Swans and Geese: Wagner's Wildfowl in his Opera Parsifal

Parzival is called a goose. Painting from Neuschwanstein.

The Goose (or Gander) of Monsalvat

At  the end of the first act of Wagner's Parsifal, the knight Gurnemanz notices that the young fool is still standing in the hall. It is obvious that he does not understand what he has seen and heard there.

Dort hinaus, deine Wege zu!
Doch rät dir Gurnemanz:
lass du hier künftig die Schwäne 
in Ruh'
und suche dir, Gänser, die Gans!
Off with you, be on your way!
Take advice from Gurnemanz:
In future leave our swans 
in peace,
go seek — you gander — 
for geese!

These words are ironical. Gurnemanz sends the young man, whom he thinks is nothing but a fool, on his way. Gurnemanz does not realise that he has changed the direction of the young fool's life, or that the way that the fool will find, will in the end lead him both to wisdom and back to Gurnemanz. In the next act, the young gander will find a (metaphorical) flock of geese.

The mention of geese is a subtle reference to Wagner's medieval sources. It is well-known that Wagner first encountered the story about the young fool who stumbles upon the Grail Castle in a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wolfram's primary source was an unfinished poem by Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval or The Story of the Grail.

I   have described, in another article, Perceval's visit to the Grail Castle. The young lad awakes in the castle, now deserted. He bangs on doors and shouts, but nobody appears. Then he goes out into the courtyard, and finds his horse saddled, his lance and shield leaning against the wall. As he rides out through the gate and on to the drawbridge, it begins to rise. Horse and rider jump to the bank, and he looks back to see who raised the bridge. Seeing nobody, he calls out, but there is no reply. Wolfram expands on the story:

Wagner's scene also has a voice whose owner is unseen, but it is heard by Gurnemanz and not by the young fool. After Gurnemanz has pushed Parsifal out of the door and slammed it shut behind him, he walks across the stage and, as he does so, a voice is heard from up above. Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor (Made wise through compassion, the pure fool); the words of the prophecy, once delivered to Amfortas. To which a heavenly choir adds, Selig im Glauben! (Blessed in faith). There is another episode in Wolfram's Parzival that involves a goose, a real one this time. But before we consider whether that episode has any relevance to Wagner's Parsifal, we need to consider a different bird.

The Beloved Swan

An  episode in Parsifal that has puzzled commentators, is the shooting of the swan in the first act. There is no direct parallel in Wolfram, although it has been suggested by Lucy Beckett that two passages in his Parzival could have inspired this scene. Firstly, in Wolfram's account of Parzival's boyhood:

bogen unde bölzelîn
die sneit er mit sîn selbes hant,
und schôz vil vogele die er vant.
Swenne abr er den vogel erschôz,
des schal von sange ê was sô grôz,
sô weinder unde roufte sich,
an sîn hâr kêrt er gerich.
bows and arrows
he fashioned with his own hands,
and shot at the flocks of birds there.
But when he had shot a bird
that had been singing loudly just before,
he would burst into tears
and tear out his own hair.
[Wolfram's Parzival, book 3.]

open quotesA page who had remained hidden pulled the cable so sharply that the end all but toppled [Parzival's] horse into the moat. Parzival looked back in hope of learning more. 'Damn you, wherever the sun lights on your path!' shouted the page. 'You silly goose!'. close quotes

The incident of the swan is an important event because it triggers the moral development of Parsifal.

Right: The incident of the swan: Wieland Wagner's Parsifal in 1956. This scene is important because it triggers the moral development of Parsifal.

Much later, in Parzival's wanderings, he comes across a goose that has been wounded by King Arthur's falcon. Three drops of blood fall on the snow; the red on white reminds Parzival of his distant wife, Condwiramurs. In contemplation of the blood on the snow, he falls into a trance.

Here is the episode of the swan in Wagner's Prose Draft:

open quotesWhile the King is bathing in the sacred lake, a wild swan circles over his head: suddenly it falls, wounded by an arrow; shouts from the lake: general indignation, who dares kill an animal on this sacred spot? The swan flutters nearer and drops bleeding to the ground. Parzival emerges from the forest, bow in hand: Gurnemans stops him. The young man confesses to the deed. To the violent reproaches of the old man he has no reply. Gurnemans, reproaching him with the wickedness of his act, reminds him of the sanctity of the forest stirring so silently around him, asks whether he has not found all the creatures tame, gentle and harmless. What had the swan, seeking its mate, done to him? Was he not sorry for the poor bird that now lay, with bloodstained feathers, dying at his feet? etc.,- Parzival, who has been standing riveted to the spot, bursts into tears and stammers, 'I don't know!'. close quotes

The connection with the first of the two passages in Wolfram seems to be much closer than the second, which does not seem relevant. Even so, there is quite a difference between Wolfram's brief episode and the more complex scene at the lakeside. Carl Suneson has suggested that two passages in Indian literature could have contributed to Wagner's episode. The first of these, a story about a dispute between the future Buddha and his cousin Devadatta, about a goose that the cousin had shot down, is related to Mathilde Wesendonk's poem about the wounded swan. Suneson points out that, in the 19th century, it was common for the word hamsa to be mistranslated as swan (Schwan) rather than goose (Gans). One possible source for Wagner was an article in German, written in 1851 by Anton Schiefner, in which he had translated from a Tibetan text of 1734 (the Sanskrit text not being available in the west until half a century later). Schiefner's articles on Buddhism were among those recommended in the 1854 edition of Arthur Schopenhauer's Über den Willen in der Natur. A second possible, and perhaps stronger, candidate for an Indian inspiration, according to Suneson, is an incident in the epic Ramayana (Sanskrit: रामायणम्), or more accurately in some verses attributed to Valmiki that preface the poem (or are sometimes inserted in book 2), which Wagner had been reading with great enthusiasm a few days before writing the 1865 Prose Draft. The scene (in the poem) commences with the sage Valmiki observing a tragic incident involving a pair of krauñca birds (probably Sarus cranes), setting the emotional tone for the epic. Witnessing the male bird being killed by a hunter, leaving its partner in anguish, Valmiki is moved to curse the hunter through a spontaneous verse, which ultimately becomes the Ramayana's first shloka (the verse form used in the Ramayana). This moment, steeped in sorrow and compassion, not only initiates the composition of the epic but also symbolically prefigures the central narrative of love, loss, and separation experienced by the protagonists, Rama and Sita, embodying the essence of Karuṇā Rasa or the sentiment of compassion. Combined with the first passage in Wolfram, this is a credible basis for what Wagner wrote in that draft.

Parsifal act one, Bayreuth 1989

Parsifal Act 1 in the 1989 Bayreuth production by Wolfgang Wagner. Parsifal: William Pell, Gurnemanz: Hans Sotin. ©Bayreuther Festspiele.

The incident of the swan is an important event, indeed arguably the most important event of the first act, because it triggers the moral development of Parsifal1. Like the young Parzival in Wolfram's poem, quoted at the start of this section, the boy is not only innocent but amoral, at this point. Parzival/Parsifal likes to kill creatures (with a bow he made for himself) but he has no concept of death. Although Wagner possibly found inspiration in other sources as discussed above, it is the passage in Parzival in which young Parzival weeps for the birds that he has silenced that must have been Wagner's primary inspiration. In the opera this scene is the boy's first encounter with death. It is the first of three life-changing revelations. Seeing his remorse and the awakening of compassion, Gurnemanz decides to take the boy into the temple, where he will meet two further revelations: a sick man in great pain is his first encounter with sickness; then an ancient man reveals old age. This is the triple revelation of old age, sickness and death, around which the first act of the opera was constructed. The killing of the swan, the consequent distress of Gurnemanz and the remorse that he provokes in the boy are the start of a process through which Parsifal will be "made wise by compassion". It is unfortunate that this scene is rarely staged in an effective way: too many opera directors think that they can just throw a stuffed bird on the stage floor and move on to other scenes as quickly as possible.

Mother and Son

Wagner's abhorrence for any act of cruelty to an animal, and his sympathy for their dumb suffering, was something that he discovered was shared by Arthur Schopenhauer (as it was by his beloved Mathilde Wesendonk). In Arthur Schopenhauer's ethics, Wagner found a rational basis for his instinctive belief in the rights of animals. Both men rejected the Christian attitude to animals, taken from the Old Testament, that they had been given to man to use as he wished, as part of nature entrusted to man's stewardship by the Creator God. Also the modern, philosophical view introduced by Descartes, in which animals were only machines.

open quotesThe moral incentive advanced by me as the genuine, is further confirmed by the fact that the animals are also taken under its protection. In other European systems of morality they are badly provided for, which is most inexcusable. They are said to have no rights, and there is the erroneous idea that our behaviour to them is without moral significance, or, as it is said in the language of that morality, there are no duties to animals. All this is revoltingly crude, a barbarism of the West, the source of which is to be found in Judaism. In philosophy it rests, despite all evidence to the contrary, on the assumed total difference between man and animal. We all know that such difference was expressed most effectively and strikingly by Descartes, as a necessary consequence of his errors... And so we must remind the Western, Judaized despiser of animals and idolater of the faculty of reason that, just as he was suckled by his mother, so was the dog by his. Even Kant fell into this mistake of his contemporaries and countrymen; this I have already censured. The morality of Christianity has no consideration for animals, a defect that is better admitted than perpetuated. This is the more surprising since, in other respects, that morality shows the closest agreement with that of Brahmanism and Buddhism, being merely less strongly expressed, and not carried through to its very end. Therefore we can scarcely doubt that, like the idea of a god become man (avatar), the Christian morality originates from India and may have come to Judaea by way of Egypt, so that Christianity would be a reflected splendour of the primordial light of India from the ruins of Egypt; but unfortunately it fell on Jewish soil.2 close quotes

[Arthur Schopenhauer, Über die Grundlage der Moral, section 19, 1839.]

open quotes... modern research has succeeded in proving that pure, uncontaminated Christianity is no more and no less than a branch of the venerable Buddhist religion which, following Alexander's Indian campaign, found its way to, among other places, the shores of the Mediterranean. In early Christianity we can still see traces of a total denial of the will to live, and a longing for the end of the world, i.e. the cessation of all life.close quotes

[Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt on 7 June 1855, Liszt-Briefe II, 73-80, tr. Spencer and Millington]

Here, in Arthur Schopenhauer's assertion that animals had rights, and indeed rights equal to those of human beings, Wagner found a morality consistent with his own instincts. He accepted Schopenhauer's argument that the origins of Christianity were in the religions of India, which had reached Judaea in the centuries before Christ; and that there the teaching that animals had rights had been rejected, in favour of the Old Testament teaching in which animals were objects with no more rights than those of rocks. In the western world, as Wagner expressed it, the Pentateuch had won the day (An Open Letter to Herr Ernst von Weber, PW VI, p 202). Wagner's concern for animals, together with the advice of his doctors, eventually led him to become a sympathiser with, if not actually a practitioner of, vegetarianism.

The swan incident in a recent Wels Festival production of 'Parsifal'

Once Wagner had been seized by enthusiasm for the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, an enthusiasm that unusually for Wagner was long-lived, he not only sought out and read everything that the philosopher had published, but also other books that he had recommended. This included books on Buddhism, where Wagner read about the Buddhist attitude to animals, including of course birds. Here again he encountered something that Schopenhauer had mentioned, the idea of reincarnation. The respect of the Buddhist for animals was a natural consequence of the belief that he could be reborn as an animal and that the animal could be reborn as a human, or even divine, being.

It is not difficult to find hints of a belief in reincarnation in Wagner's later works, and expressed in his writings. In 1858 Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk that he had come to believe in reincarnation, although it is not clear which of the different doctrines he had accepted. In his projected Buddhist drama Die Sieger (The Victors), the Buddha Shakyamuni was to reveal that the Chandala girl Prakriti was atoning for guilt in her previous lives; which is the way Gurnemanz describes Kundry in the first act of Parsifal. When Parsifal arrives, he tells Gurnemanz that he has had many names, but forgotten them all. This could be read as an awareness that he has lived previous lives, of which the details have been forgotten.

In a book about her friend Richard Wagner, written in 1882, Judith Gautier wrote about the scene in which Siegfried rests under a Linden tree and listens to the Forest Bird: l'oiseau lui parle, en effet; ne serait-ce pas là l'âme de sa mère? (indeed, the bird speaks to him; would this not be the soul of his mother?) Which is reminiscent of a letter that Wagner wrote to his own mother in September 1846, in which he writes that he thinks of her during country walks, listening to a dear forest bird. In the poem of Der junge Siegfried, in fact, there are lines that Wagner did not set to music in the drama that he later called Siegfried. In the scene to which Judith refers, young Siegfried hears the bird and sings, Mich dünkt, meine mutter singt zu mir! (I think my mother is singing to me!). This suggests that, as early as 1851 and therefore before Wagner had encountered either Schopenhauer or Buddhism, he was thinking in terms of a transmigration of souls, by which Sieglinde became a bird that watched over and helped her son, Siegfried.

In Parsifal the bird is a swan, which also provides a musical connection (see number 17 in the leitmotif catalogue) between Parsifal and his son Lohengrin. In 1860, in another letter to Mathilde Wesendonk, Wagner had written about the relationships between characters in Lohengrin, Parsifal and Die Sieger: Only the deeply wise idea of the transmigration of souls could show me the consoling point at which all creatures will finally reach the same level of redemption. Lohengrin might be a reincarnation of his father Parsifal (an odd suggestion, since the text of the Grail Narration in Lohengrin suggests that Parsifal is then still alive), while the all-too-human Elsa could reach the karmic level of Lohengrin through a series of rebirths. Given this preoccupation with the idea of reincarnation, it is tempting to speculate that Herzeleide, Parsifal's mother, might have been reincarnated as the swan.

In Wieland Wagner's interpretation of Parsifal, the spiritual hero progressed from the realm of mother and matter, symbolised by the swan, to the realm of father and spirit, symbolised by the dove. In this interpretation the incident with the swan can be seen as the starting point of Parsifal's journey and the descending dove as the end of that journey. In Wieland's famous Bayreuth production (1951-1973), however, the dove was omitted. Perhaps because this symbol suggests a parallel between Parsifal and Christ, one that Richard Wagner repeatedly denied had been his intention.

Footnote 1: Carl Dahlhaus wrote that the scene with the swan is peripheral to the outer action but crucial to the inner. In terms of the outer action, it is Parsifal's remorse in which he breaks his bow that leads Gurnemanz to take the boy into the temple. If this had not happened, then the story might have ended here. As noted above, the scene is crucial to the inner action because it marks the start of the boy's moral development.
Footnote 2: Schopenhauer was not alone in seeing the possibility that Indian religious ideas had diffused to Judea. Later Wagner would read the following: Perhaps some of those wandering Buddhist monks who overran the world, as the first Franciscans did in later times, preaching by their actions and converting people who knew not their language, might have turned their steps towards Judea, as they certainly did towards Syria and Babylon? On this point we have no certainty. Babylon had become for some time a true focus of Buddhism. Boudasp (Bodhisattva) was reputed a wise Chaldean and the founder of Sabeism. Sabeism was, as its etymology indicates, baptism — that is to say the religion of many baptisms — the origin of the sect still existing called Christians of St. John or Mendaites, which the Arabs call el-Mogtasila, the Baptists. [Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus, 1863, pages 70-71.]