner's libretto: three of them are the medieval romance Roman d'Alexandre, the religious poem Barlaam und Josaphat and the 19th century novel, Le juif errant. In a separate article the current author discusses the influence of the Buddhist literature of northern India on the text of Parsifal, with particular reference to two incidents in the opera that derive from these sources.
agner was reticent about his sources, even dismissive of the influence of Wolfram. He
told Cosima that Wolfram's text had nothing to do with Parsifal; when he read the epic, he first said to himself that nothing could be done with it,
hen Wagner left Dresden in a hurry in 1849, he left behind him many books. The books were seized by his creditors and at auction most of them were purchased by Wagner's brother-in-law Hermann Brockhaus. A few were lost, if we are to rely upon a list of the Dresden books made by Minna Wagner: these included Karl Simrock's edition of Parzival and Titurel. Surprisingly, Wagner never negotiated the return of his Dresden books from his brother-in-law: so they remained in the archive of the Brockhaus publishing company for more than a century. Fortunately they survived the destruction of the second world war. The Brockhaus company asked Curt von Westernhagen to make a catalogue of the books3. The catalogue was published in 1966. Now the books are on display in the basement of the Wagner Museum in Bayreuth.
he Dresden Library contains several books of medieval literature, including Karl Lachmann's edition of poems by Wolfram von Eschenbach (Berlin, 1833), as well as San-Marte's translations (1836-41) of Parzival and of other poems by Wolfram. It also contains Pfeiffer's 1843 edition of the German version of Barlaam und Josaphat by Rudolf von Ems.
agner's Bayreuth library as preserved at Haus Wahnfried contains only one text of Chrétien's Perceval. If it is the edition that Wagner studied in 1872, then several interesting points can be noted. The book is Ch. Potvin's Perceval le Gallois and consists of seven volumes, published between 1866 and 1871, containing the original poem ("Perceval le Vieil"), the four Continuations (as listed below) and two prologues: the Elucidation and Bliocadran. The volumes and their contents are:
he first point to note is that Lucy Beckett was wrong in her assertion that the Continuations were
uch more importantly, Wagner's bookshelf contains volume i, Perlesvaus. Although this account of the Grail legend has many parallels with Wolfram's
poem (for example, in the emphasis on healing the Grail king -- the theme of the Waste Land is missing), it differs from the latter (and from Chrétien) in two important respects: the Grail king is not physically wounded, but has
noted in the accompanying article on Kundry, an interesting feature of Perlesvaus (also present in Peredur) is that the Grail-bearer and the Loathly Damsel (or High Messenger) are one and the same. The last point to note was made by Jessie Weston in her book From Ritual to Romance. In the manuscript translated by Potvin, the First Continuation states that the Grail-bearer weeps piteously.
t is tempting to conclude that Wagner's version of the story was influenced by his reading of the first volume of Potvin. Unfortunately, however, none of Potvin was published before 1866, and we have Wagner's Prose Draft of 1865 which contains all of the elements mentioned above. Wagner's Bayreuth library contains several books by San-Marte (the pseudonym of Albert Schulz). One of them contains extracts from Der jüngere Titurel, once thought to have been written by Wolfram von Eschenbach but later attributed to Albrecht von Scharfenberg: it is a continuation of Wolfram's unfinished poem Titurel and it relates the love story of Sigûne (Parzival's cousin) and Schionatulander.
t might be useful to list the most significant sources of Parsifal. A "definitive" list would be difficult to produce and is unlikely to be beyond criticism. Although there is much that is relevant in the reading matter mentioned in the copious biographical documentation (much of it recorded by Cosima or by Richard Wagner himself), it is likely that he read many other things that have not been recorded: books, articles in periodicals, journals or newspapers. Nor do we always know what ideas he received second-hand, in conversation with Cosima (who was also well-read, especially in the French classics) or with one of his friends and acquaintances, or in correspondence. So any list of sources must be to some extent speculative, concerning what Wagner read and when, and selective, since the relative importance of source material is subjective; it depends upon what the commentator considers Wagner's drama to be about. For what it is worth, then, here is my list:
Footnote 1: In his autobiography Mein Leben (My Life) Wagner wrote:
... I suddenly said to myself that this was Good Friday and recalled how meaningful this had seemed to me in Wolfram's Parzival. Ever since that stay in Marienbad, where I had conceived Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had not taken another look at that poem; now its ideality came to me in overwhelming form, and from the idea of Good Friday I quickly sketched out an entire drama in three acts.. So Wagner had not looked at Parzival since 1845, nor is there any evidence that he had read any other Grail romances during the intervening twelve years. What it was that Wagner sketched out in the inspiration of a spring morning in 1857 is the subject of a paper that is shortly to be published elsewhere. Here it is sufficient to note that Wagner only returned to Parzival two years later, after Mathilde Wesendonk had sent him a new edition of Wolfram's poem.
Footnote 2: Cosima Wagner: Ein Lebens- und Characterbild: Richard Graf du Moulin Eckhart, Munich, 1929. Volume I page 633.
Footnote 3: Richard Wagners Dresdener Bibliothek 1842-1849: Neue Dokumente zur Geschichte seines Schaffens. Curt von Westernhagen, published by F.A. Brockhaus, Wiesbaden, 1966.