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An Introduction to Wagner's Parsifal

Parsifal - an Opera by Richard Wagner

Wagner's Parsifal (1882) is a drama surrounded by controversy and confusion. It has been accused of being immoral, blasphemous, decadent, racist and misogynist. It has also been called a supreme song of love and pity.

Parsifal and Klingsor's Magic Maidens. Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal at the NY Met Opera.

Above: Parsifal and Klingsor's Magic Maidens. Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal at the NY Met Opera.

Parsifal: A Stage-dedicatory Festival-play

open quotesThis present opera was Parsifal. Madame Wagner does not permit its representation anywhere but in Bayreuth. The first act of the three occupied two hours, and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing ... In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz, who stands on the stage in one spot and practises by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what they can of it and then retires to die.close quotes

[Mark Twain writing from Bayreuth, At the Shrine of St. Wagner, 1891]

open quotesIf we regard it as a festive, magic opera; if we ignore, as we often must in any case, its logical and psychological impossibilities and its false religious- philosophical pretensions, we can find in it moments of artistic stimulation and brilliant effectiveness.close quotes

[Eduard Hanslick writing from Bayreuth, Neue Freie Presse, July 1882]

open quotesParsifal is one of those corkscrew artifacts of culture in which you get the subjective sense that you’ve learned something from it, something valuable or even priceless; but on closer inspection you suddenly begin to scratch your head and say, "Wait a minute. This makes no sense".close quotes

[Philip K. Dick, Valis, 1981]

Parsifal is widely regarded as one of the more demanding works in the operatic repertoire, not only for the performers but also for the audience. Those who come to the opera without preparation -- and sometimes even those who have prepared, since "standard" reference works such as Kobbé's Complete Opera Book or the New Grove Dictionary of Opera provide only incomplete and sometimes even inaccurate information about it -- can find Parsifal perplexing. Understandably when those who write those "standard" reference books, and even those who write books about Wagner's life and works, lack a clear understanding of what it is about, or even what it is that happens in the course of the Parsifal drama. Typically these writers excuse their inability to explain it by stating that Parsifal is ambivalent and obscure (which it is), or that it is inconsistent (which it is not), or that it has many layers and dimensions (which is true) and that these are equally important (which is untrue).

Parsifal reveals the Grail. Wels Festival, Austria, 2008.
Right: Parsifal (John Treleaven) with the Grail, in a recent production at the Wels Festival, Austria.

Since 1882 Parsifal has been widely regarded as a religious work, even as a Christian mystery-play. Yet there are grounds to doubt that it is a religious work, at least in the sense that a Bach Passion or Händel's Messiah are religious works. By decision of the composer it was reserved for his own theatre at Bayreuth, and performed only in the Wagner festivals, until the copyright expired at the end of 1913 despite attempts by the Wagner family to get an extended copyright granted to them. Many interpreted all this as an indication that Parsifal was too sacred to be performed on a profane stage. Earlier, however, Wagner had wanted to restrict his other stage festival-play (Bühnenfestspiel), the Ring, to Bayreuth and was only prevented from doing so by economic necessity. Like Parsifal, the Ring was intended only to be performed for a Festival audience, with the extended rehearsal that Wagner believed these works needed and which only a Festival could provide. Since Parsifal was the only opera written for Wagner's theatre and with a knowledge of its special acoustics, he called it his stage-dedicatory festival-play (Bühnenweih- festspiel).

The Festspielhaus is, after all, a theatre and not a temple or church, except in the sense that it is a temple to high art. One that sells beer and sausages (which are always excellent, incidentally) during the intervals. Nietzsche condemned Parsifal as a work of perfidy and stayed away in 1882, mainly because he had been offended in 1876 by the consumption of beer and sausages. He had wanted Bayreuth to be a temple to Apollo; he certainly did not want it to become a temple to the God of a slave morality. Wagner, who was puzzled and amused by Nietzsche's reaction to the libretto of Parsifal, sent him (in December 1877) a copy of the printed libretto with a dedication from the high Church councillor Richard Wagner. Nietzsche did not get the joke.

If it is not a religious work, then perhaps Parsifal is a work about religion, or about religious ideas? Michael Tanner 1 has suggested that it is about the psychopathology of religion. Obviously it contains a good deal of religious language, with even more references to redemption (Erlösung) and salvation (Heil) than in Wagner's earlier dramas, to which it adds references to a Redeemer (der Erlöser) and the Saviour (der Heiland), who might or might not be coincident. So religion certainly is on the agenda. When Parsifal was first performed, in 1882, the presentation on stage of a kind of Holy Communion (in which blood apparently turned into wine and bread) caused offence to some, although a mainstream Christian might find more to take offence at in the libretto, such as the implication that Parsifal redeems himself through his works, or that he is able to redeem the heathen Kundry, without, it seems, the Christian God being involved. Some commentators have suggested that it is not about religion at all, pointing to Wagner's statement, made in 1880: Where religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for art to save the core of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols. In other words, when religion has failed or become artificial or even obsolete, the myths and their symbols are up for grabs by the artist. Wagner actually agreed with Nietzsche's view that Christianity, or at least institutional Christianity, was dead or moribund. Paradoxically, however, he saw the need for religion, not only our need to believe in something but also our need for rituals and sacraments (he was particularly keen on baptism, as both Parsifal and Die Meistersinger confirm; and it should be noted that there many more instances of ritual and formalized custom in the latter than in the former).

Travellers to the East - Richard Guhr's 'Trinity of Transition'
Travellers to the East. Richard Guhr, 'Trias der Wende' (Trinity of Transition). © Richard- Wagner-Gedenkstätte.

On closer examination the libretto of Parsifal reveals hints of religious concepts and even doctrines, although few of them are familiar to most westerners. Wagner was a traveller to the East, to use Hermann Hesse's term; following the lead of Schopenhauer (on the left of the picture, holding a statue of the Buddha, one that he kept by his desk), in 1856 Wagner began to read about oriental religions, in particular those of India, Ceylon, Nepal and Tibet. He read about rituals and ritual objects, doctrines, legends, saints and sages. Some of these esoteric elements found their way into the libretto of his Parsifal, although they are so unfamiliar to a western audience or to a western producer, even today, that they tend to be overlooked even when they are structural rather than decorative, essential rather than incidental. In the 1870's Wagner's reading turned to the origins of Christianity (in the books by Strauss, Renan and Gfrörer), although he also found time to read (among much else, as Cosima's Diaries reveal) the Vedic Oupnekhat (a version of the Upanishads that was in effect Schopenhauer's Bible) and Buddhist Sutras translated from the Pali Canon. Hence the richness of the religious language and symbolism in the libretto that he completed in the spring of 1877.

Wagner's Parsifal Act 2 in a recent Met Opera production. ©Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

The unfamiliar and eclectic nature of the material from which this tapestry was woven, together with the obscure and elliptical style of the text, has had some unfortunate consequences. Producers, who are often given all too short notice to prepare a production of Parsifal and who all too often tackle it as their first Wagner opera (perhaps taking seriously Noël Coward's observation that Parsifal is much like Camelot, only funnier) find the libretto impenetrable and look for short cuts. Every few years, it seems, one of them, about to direct Parsifal as his first Wagner opera, gives a press conference or interview in which he or she says that they have decided to strip away the religious varnish from Parsifal. So they proceed to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater!2 Most of them choose to ignore Wagner's stage directions entirely, forgetting that they too are part of the text and therefore that they deserve attention, if only to help the producer understand the score. Especially in the third act of the Parsifal drama, in which Kundry's role is only defined in the stage directions and the music. Unable to understand Wagner's symbolism and (like Hanslick, quoted above) lacking an appropriate frame of reference for the religious and philosophical ideas underlying his drama, producers give us their distorted versions of Parsifal, in which symbols such as the Grail or the sign of the Cross are left out, or even (as in a recent SNO/WNO production) make desperate attempts at comedy. At best these productions give us the outer action but do not make visible the inner action; so that the symbolic and allegorical significance of the restless Kundry and her balsam, the swan, the Grail, the Spear, Amfortas and his wound, ancient Titurel and their adversary Klingsor are obscured.

Parsifal - a comic-book cover by P. Craig Russell

To make matters worse, there are scribblers (like those whom Wagner called Vielschreiber), many of them academics or professional music critics, each with his or her angle, agenda or hobby- horse, who take advantage of the general confusion about Parsifal and add to it by presenting (in books, pamphlets, lectures and reviews) their patent interpretations of the Parsifal drama. These are often fanciful and far-fetched, usually building an elaborate edifice of interpretation upon a few details, whilst ignoring elements of Parsifal revealing that Wagner was concerned with other matters entirely, together with all of the elements of Wagner's Parsifal that cannot be accommodated on the Procrustean bed of their own interpretation. Of the more intelligent and better informed writers, Millington and Beckett are widely regarded as authorities. Barry Millington claims that Die Meistersinger is anti-Semitic (but not racist) while Parsifal, he asserts at every opportunity, is racist (but not anti-Semitic). Lucy Beckett, whose Cambridge Opera Handbook to Parsifal is to be found in every academic library, asserts that Die Meistersinger is Wagner's most Schopenhauerian work but denies that Parsifal is Schopenhauerian 3. It is entirely possible that the intention behind her statements is to provoke the philosophers, Bryan Magee and Michael Tanner, who recognize that both Tristan and Parsifal were conceived in a Schopenhauerian world-view, and that Schopenhauer's ideas were only grafted on to Die Meistersinger late in the development of Wagner's poem.

Wagner's Parsifal - piano score

If the "standard" reference books (in which discussion of Parsifal these days tends to be monopolized by the omnipresent Barry Millington) do not explain Parsifal, and none of the many Wagner biographies do much better, then the scribblers can make up whatever suits their fancy and they can find in Parsifal whatever they want to find there. It is a game that anyone can play. Thus we read that Parsifal is a work about homosexuality, or vegetarianism, or about seduction by vegetables. Barry Millington (who has written a great deal about Wagner and his works, not least Parsifal, a work which he has evidently studied closely), has stated 4 that there is, in his view, abundant evidence that Parsifal is filled with ideas about racial purity (although the phrase racial purity does not occur in the libretto, nor is anything like it mentioned there). After denouncing Parsifal for containing ideas that it does not actually contain, Millington wails in frustration: And why is there not a single expression of anti-Semitism to be found in Parsifal?. No doubt he will tell us about the work's inherent anti-Semitism when, through persistence, he has found it. As well as being allegedly racist, both the work and its author have been accused, by various commentators, of being nazistic or misogynist, or both 5.

open quotes Parsifal is the most enigmatic and elusive work in the Wagnerian canon. No attempt to eludicate its mysteries can afford to ignore any of its elements, whether its Christian, pagan, Buddhist or Schopenhauerian ideas, or its concepts of racial purity and regeneration... The juxtaposition of sublimity with such richly ambivalent symbolism and an underlying ideology disturbing in its implications creates a work of unique expressive power and endless fascination. close quotes

[Barry Millington in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, entry for Parsifal.]

open quotes Attempts made since the Second World War to represent Wagner as a sort of proto-Nazi have included interpretations of Parsifal as a racist, and even more specifically as an anti-Semitic, opera -- which would make it, among other things, a work whose primary concerns were not metaphysical or transcendental at all. Some such writers have claimed that the ideational content of Parsifal consists of social and political ideas that are among those that Wagner was discussing during his final phase as a journalist, at the same time as he was working on the opera. But such interpretations are self-disqualifying. Denial of the will, and rejection of the world, are incontestably among the things that Parsifal is most centrally "about", and whereas at least these, at any rate, might be made compatible with an interpretation in terms of Christian mysticism, they are wholly incompatible with politico-social programmes of any kind. Writings in this vein are an extreme example of attempts to explain the greater in terms of the less, art in terms of journalism, the subtle and sophisticated in terms of the crude, the insightful and revealing in terms of the imperceptive, and altogether the profound in terms of the superficial. I cannot refrain from the observation that the writers are often people who are themselves given to looking at serious and deep concerns in terms of journalistic ideas, if not of ideology. close quotes

[Wagner and Philosophy, Bryan Magee, 2000, page 279]

So what is the ordinary opera-goer to make of all this? Many of them take it for granted that the libretto of Parsifal, like that of Tristan, is impenetrable, and simply enjoy the music. Some of them read all of the interpretations and the pronouncements of the "great Wagner experts" and become even more confused than they were before. The problem with the "experts" is that, at least where Parsifal is concerned, the "expert" knows many details but fails to see the big picture; without which, they fail to distinguish between those details that are essential and those that are incidental. The Wagner expert who came closest to understanding Parsifal was Carl Dahlhaus 6, although even he sometimes failed to see the wood for the trees. Lucy Beckett, in her valuable survey of critical appraisals of Parsifal, concludes that Dahlhaus' assessment of the work is probably the most widely acceptable account yet given. Another "great Wagner expert", the critic Ernest Newman, provided an account of Parsifal which is misleading in some details because he sometimes misread Wagner's poem. He showed his grasp of the essentials, however, when he described Parsifal as Wagner's supreme song of love and pity.


A Pleasant Mood in Nature

open quotesYou can't get to know works of art or of nature when they have been finished; you must grasp of them while they are coming into being in order to gain any degree of understanding of them. close quotes

[Goethe to Zelter]

open quotes... 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. close quotes

[Wagner's autobiography, My Life, tr. Andrew Gray]

The cottage that Wagner called 'das Asyl' Right: The cottage which Wagner called "das Asyl" or "the asylum". Although much rebuilt since Wagner lived there, it still stands beside the Wesendonk Villa, which is now the Museum Rietberg. Those who get a chance to visit Zürich should visit the "Asyl", the museum's wonderful collection of Buddhist art, and the linden trees at the bottom of the garden, under which Wagner must have sat (like Siegfried) or lain (like Tristan) while he was working on the score of Siegfried and the libretto of Tristan und Isolde in 1857.

By ideality here, Wagner meant the ideas of Wolfram's poem Parzival (of about 1210). Some of them interested him and some of them did not. What he did not explain in the passage quoted above, or anywhere else, was what his own ideas were on that spring morning, a few days after Richard and Minna Wagner had moved into a cottage (das Asyl) close to the Wesendonk villa. He said only that he was inspired by the idea of Good Friday, the day on which Christ suffered and died. Perhaps he was reflecting on the subject of suffering, which is a central theme of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Perhaps he was thinking about the sheltered boyhood of Wolfram's hero, which he might have realised was like the sheltered boyhood of another hero about whom he had been reading only recently: a central character of a drama he had sketched almost exactly a year before, The Victors: the Buddha (Shakyamuni or Siddhartha Gautama).

When Parsifal first appears on stage, bursting in upon a placid but troubled religious community who have concealed themselves and their temple deep in a pathless forest, the boy has only recently left his mother. She has kept from him all knowledge of old age, sickness and death. Emerging from this sheltered childhood, not yet an adult, he does not know the distinction between good and evil. He does not even know his own name, who he is or what he is; although he vaguely remembers that he has had many names, all now forgotten. At this stage Parsifal's life lacks purpose; if he has had any goal or mission, then it has been forgotten. Subsequent events, both onstage and offstage, influence his moral and spiritual development, which Wagner describes in words and music. As the more insightful commentators have realized, Parsifal has an inner action which is distinct from the outer action. The inner action is internal to the title character: the impact of new experiences upon the mind of the spiritual hero. Whilst, in the outer action, Amfortas, Titurel and Kundry are independently-acting characters, they also function as symbols in the inner action, developing in the consciousness of Parsifal.

A sketch by Wieland Wagner for Act 3 of Parsifal, 1937 Left: A sketch for Act 3 of Parsifal by Wieland Wagner, 1937.

Wagner later confessed to Cosima that there was an error in the autobiography that he had dictated to her. It was not a Good Friday at all, he admitted, just a pleasant mood in nature that made him think, this is how a Good Friday should be. On this spring morning in 1857, Richard Wagner was inspired to make his first sketch (since lost without trace) for his drama Parsifal.

It is often said that Wagner's Parsifal is based on the medieval Grail romances, and in particular Wolfram's Parzival (although Chrétien's Perceval and the Welsh Peredur are often mentioned too, and it is known that Wagner studied these romances). This tends to lead the reader of, for example, an opera program into believing that Parsifal is a work of Arthurian romance, which the opera-goer expects to see shining in Celtic twilight. As Carl Suneson has pointed out, however, Wolfram's colourful medieval world, full of contrasts, with its tumble of characters, tournaments and battles, is marked by its almost total absence in Wagner's drama. Wagner's increasingly emphatic and often bad-tempered denials that he had based his Parsifal drama on Wolfram's epic poem, while they might overstate the case, confirm that he had not simply followed in the footsteps of the medieval poet. Wolfram's Parzival is a story about constancy or fidelity, whereas Wagner's Parsifal is a story about the importance of compassion. Wolfram's Parzival is the story of a foolish and ignorant young man who becomes a perfect knight; but Wagner's Parsifal is the story of a foolish and ignorant young man who becomes a saint. The fool becomes a sage, and the wise old knight, who gives the foolish lad moral guidance in the first act, has (according to Wagner's Prose Draft) become a childish old man by the third act, when the perfected knight and sage returns to Monsalvat and finds his mentor again.


Parsifal: A Buddhist Redeemer

This way to the Holy Forest

So one of the key ideas in Parsifal is the concept of a saint or sage, seeking wisdom and spiritual liberation. In the widest possible sense — Wagner wrote of the true geniuses and true sages of all ages — and also in a specific, narrow sense, the character Parsifal is an instance of an archetype, the saint or sage, the spiritual hero. In Wagner's terminology, he is a member of the race of saints, as well as being a member of the race of heroes. Wagner's use of the word Geschlecht, which can be translated as "race", has been much misunderstood. When he wrote of a race of saints, for example, he did not mean that saints were a biological breed or strain; he meant the class of individuals, whom we call saints. His Parsifal is both a hero and a saint; he is a spiritual hero, who overcomes the world. In this sense he is victorious. Carl Suneson, in his insightful monograph about Wagner and India, suggested that a particular kind of ascetic Buddhist saint was the model for Wagner's Parsifal:

open quotesParsifal is obviously also a kind of Christ-figure, one who suffers the torments of Christ, although Wagner's understanding of Christ is highly individual, complicated, and in some ways incompatible with the Saviour known to Christian theology. Christ is, for Wagner, both Erlöser and in need of Erlösung (recall "Die Gottesklage" in the second act: erlöse, rette mich aus schuldbefleckten Händen! ) and there is between him and Parsifal [at the end of the third act] a kind of reciprocal pacification. On closer examination of Wagner's text, it is not unreasonable to perceive in his Parsifal-Christ figure a suggestion of the Buddhist bodhisattva-ideal. In later Buddhist tradition, a bodhisattva is one who is on the way to becoming a Buddha and who has vowed to postpone their final transition to Buddhahood, to work for the salvation of all sentient beings and in a totally self- sacrificing manner to serve them. The bodhisattva doctrine includes a description of the transfer of merit from a bodhisattva to those in need of help. The being who receives this help is freed from further rebirth and the consequences of their actions in earlier lives, karma, are not brought to maturity but absorbed in the depths of the bodhisattva's boundless sea of mercy. close quotes

[Richard Wagner och den Indiska Tankevärlden, Carl Suneson, Stockholm, 1985, tr. present author]

The path to salvation. Parsifal Act II in the production by Harry Kupfer for Finnish National Opera, Helsinki. Left: The path to salvation. The end of Parsifal Act II. Production by Harry Kupfer for Finnish National Opera, Helsinki. Set designs by Hans Schavernoch.

The relevance of this kind of enlightened Buddhist saint, the bodhisattva as he appears in the Mahāna scriptures, had not (as far as the present author can determine) been mentioned by earlier commentators on Parsifal, although that there are references in Parsifal to Buddhism and to the life of the Buddha was first explained more than a century ago. Most commentators since then have mentioned that there are (Mahayana) Buddhist elements in the libretto, without expanding on this statement. In view of the fact that Wagner had been reading (early in 1856) the first detailed account to appear in any European language of the Mahāna doctrines, Burnouf's Introduction à l'histoire du Buddhisme indien, the book in which he found the legend on which he based the sketch for The Victors, this influence is plausible. Seen in connection with what Wagner wrote in 1860 about Parsifal's purity, the doctrine of the transfer of merit, to which Professor Suneson refers, helps to explain what happens in the Good Friday Meadow. As Parsifal, the newly anointed priest-king of the Grail, baptizes the heathen Kundry as his first act in his new role, there is a complementarity of Christian and Buddhist doctrines. As a Christian saint, Parsifal absolves Kundry of her sins; as a Buddhist saint, Parsifal transfers to her some of the merit that he has gained through good works in countless earlier lives. Thus Kundry is freed from further rebirth and the consequences of [her] actions in earlier lives, karma, are not brought to maturity but absorbed in the depths of the bodhisattva's boundless sea of mercy.

The presence of Buddhist or pseudo-Buddhist and Vedic elements in the libretto of Parsifal has long been recognized and the more intelligent and better-informed commentators writing about Parsifal have acknowledged that in the formative years of this drama, Wagner's thinking was more influenced by Buddhism than it was by Christianity. Regrettably too much of the literature concerning the Buddhist and oriental elements of the text has been speculative and inaccurate (see the review of this literature at the beginning of Suneson's monograph; unfortunately it is only available in Swedish and German). Even Carl Suneson's analysis of the Buddhist and Hindu ideas in Parsifal fails to penetrate Wagner's libretto, although Suneson's suggestions that Monsalvat was in part inspired by the forest ashrams of Valmiki's Ramayana, that the incident of the swan draws on some famous lines of Sanskrit attributed to Valmiki, and that Parsifal follows the path of the bodhisattva (see above) are all persuasive and deserve to be more widely known. It is remarkable that none of the commentators who have considered the Buddhist and oriental ideas in Parsifal have understood that a critical event in the life of the Buddha determines the structure of the first act of Wagner's Parsifal, even though most of them (following Heckel) acknowledge that another critical event in the Buddha's life underlies the action of the second act, whilst only Suneson approaches an understanding of what happens in the central scene of the third act.


Sex and Religion

open quotesWhere religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for art to save the core of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in a literal sense, and by revealing the deep truth hidden in them through ideal representation.close quotes

[Wagner's essay Religion and Art, 1880, tr. William Ashton Ellis]
A Bayreuth postcard showing Kundry attempting to seduce Parsifal.
Left: Bayreuth postcard showing Kundry, reclining on what G.B. Shaw called a Gower Street sofa and attempting to seduce Parsifal (act two). Wagner joked, Really she should be lying there naked, like a Titian Venus. His reference to Venus is fitting , since his ideas about Kundry were finalized in 1860 while he was writing the Venusberg scene for the Paris Tannhäuser.

By ideal representation here, Wagner meant the representation of ideas, specifically those that he regarded as deep truth. The quotation above has been taken from the opening of an 1880 article by Wagner, one of a series of increasingly cranky essays that he wrote in 1878- 1882 for publication in Wolzogen's journal, the Bayreuther Blätter. There has been much attention given to these essays in recent decades. Authors such as Robert Gutman, Hartmut Zelinsky and more recently Barry Millington 7 have attempted to explain the ideality of Parsifal on the basis of these so-called regeneration writings, so called because they are full of ideas that preoccupied Wagner in 1878-1882 (although in fact the arguments advanced by Gutman et al are based on passages, taken out of context, from Religion and Art of July 1880 and its supplements), including his concern about the supposed degeneration of the human race and his hope for its regeneration.

Soprano Martha Mödl as Kundry Right: Martha Mödl as Kundry, sitting on what looks like a most uncomfortable couch.

The main ideas connected together in these essays were not Wagner's own but those that he had found during the 1870's in the writings of the naturalist Charles Darwin, combined of course with Wagner's interpretation of Schopenhauer, and from 1880 the vegetarian Gleizès and the racial theorist Count Gobineau. To the extent that these essays contain references to Parsifal, which Wagner was completing in this period, they do tell us about how he saw the opera in the light of his current preoccupations. Since none of these ideas had been considered by Wagner during the development of the text of Parsifal, however, Gutman, Zelinsky and Millington are misguided when they propose to explain the ideality of Parsifal on the basis of essays that reflect on the finished work.

open quotesA less savoury aspect of Parsifal that should neither be overlooked nor exaggerated out of proportion is the fact that it was composed at the period in Wagner's life when his views on racial purity were finding their most extreme and strident expression. In the series of essays from his last years, sometimes known as the regeneration writings, a number of ideas are propounded at considerable length: blatant racist ideology partly derived from Gobineau's ideas on miscegenation; unabashed anti- Semitism in by now familiar tirades; the role of religion and of Christ the Redeemer in a process of regeneration.close quotes

[Wagner in Dent's Master Musicians series of biographies, Barry Millington, 1984, pages 268-9]

The error of which Barry Millington (following Robert Gutman, although with some reservations about Gutman's more eccentric ideas) has convinced himself (and unfortunately too many other people), is that the ideas that preoccupied Wagner in 1880-1882 found expression in Parsifal, the libretto of which he completed in the spring of 1877. A comparison of the libretto with the Munich Prose Draft of 1865, one which the reader is invited to make for themselves, shows that Wagner in 1877 closely followed what he had drafted in 1865, the main difference being that the Spear assumes greater importance in the later version. Lucy Beckett concludes that the plan for the opera ... was in all essentials and most details complete by 1865. Those who, like Gutman, Zelinsky and Millington, believe otherwise can only do so by ignoring much of the hard evidence. The ideas of the 1865 Prose Draft, and therefore the ideas that inform the libretto, are those that preoccupied Wagner in the years 1856-1865. Not those that engaged his interest in 1880-1882.

Already in 1855, under the influence of Schopenhauer and in particular the section On Religion in his Parerga and Paralipomena8, Wagner had begun to develop unconventional views about religion:

open quotes... modern research has succeeded in showing that pure and unalloyed Christianity was nothing but a branch of that venerable Buddhism which, after Alexander's Indian expedition, spread to the shores of the Mediterranean. In early Christianity we can still see distinct traces of the perfect negation of the will of life, of the longing for the destruction of the world, i.e. the cessation of all existence.close quotes

[Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt on 7 June 1855, Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt, Tr. Francis Hueffer, vol. II, page 71]

The flower maidens in Syberberg's Parsifal film. Left: In H-J Syberberg's. Parsifal film the flower maidens are presented as women oppressed by men, to whom they are only playthings, and Klingsor is a pimp.

For Schopenhauer and for Wagner, the teachings of Jesus, presented only in distorted form in the Gospels, had been inspired by ideas that had spread from India. The deep truth that Jesus had recognised and taught, they believed, had been lost from sight in Christendom, until it was rediscovered by Schopenhauer, who then found that some of his key ideas had been taught in India centuries before Jesus. Christianity was, for Wagner, a necessary error. He came to believe in his own definition of true Christianity, which was a religion of compassion. Wagner's frequent references to Christianity should always be read with these statements in mind. When Wagner described his Parsifal as a Christian work, he meant that it was a drama that expressed his idea of true Christianity; and what was taught by the vicars and parsons was, for Wagner, not his idea of true Christianity.

It is hardly surprising that none of the many attempts that have been made to interpret Parsifal in terms of Christian theology has succeeded. This failure has been excused by Lucy Beckett, in her Cambridge Opera Handbook to Parsifal, on the grounds that Parsifal is inconsistent (an evaluation that was echoed by Millington in his biography of Wagner), since, according to Beckett, in Parsifal Wagner had attempted to reconcile pagan and Christian ideas, resulting in an unresolvable friction. Therefore in terms of her proposed interpretation of Parsifal as a work of Christian mysticism, the work is not only inconsistent but broken. Certainly there are influences of Christian mysticism detectable in Parsifal but it is hard to find any paganism; except for the pagan classical myth of Telephus. Wagner recognized, as he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk, that the Grail legend, like other supposedly Christian myths, had a pagan origin; but does any paganism remain in elements that Wagner chose from the Grail romances and adapted to his own purposes? And if so, does it matter? After all, elements such as the holy spear and the Grail, after their transignification in the Grail romances, passed into European culture as Christian symbols, despite their pagan origins. For Wagner it did not matter whether these elements were Christian or pagan so long as he could manipulate them to suit his artistic ends. Beckett does not seem to be concerned about the pagan origins of the Grail:

open quotesThe Grail in Parsifal, for all the bits and pieces of pagan legend that Wagner retained [from the romances], demands to be taken in its full Christian sense as the perpetually renewed chalice of the Last Supper which represents Christ's continuing presence among men. If it is not so taken, many of the words used to describe it and its place at the centre of the drama, itself needing redemption from the plight to which Amfortas' failure has brought it, become meaningless...close quotes

[Beckett, page 140]

Here it might be noted that Beckett, like most commentators on Parsifal, assumes that Wagner developed his libretto by compressing material from Wolfram's Parzival and supplementing it with "bits and pieces" from other Grail romances. The reader is advised to read the accompanying article on Wagner's sources for a more accurate picture of where Wagner quarried his raw material; even better, to read Wolfram and try to identify anything in it that is referenced directly in Wagner's opera Parsifal. Unfortunately Beckett's narrow view of the sources led her to the mistaken conclusion that the "pagan" (non-monotheistic) elements of Wagner's Parsifal were either residues from the distillation of Wolfram's poem or taken from other Grail romances. But this is certainly not the case: consider (as Beckett does not) the early medieval poem Barlaam and Josaphat, which this author would argue was the inspiration for more of Wagner's text than was Wolfram's Parzival. The former is a "pagan" story (originally about the Buddha) that passed through a Christian filter to become a story about two (fictional) Christian saints. Does any "paganism" remain in the version of this story that Wagner had on his bookshelf in Dresden?

There is another aspect to this business of pagan and Christian elements in Wagner's text: even today, western audiences are likely to recognize symbols such as the Grail, as well as the rituals in the opera, as deriving from Christian traditions. Since western audiences are less likely to be familiar with Wagner's non-Christian sources (say, the Ramayana or accounts of the life of the Buddha), it is understandable that audience members experience Parsifal in a Christian context; taking the Grail, as does Beckett, in its "full Christian sense". Wagner used Christian language, especially in the temple scenes; but it should be noted that even these scenes are set in a temple and not in a church. If audiences have mistakenly seen this Parsifal opera as a work of Christian piety, then Wagner is to blame for his use of Christian symbols and religious language borrowed from the Christian liturgy.

Bieito production of Parsifal, Staatsoper Stuttgart Where is God? The end of Parsifal Act II in the production by Calixto Bieito for Staatsoper Stuttgart.

On the other hand, although it is less obvious to a Christian audience (or at least to one that is more familiar with Christianity than with Buddhism), there are suggestions in Parsifal of Buddhist doctrines and Buddhist legends. These influences are immediately recognised by Buddhists and by those who have studied Buddhism when they attend a performance of Parsifal. Recently the present author spoke to a German film-maker, who had been commissioned to make a film about the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni. When he began studying the film-script, this producer realized that he had seen some of this before; these incidents were in Wagner's Parsifal! In fact this is not all that remarkable, given that Wagner had already been working on (or at least, researching) a drama about the Buddha (The Victors or Die Sieger) during the year (May 1856 to April 1857) before his "Good Friday" inspiration.

open quotesThe title was inspired by the Jinas, Indian holy men whose name in Sanskrit means "victors". Their victory was over human passions. Die Sieger dealt with an event in the legendary life of the Buddha, one of whose titles was Jina -- the Victor. Wagner himself described the sketch as being based on a simple legend of a low-caste maiden (called Prakriti), who is received into a pious order of mendicants as a result of her painfully intense and purified love for Ananda, the chief disciple of the Buddha. Wagner was especially attracted to the story's secondary theme of reincarnation as a vehicle for his compositional technique of Emotional Reminiscence, usually referred to by the term "Leitmotiv". Only music he said, can convey the mysteries of reincarnation. close quotes

[Wagner's Parsifal: the Journey of a Soul, Peter Bassett, 2000. This book is highly recommended as the best introduction to Parsifal currently available.]

Wagner's interest in reincarnation, a doctrine in which he confessed his belief in 1860, is another aspect of Wagner's religious and spiritual outlook of which evidence can be found in Parsifal. Not only reincarnation, in fact, but also the theory of karma fascinated Wagner. The reader will be able to find a discussion of how these ideas were reflected in Wagner's works in the studies by Wolfgang Osthoff and Carl Suneson respectively. As Schopenhauer had pointed out, reincarnation had been taught throughout the world in antiquity, and not only in India. It is probable that Wagner believed that Jesus had taught a doctrine of reincarnation, which his disciples had failed to understand. Thus it was an element of his true Christianity, of which Parsifal was an expression.


Two of Wagner's later dramas are more closely related than is widely recognized. It is almost certain that neither Tristan und Isolde nor Parsifal would exist, had not Wagner discovered the philosophy of Schopenhauer in the autumn of 1854. The most important difference between these works, in relation to this philosophy, is that Tristan expresses some of Schopenhauer's metaphysical ideas, while Parsifal is more concerned with his ethical ideas and especially with the primary importance that Schopenhauer assigned to compassion 9. Compassion (Mitleid) is at the centre of Parsifal just as longing (Sehnen) is at the centre of Tristan und Isolde 10.

open quotes Of course the answer could be that Wagner's intention was to produce a Christian drama, in the most straightforward way, but that he failed and therefore the work is broken- backed. But here we have to turn to our actual experience of it, which is, one or two brief passages apart, marvellously unified and coherent, and to remain true to that. The work is primarily about Parsifal's progress to enlightenment through compassion, and his subsequent ability to put the Hall of the Grail in order... It is only in terms of this ethic of compassion, founded on a metaphysic of the unity of living things, that Parsifal makes sense. close quotes

[Wagner, Michael Tanner, 1996, pages 198-9.]
A Bayreuth postcard showing the ending the opera. Parsifal reveals the Grail.
Right: Bayreuth postcard showing the traditional ending of Parsifal. From the dome a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal's head. Kundry, with her gaze resting on Parsifal, sinks lifeless to the ground. Amfortas and Gurnemanz kneel in homage before Parsifal, who swings the Grail over the worshipping knights.

Soundbytes Redemption to the redeemer (ogg format, mono, duration 3.5 min.)


Clearly Michael Tanner's experience of the work differs from that of Lucy Beckett. Both Parsifal and Tristan reflect the Schopenhauerian (and also Buddhist) doctrines according to which suffering is an inevitable part of life, and desire is the cause of suffering. In Tristan we are shown that even the desire to escape from this world causes suffering. In Parsifal we see a marvellously world-demonic woman who brings to men the suffering of seduction and how an attempt at seduction can bring a flash of enlightenment (unlikely as this might sound, there is a precedent for such an experience in one of the Buddhist scriptures). In Tristan and in The Victors Wagner was still resisting Schopenhauer's teaching that sexual love, as a manifestation of the erotic and demonic will or will-to-live, was a hindrance to salvation. By the time he wrote the libretto of Parsifal, Wagner had almost let go of his belief in redemption through love. In the second act of Parsifal we see the opposition of two different kinds of love: Kundry offers Parsifal sexual love, 'έρως or amor, and he responds (to her confusion) by offering her loving-kindness, 'αγάπη or caritas. The former, according to Schopenhauer, leads only to suffering, while the latter can lead to salvation.

Cosima Wagner records a statement by Richard about how Kundry had experienced Isolde's transfiguration many times. Isolde dies in the hope that she will be united with Tristan in the realm of eternal night. Kundry in Parsifal and Brünnhilde (who in the 1856 ending of Gütterdämmerung declares herself redeemed from rebirth) die in the knowledge that they will not be reborn. If one believes, with Schopenhauer and Wagner, that existence is a burden and this world a vale of tears, then the death of Kundry at the end of Parsifal is something positive: after centuries of wandering she has found eternal rest in a blissful nirvāa. Parsifal remains in the world, however, to work for the salvation of all sentient beings and in a totally self- sacrificing manner to serve them. So, although it is by no means life-affirming, the ending of Wagner's Parsifal is, in a way and against all the odds, optimistic.

Footnote 1: The Total Work of Art by Michael Tanner, in The Wagner Companion, ed. P. Burbridge and R. Sutton, 1979.

Footnote 2: It is probably from a misguided intention to eliminate the miraculous and supernatural from this opera that its producers have been rewriting the ending of the second act, in recent productions. They might claim that the business with the spear needs to be changed anyway, because what Wagner asks for (the spear stopping in mid-air) is physically impossible (unless brakes could be fitted to the spear). But changing the ending of the second act by eliminating all supernatural intervention and even the "sign of the Cross" ("mit diesem Zeichen") leads to several problems. First, there has to be a cause for the collapse of Klingsor's tower and the withering of the magic garden. Otherwise we have "effects without causes". Omitting the collapse of the tower and the withering of the garden means that we lose what these effects were intended to say, namely that Klingsor's power is destroyed. Secondly, there has to be a cause for Klingsor himself falling (possibly dead, although Wagner's text does not say so). The latest trend is for Parsifal to impale Klingsor on the spear. This is simply wrong and, when it is done, reveals that the producer has not understood Wagner's opera. In which Amfortas is suffering because he sinned: specifically by carrying the holy spear into battle as a weapon. When Parsifal returns to Monsalvat in the third act, he states clearly and deliberately that he did not bear the spear as a weapon ("denn nicht ihn selber durft' ich führen im Streite"). So Parsifal cannot use the spear to kill Klingsor, neither is it necessary. For a proposed origin to the "sign of the Cross" part of this scene see my article on Josaphat and Barlaam.

Footnote 3: Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, ed. John Warrack, chapter 4: Sachs and Schopenhauer. Richard Wagner: Parsifal, ed. Lucy Beckett, chapter 6: A Proposed Interpretation. For Wagner's opinion of academics the reader is referred to the third installment of his article The Public and Popularity (August 1878), PW 6, pages 70-81.

Footnote 4: Wagner in Dent's Master Musicians Series, 1984, pages 269 to 271. This ill-judged section of the chapter on Parsifal disfigures what is otherwise a well-written and informative biography. See also Millington's article on Parsifal in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Many Wagnerians are still waiting for Barry Millington to present the abundant evidence that he claimed supports his view that Parsifal is about racial purity.

Footnote 5: Lucy Beckett provides a perceptive and polite refutation of Robert Gutman's bizarre and fantastic interpretation of Parsifal in her Richard Wagner: Parsifal, pages 121-3.

Footnote 6: Richard Wagners Musikdramen, 1971. The chapter on Parsifal is on pages 204-223 of the Reclam edition. It has been translated into English by Mary Whittall as Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, 1979; pages 142-155.

Footnote 7: Robert Gutman's strange and often inaccurate Wagner book is Richard Wagner: The Man, his Mind and his Music, 1969. Scarcely any of H. Zelinsky's polemics are available in English, although some of his ideas were discussed by Barry Millington in the journal Wagner, vol. 8, 1987, pages 114-20 (Parsifal: A Wound Reopened). The most substantial article, despite its brevity, about the work by Millington is Parsifal: Facing the Contradictions, in Musical Times, 1983, pages 97-8.

Footnote 8: Volume 2, chapter XV.

Footnote 9: For an understanding of the ethical foundation of Parsifal, the reader is advised to study Schopenhauer's On the Basis of Morality, which is sometimes found in one volume combined with the essay on the freedom of the will as The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. Those who prefer to read the original German will find the former essay in Schopenhauer's Collected Works, volume III, pages 632-815. For a general introduction to the philosopher, see Bryan Magee's book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. The only extended discussion of Schopenhauer's ideas in Wagner's Parsifal is to be found in Ulrike Kienzle's Das Weltüberwindungswerk: Wagners 'Parsifal'. Unfortunately Kienzle concentrated on the ideas developed in The World as Will and Representation and neglected the essay on the foundation of morality, which is more directly relevant to Parsifal.

Footnote 10: Wagner and Philosophy, Bryan Magee, 2000, page 215. (US title: The Tristan Chord).