So what is the message of Parsifal ?

Thoughts on the Meaning of the Opera

It was recently pointed out to me that nowhere among the thousands of words present on this web site was there any clear statement about the message of Parsifal or what Wagner meant by his last major work. This page is an attempt to fill that gap.

The Grail Temple. Parsifal Act I in Harry Kupfer's staging for Finnish National Opera, Helsinki
Above: The Grail Temple in Act I of Parsifal. Harry Kupfer's staging for Finnish National Opera, Helsinki.

I was puzzled by Parsifal for about twenty years after seeing my first performance of the work. In 1996 I began to study Parsifal in depth. This investigation was prompted by the experience of attending a performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival of that year. After four years of studying what had been written about the work, not least by Wagner himself, and what Wagner had been reading in the years preceding his first sketch for Parsifal I arrived at some conclusions. It was clear to me that most of what had been written about this opera during the last 100 years was totally wrong, and that with very few exceptions, commentators had only scratched (and in some cases defaced) the surface of Wagner's text. I sought understanding of what Wagner was trying to convey to his audience through poetry, music and dramatic action. After visiting the Zürich garden in which it had been written, I attempted a (rather speculative) reconstruction of the lost "Good Friday" sketch. The three most important messages that I have found in the opera are summarised below. Each of them derives from the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, to whose works (and in particular his essay, On the Basis of Morality) the reader is directed for further insight.

Seek the Path of Deliverance

The primary purpose of the drama is to convey to the audience the importance of compassion -- which is the only true basis for morality, according to Schopenhauer. This teaching was accepted by his disciple Richard Wagner. It is through compassion for the suffering of other beings that the fool acquires wisdom and becomes a sage. It is through the perfection of wisdom that he is able to bring salvation.

There is a Schopenhauerian metaphor in the work that is so explicit that anyone who has read Schopenhauer will have no difficulty in detecting it. Her name is Kundry. She represents, on one level, the human predicament in relation to what Buddhists call sasarā: the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. In the first act she is wild and restless, striving for (but unable to find) a balm that will cure suffering; as Kundry confesses, she can help nobody -- not even herself. By the third act, however, Kundry is calm, peaceful, quiet; she has almost escaped from her cyclic existence by the denial of the will. Here is the metaphysical message of Parsifal: stop striving, deny the will, accept that suffering is an inevitable part of life and that desires can never be fully satisfied.

Certain passages in Wagner's text clearly were intended to communicate Schopenhauer's ethical doctrines. So the ethical message of the work is: injure no one; on the contrary, help others as much as possible (Neminem laede; immo omnes, quantum potes, juva). This formula becomes, in Parsifal, the teaching of the Grail.

open quotes You should know that all things in the world are impermanent -- meeting inevitably means parting. Do not be troubled, for this is the nature of life. Diligently practising right effort, you must seek deliverance immediately. In the light of wisdom, destroy the darkness of ignorance. Nothing is secure. Everything in life is precarious. Always wholeheartedly seek the path of deliverance.close quotes

(From the Buddha Shakyamuni's final teaching, the Parinirvana Sutra)