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.

The articles and notes that I have gathered for this website provide many different viewpoints from which to examine the opera. Although it is valuable to look at Parsifal from varied and often mutually exclusive viewpoints, and using different conceptual ("ideal") frameworks, I soon discovered that approaching the work from these different angles can only provide partial interpretations. Commentators generally ignore the content that does not fit within their particular framework, or perhaps like Lucy Beckett they conclude that the work is an inconsistent composite of incompatible elements drawn from different religious traditions. To the extent that existing interpretations of Parsifal made any sense of the work, I found them unsatisfactory because they failed to explain parts of the drama that were emphasised by Wagner and therefore important. None of these interpretations gave a satisfactory reading of what actually happens in the Good Friday meadow, after Gurnemanz has anointed Parsifal and before Kundry's baptism, when a triple cadence confirms for the first time in the opera a stable tonality (B major). Here Wagner had emphasised something but commentators paid it no attention. On stage too, I often find the presentation of the opera lacking, for example in the treatment of the death of the swan. This is a key event in the action of the opera: it is the first of three revelations that change the life of the hero, and his remorse at the death of the bird is the turning point or peripeteia of the entire drama. Yet in most productions it is merely incidental.

I came to realise that this opera, especially in the third act, is multi-layered. It cannot be understood by looking from any one angle or within any one religious context: it has to be seen from two or more angles at the same time. The most important layers in the Good Friday scene are (a) one that makes use of Christian ideas, specifically the sacraments of baptism and anointing, together with foot washing, a Biblical reference; and (b) one that refers to Buddhist doctrines, ideas about karma and nirvana, and specifically the "paramita" in which a Bodhisattva can transfer merit to another being. Both layers are present and meaningful at the same time; not mutually exclusive but complementary. When Parsifal returns to Monsalvat, to be hailed by Gurnemanz and anointed, he is at the same time both a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist saint) and a Christian saint. When he says that now everything seems changed, it is not because the Grail domain has changed but because Parsifal himself has changed. After years of following paths of error and suffering, now he sees the world and all creatures in it differently. This is what Wagner tried to show in the Good Friday scene.

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)