An Introduction to Wagner’s Parsifal
In February 1883, Richard Wagner died in Venice, a few months short of his seventieth birthday. Seven months earlier, Parsifal had received its first performance in the Festival Theatre at Bayreuth in Bavaria. Looking back at Wagner’s creative life, we can see that it fell rather neatly into two parts. In the first half, as you would expect, he was searching for his own dramatic and musical style, trying to discover what it was he wanted to say and how to say it. He had been born in the Kingdom of Saxony during the Napoleonic Wars, within twenty years of the French Revolution. As a young radical, he was convinced that the basic goodness of human beings had been subverted by the property-owning classes and the selfish interests of the state. He was prepared to support direct action and, after his involvement in the Dresden uprising of 1849, a warrant was issued for his arrest. He then fled into exile in Switzerland and was effectively exiled from his homeland for the next thirteen years.
When we come to the second half of his life, we find a very different man. His idealism has gone, and he no longer looks to politics for solutions to the world’s problems. He is profoundly cynical of all forms of government and the mechanisms of production, distribution and exchange. He is beginning to think that there is no remedy for humanity’s ills, at least by way of collective action. So, during his last three decades, Wagner becomes more concerned with metaphysical issues than with political ones. In his greatest works – those written after the mid-1850s – he looks inwards at human nature, rather than outwards at human society. We can see this happening in the great cycle of The Ring of the Nibelung from Die Walküre onwards. It certainly happens in Tristan und Isolde, where the lovers’ goal is to escape from the harsh glare of separate existences into the perfect union of night and death. Scratch the surface of Die Meistersinger and we find metaphysics even there. But most of all we find it in Parsifal. It is his most mystical work, based on transcendental notions such as the denial of the will and rejection of the world. It has nothing to do with politics of any kind. Wagner himself said that Parsifal owed its conception to his flight from the world, and from a soul-less age of unfeeling utilitarianism.
Of course, like all great works of art, Parsifal can be appreciated on many levels, and the sheer beauty of its music is one of them. Debussy described it as “one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music.”
Wagner’s initial encounter with the subject came in 1845, when he read the thirteenth century courtly epic Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parsifal is better known to native English-speakers as Percival of the Arthurian legends. Twelve years later, in the spring of 1857, he was moved by a tranquil scene on the Wesendonck estate near Zürich to think of the world’s ‘new beginning’, achieved through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross on Good Friday. His mind went back to Wolfram’s poem with its references to Good Friday, and the juxtaposition of these ideas provided the spark that ignited his imagination. From Wolfram, Wagner took many details concerning the Grail and the knights who guard it.
What is the Grail? Wolfram tells of a host of angels bringing it into the world:
“A host of angels left [the Grail] on the earth” he says, “and then flew away up over the stars…. since then baptised men have had the task of guarding it, and with such chaste discipline that those who are called to the service of the Grail are always noble men.”
In the earliest legends, the Grail was neither a chalice nor the cup of the Last Supper. Those associations came later. In some accounts it was a serving dish or, in Wolfram’s version, a magic stone. Even before the Grail was given its Christian gloss, it was described as possessing miraculous powers, including the ability to provide all kinds of food and drink and to extend the lives of those who gazed on it. Its prototypes were the magic cauldrons and cornucopias of pagan antiquity, and the alchemist stones of the east.
The Grail itself came to symbolise divine power at work in the world, and it was but a simple step to link the Grail to the body and blood of Christ present in the Eucharist. The medieval church was happy to encourage this (unofficially of course) as a means of propagating the doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body in the sacrament. Some of the later Grail stories were probably written by Cistercian monks for this purpose.
Wagner’s drama is set in the domain and castle of the Grail, called Monsalvat. According to the stage directions, the scenery is like that of the northern mountains of Gothic (Christian) Spain. Later, we move to the sorcerer Klingsor’s enchanted castle on the southern slopes of the same mountains, facing Moorish (Muslim) Spain. The setting reflects the fact that the original romances were written at the time of the Crusades, when Christian Europe was coming to grips with alien influences from the Middle East and beyond. What’s more, Wolfram says that his information about the Grail came from a document found in Toledo in Spain, a city occupied by the Moors until the eleventh century.
Wagner describes the costumes of the Grail Knights as resembling those of the Knights Templar, the famous religious/military order founded during the Crusades to protect Christian pilgrims going to the Holy Land. In medieval accounts, the Grail Knights were often thought of as the spiritual equivalents of the Templars, and the Grail Castle as a kind of heavenly Jerusalem. In Act One of Parsifal, the knights process into the hall of the Grail to share a ‘meal of love’ of bread and wine, provided by the Grail itself. Bountiful feasts provided by the Grail are colourfully documented by Wolfram, although Wagner devised his own mystical atmosphere, again linked to Christ’s passion.
In 1854, while composing Die Walküre, Wagner encountered the rather sombre writings of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. These writings made a huge impression on him because they seemed to confirm the direction of his own thinking. Near the end of his life he said that he regarded his embrace of Schopenhauerian philosophy and Parsifal as his crowning achievements.
Schopenhauer wrote of the nothingness of the outer world of phenomena with its inevitable frustration, suffering and death, and of the act of renunciation as the only authentic act of free will. For Schopenhauer, compassion was the source of morality, and Wagner expressed this dramatically in Parsifal. Schopenhauer called the instinctive, driving energy within human beings, the ‘will’, and he considered this ‘will’ to be the cause of all evil and strife. He argued that such things could be avoided only by achieving a state of detachment, in which the ‘will’ was inactive, a condition not unlike the Buddhist notion of Nirvana. In his view, the arts, and especially music, could help in achieving this detachment. This explains much about Wagner’s approach to the music and the staging of Parsifal. The music particularly is intended to lift us out of the present world, to detach us from our self-centred, everyday lives.
Schopenhauer’s views had much in common with Buddhism, and Wagner too became strongly attracted to Buddhism during the last three decades of his life (having read Eugène Burnouf’s Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism in 1855). Not long before he wrote the first sketch for Parsifal in 1857, he had drafted a sketch for a music drama to be called Die Sieger (The Victors). Die Sieger dealt with an event in the legendary life of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, one of whose titles in Sanskrit is Jina – the Victor. His victory was over human desire, one of the key concepts in Parsifal. Die Sieger was never developed beyond a sketch but some of its ideas ended up in Parsifal, especially those concerned with renunciation, reincarnation and compassion. The blending of Christian and Buddhist teachings and legends is an extraordinary idea, but Wagner saw no conflict at all. He identified many shared elements in Christian and Buddhist thought. He believed that several great religions had expressed fundamental truths in images and allegories which people treated literally and therefore artificially. When religion became artificial, he said, it was for art to reveal its hidden truths. This was a serious subject for an opera, but Wagner took it seriously and regarded Parsifal as his most important achievement. He didn’t call it an opera but a ‘Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage’. Its central theme, once identified, is straightforward: The deepest contentment is to be found not through the satisfaction of selfish desires but through compassion. The ‘innocent fool’ Parsifal, made wise through compassion, restores to the community of the Grail, including Kundry, sensitivity to fellow suffering which is the path to their salvation.
The prelude to Act One of Parsifal is remarkable for its expressive and mysterious beauty. Wagner called it a ‘preface’ or ‘preamble’, likening it to the preamble of a sermon, because the themes are simply stated one after another. In general terms, its main elements can be expressed poetically as: the Saviour’s compassionate love even to the point of death; the promise of redemption through faith to those who suffer; the blessings of the Grail symbolising divine power at work in the world, and therefore, our reason to hope.
When the curtain rises on Act One, it is daybreak in a shady forest near Monsalvat, the castle of the Grail. Amfortas, the Grail King, is soon to take his bath in the lake. The knight Gurnemanz and two young squires awake to prepare for the king’s arrival. We learn from knights accompanying the king that he can find no relief from a wound in his side that refuses to heal. Kundry, a wild-eyed, demon-like woman bursts into the clearing bringing exotic remedies from Arabia for the ailing Amfortas. When the king is carried in on his litter he is in agony and despair. He concludes bitterly that his only hope lies with ‘an innocent fool made wise through compassion’, whose coming has been foretold. He adds sardonically that he knows him already – his name is ‘death’! He thanks Kundry for her gift and her loyalty. It is during this passage that we first hear the important musical reference to the prophesy of the ‘innocent fool made wise through compassion’.
After the king and his retinue have moved to the lake, Gurnemanz rebukes the squires for their uncharitable behaviour towards Kundry. She has become a servant of the Grail Knights, he says, perhaps to atone for some guilt in a former life. He goes on to explain how the wound of Amfortas had been inflicted by the sorcerer Klingsor with the Holy Spear, the same spear that had been used to wound the body of Christ during the crucifixion. Klingsor had seized the spear from its guardian Amfortas when the latter had been distracted by the wiles of a beautiful woman.
The Spear and the Grail had been entrusted originally to Titurel, Amfortas’s father, who had assembled a company of the purest knights to guard them. Klingsor, himself a knight, had been excluded from this company because of his sinful ways. In desperation, he had castrated himself. Rejected a second time, he now lures knights to their destruction in his garden of bliss, peopled with desirable maidens. His goal is the capture of the Grail itself.
Klingsor’s predicament was not Wagner’s invention. Clinschor, his equivalent in Wolfram’s poem, had suffered the same fate, although not by his own hand. In the thirteenth-century version, we are told that the magician was once a great noble of Capua who offered himself in service to the Queen of Sicily – that is, until the king discovered them together and took his revenge! Clinschor then fled to a city called Persidia, where magic had been invented, and returned equipped with his magic arts. Because of the shame he had suffered, it became his greatest pleasure to rob the happiest people of their joy, especially those who were honoured and respected.
Gurnemanz continues to explain that Amfortas, in agony and contrition, had prayed fervently before the Grail for a sign of deliverance. Heaven had answered his prayer with the words: Enlightened through compassion, the innocent fool. Wait for him, the chosen one.
What should we make of the symbolism of the Spear? Its origin too lies in the medieval romances, although it was not always identified with the so-called spear of Longinus found by the Crusaders at Antioch. In Wolfram’s poem, a bleeding lance is regularly displayed as a reminder of the king’s wound and of the country’s descent into famine and despair. From time to time that lance is laid against the wound to relieve the king’s pain.
Gurnemanz’s narration is interrupted by cries from the direction of the lake, and a wild swan flutters to the ground with an arrow in its breast. The thoughtless youth Parsifal is dragged before Gurnemanz to account for his action. He is pleased with himself at being able to hit anything that flies. However, the old knight’s description of the swan, struck down while searching for its mate over the sacred lake, moves the boy so much that he breaks his bow and flings away his arrows. Thus he learns his first lesson in compassion. The events surrounding the shooting of the swan in Act One of Parsifal follow almost exactly those to be found in a Buddhist story dating from the first century AD, and in both cases, the incident is used to provide a lesson in compassion. Wagner vigorously opposed scientific experiments on animals and spent time and money during the composition of Parsifal supporting campaigns to prevent them. He wrote of “the scientific spectre of a soul-less age which extended from the dissecting table to the small arms factory and made itself the patron spirit of that utilitarian cult on which the state alone looks kindly.” The beautiful music with which the orchestra evokes the swan in Parsifal is reminiscent of the music for the swan in Wagner’s earlier opera Lohengrin, about the son of Parsifal.
The foolish boy is unable to say much at all about his origins and doesn’t even know his name. Gurnemanz declares him to be the dullest person he has ever met – save Kundry. Parsifal tells of his sheltered upbringing in the forest with his widowed mother Herzeleide, whose name means ‘Heart’s Sorrow’, and his encounter with a glittering band of knights who laughed at him and rode away. He had followed them, wandering alone and suffering numerous hardships and dangers. At this point, Kundry interjects to tell him abruptly that his mother is now dead. Parsifal is shocked by this news, attacks Kundry and has to be restrained. He nearly faints, and Kundry fetches water for him from a spring.
The king and his retinue return to the castle. Gurnemanz offers to lead Parsifal to the Grail which, he says, will give him food and drink if he is pure. Gurnemanz has begun to suspect that Parsifal might indeed be the chosen one, the ‘pure fool’ for whom Amfortas has been waiting. The old knight and the foolish boy begin to pass from the forest through a rocky wall, although they hardly seem to be moving at all. As Gurnemanz and Parsifal slowly walk, there is a gradual transformation from the forest to walls of rock, to the magnificent hall of the Grail. They pass through woods and cliffs as if by magic, and Parsifal observes: ‘I scarcely tread, yet seem already to have come far’. Gurnemanz replies with an Einsteinian appreciation of the universe: ‘You see, my son, here time becomes space’.
In the hall of the Grail, Parsifal witnesses amazing things. He hears the voice of the ancient Titurel who is kept alive only by the regular unveiling of the Grail. This idea is taken directly from the medieval sources in which it is said that a person would not die for a week after gazing on the Grail. Life could be prolonged indefinitely this way, although one’s hair would become increasingly white! On the other hand, every time the wounded Amfortas uncovers the Grail, as he must as Grail King, he suffers extreme agony from the wound, which bleeds afresh. Amfortas too is a character taken from medieval sources – the Maimed King or the Fisher King – called Anfortas, a name derived from the old French word for ‘infirmity’.
The knights enter the hall to share a ‘meal of love’ of bread and wine, provided by the Grail itself. When Titurel asks for the Grail to be uncovered, Amfortas reacts violently, so unbearable is the pain that it will cause him. His outburst of suffering is one of the great moments in Parsifal. Eventually though, the Grail is uncovered, and the bread and wine distributed.
The Grail is an actor in its own right. For Titurel, this miraculous, heavenly object is a giver of life; for Amfortas it is a source of humiliation, mortification and suffering, and for the knights it is a provider of physical and spiritual sustenance. The youth who stands in a corner observing proceedings is being exposed to the Grail’s mysterious workings. Gurnemanz hopes that if the young simpleton really is the one they have been waiting for, he will reveal this by displaying some reaction to the wounded Amfortas. However, he just stands there like a dolt and says nothing. Gurnemanz concludes that he has been mistaken about the boy and gives up in despair. He calls him a fool and a goose (another detail taken from Wolfram’s poem), pushes him outside and slams the door behind him. Softly, a voice intones the mystical words that had been given to Amfortas: Enlightened through compassion, the innocent fool; and softly other voices reply: Blessed in faith. “Oh, that’s beautiful!” the composer had cried out to his wife Cosima during its composition in January 1878. “Exactly as I wanted it.” And so, the scene closes quietly with a message of hope for those who are willing to listen.
Act Two opens with the agitated, dazzling music of the sorcerer Klingsor who is in his tower, sitting before a mirror surrounded by instruments of sorcery. In the mirror, Klingsor sees Parsifal approaching, and summons a reluctant Kundry to work her wiles on the innocent boy. Klingsor reminds Kundry of her previous lives as the biblical Herodias and the Nordic messenger Gundryggia. She is a tormented creature, longing for sleep and death but condemned to endless reincarnations. When she pleads for an end to this eternal wandering, Klingsor tells her: “He that rejects you will set you free”. Despite her enslavement, Kundry knows exactly how to put salt on the magician’s wounds, so to speak. When he says that he is the only one with whom her wiles do not work, she replies with a shrill laugh: “Ha ha! Are you chaste?” Who said there were no jokes in Parsifal?
In the Buddhist legends we find the story of Mara, the tempter figure whose baits are the pleasures of the senses. He had tried to prevent the Buddha from achieving enlightenment by putting obstacles and temptations in his way. But, according to the legend, Mara, his army and his seductive daughters were defeated and fled in all directions. There can be little doubt that the imagery in Act Two of Parsifal owes much to the Mara legend. Parsifal overcomes Klingsor’s guards (who are the fallen Grail Knights), resists his Flower Maidens, and recovers the holy spear when the sorcerer hurls it at him. Miraculously, the spear remains poised above Parsifal’s head. In the Mara legend, it was not a spear but a discus that was thrown at the meditating Buddha. This missile was transformed into a canopy of flowers that stayed suspended over the Buddha’s head. Klingsor, like Mara, is defeated and, according to the stage directions, the castle sinks ‘as if by an earthquake’ and the garden withers to a desert.
In composing the complex music for the Flower Maidens, Wagner began by working out the contrapuntal vocal writing on four or five staves and then he inserted the words. Parsifal’s attention is drawn to Kundry when, amidst the delightful confusion of his encounter with the Flower Maidens, she calls his name. This is the first time that we have heard his name out loud, and the first time that he has heard his name spoken since childhood. The effect is electrifying. We see Kundry at her most bewitching in a totally new form, as a youthful woman of great beauty.
The scene between Parsifal and Kundry in Act Two is the acme of operatic seductions. The beguiling, caressing line of Kundry’s voice and the fragrant, intoxicating orchestration, predates by decades Richard Strauss’s soprano writing. Kundry, aided by Klingsor’s magic, is obviously an expert in the seductive arts. It was she who, in her glamorous form, had seduced Amfortas at the time of his wounding, although he failed to make the connection in Act One when he thanked the dishevelled creature for her charity and loyalty. Now she will work her charms on the naive boy Parsifal.
Her first tactic is to weaken his defences. She awakens memories of his past, explaining that she had known him even before his birth, had seen him suckling at his mother’s breast, and had given him the name chosen by his dying father. Then she strikes at his self-esteem by revealing how his mother, Herzeleide, had died, waiting for his return – “sorrow broke her heart, and ‘heart’s sorrow’ died”. Predictably, Parsifal, is mortified by his own insensitivity. Stricken with guilt, he accuses himself of his sweet mother’s death. If only he could make amends! Kundry offers a way; for she brings (from his mother of course) a farewell kiss. Parsifal is intensely vulnerable. Their lips meet in a long kiss. Then he reacts with a gesture of utmost terror, clutching his heart as if trying to master an agonising pain. In a loud voice he cries out “Amfortas! The wound! The wound!” He is suddenly conscious of the tragedy that befell Amfortas, and the origin and nature of the wound. He describes in almost voyeuristic detail his inner vision of the seduction of the Grail King, and is obviously experiencing passion because, as he says, “everything trembles, quakes and quivers in sinful desire”.
Kundry’s sensuous form is, of course, an illusion; as much a product of Klingsor’s magic as is the shimmering garden that vanishes with him. Remember that, behind everything that happens in Act Two stands Klingsor. It is not the kiss of a mother’s love that Parsifal receives but Klingsor’s kiss of death. Parsifal enters a trance and begins to call on the Saviour. He imagines that he hears his voice from the sanctuary of the Grail, asking to be rescued from the guilt-stained hands of Amfortas. He remembers the scene in the hall of the Grail and laments his own failure to respond to what he saw.
For a moment, Kundry lapses into self-loathing. In a former life she had laughed at the Saviour dying on the cross. Her sin was of the gravest kind because it was the very antithesis of compassion. His own compassionate gaze fell on her, she says, and now she seeks him again “from world to world”. It should be noted, incidentally, that Christ is never mentioned by name anywhere in the drama. The references are only to ‘the Saviour’, or ‘Redeemer’ or, simply, ‘Him’.
Desperately resuming her role as temptress, Kundry says that she longs for redemption; Parsifal is just the one to provide it, and one hour is all that it will take! Parsifal replies that after one hour together they would both be damned for evermore. Her redemption, for which he has been sent, comes from a very different source. Then he asks to be shown the way to Amfortas, and Kundry erupts with fury and with a venom that suggests that it is really Klingsor’s voice that we are hearing: “Let the fallen one perish … he fell by his own spear!” This is not the Kundry who, in Act One, brought healing balsam from Arabia for Amfortas. However, the story does not end there. Kundry has at last been released from her suffering by the triumph of compassion over desire – remember Klingsor’s remark to her: “He that rejects you will set you free”. It only remains for her to be reconciled with the Saviour through baptism. This is the point that we have reached when the curtain rises on Act Three.
The prelude to Act Three took western music into regions that were even stranger and more remote than those of Tristan. Today we can recognise in it a path to the music of Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. Some years have passed. It is Good Friday and a pleasant spring morning in a flowery meadow at the forest’s edge. Gurnemanz emerges from a simple hut. He has grown old and is dressed more like a hermit than a knight. He looks for the source of a strange groaning and finally discovers Kundry lying on the ground in the hedgerow. She is now neither the wild, distracted creature of Act One nor the voluptuous siren of Act Two but displays yet another aspect of her complex character – that of a Magdalen-like penitent, for she is at last freed from the torment resulting from her lack of compassion. She demurely arranges her hair and clothing and goes about her menial tasks with scarcely a word for the remainder of the act.
A stranger approaches wearing black armour with closed visor, carrying a spear. He sits wearily on a grassy mound and removes his helmet. Gurnemanz chastises him for being armed on such a holy day, but then recognises him as the boy who killed the swan; the fool whom he had driven away in anger. He also identifies the sacred spear and rejoices that he has lived to witness the day of its return.
Good Friday was a day of miraculous happenings when, according to the Gospels, the veil of the Temple was rent, the earth quaked, graves were opened and saints arose. It seems to have been an especially propitious day in early literature. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet set out on his spiritual journey on the vigil of Good Friday. In Wolfram’s Parzival, we read that each Good Friday, a dove brought a wafer from heaven to lay upon the Grail and renew its powers. This is the origin of the final stage direction in Wagner’s Parsifal, according to which a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal’s head.
Parsifal remembers Gurnemanz and tells him of his trials and perilous battles, throughout which he has kept the spear undefiled. Amfortas, he learns, now longs only for death, for he can bear his suffering no more. The king refuses to perform the holy office and uncover the Grail. Consequently, the knights are in a pitiful state and leaderless; many have taken to living in the forest like Gurnemanz. Titurel, deprived of the life-giving support of the Grail, has died – a man like all men.
Parsifal laments his own foolishness and his failure to do anything to prevent the misery that has befallen the knights. Realising that the youth is indeed the one for whom they have been waiting, Gurnemanz and Kundry help him to a spring where Kundry bathes his feet. Gurnemanz scoops up some water and sprinkles it on Parsifal’s head. Kundry pours oil on his feet and dries them with her hair, and the old knight anoints him as the new Grail King. Many of these details, so reminiscent of Gospel events, were carried over from an unfinished drama that Wagner sketched in 1849, called Jesus of Nazareth.
Parsifal’s first duty is to baptise the kneeling Kundry, reinforcing the symbolism of her return to grace. He then remarks on the beauty of the meadow, contrasting it with Klingsor’s rank garden, and Gurnemanz tells him that he is experiencing the magic of Good Friday. It is at this point that we hear the serene diatonic music of Good Friday, contrasting so wonderfully with the chromaticism of Klingsor’s sorcery. Parsifal thinks that this should be a day of sadness, when all that blooms and breathes must weep, but Gurnemanz replies that this is not so. The tears of repentant sinners have sprinkled the meadow, and nature no longer sees the Saviour in agony on the cross but man redeemed through God’s loving sacrifice. Thus all creation gives thanks and gains its day of innocence.
In the distance is heard the sombre pealing of bells. It is midday, and Gurnemanz leads Parsifal and Kundry through the forest, retracing his steps through the rocky walls and into the hall of the Grail. Two processions of knights enter bearing, respectively, the coffin with Titurel’s body and Amfortas on his litter. They confront each other in the centre of the hall, at the covered shrine of the Grail. This time, the air is rent with the agony of a community utterly without hope. This is the music of pain, anger and despair, dominated by the relentless tolling of a deep bell.
Titurel’s coffin is opened, and at the sight of his corpse all break into cries of despair. The knights demand that now, for the last time, Amfortas perform his duty and uncover the Grail. He defies them, courting death and tearing open his bandages, imploring the knights to end his torment by plunging their swords into his body. Unobserved, Parsifal has been watching these dramatic events. Now he steps into the midst of the knights, stretches out the holy spear and touches Amfortas’s side with its tip. The wound miraculously closes and Amfortas is healed. Parsifal holds the spear aloft and the shrine is opened.
Amfortas and Gurnemanz acknowledge their new king who has reclaimed the blessings of the Grail and affirmed the central role of compassion in human affairs. Parsifal offers the Grail’s blessing to the worshipping knights and, high above, voices proclaim a heavenly benediction: Erlösung dem Erlöser! (‘Redemption to the Redeemer!’).
“Silence is surely the only possible response to so moving a creation” said Franz Liszt after the first performance in July 1882, “the solemn beat of its pendulum is from the sublime to the most sublime”. It was a fitting tribute to a work that was, in so many ways, Wagner’s credo, and which also became his farewell to the world.
Peter Bassett is the author of Wagner’s Parsifal – The Journey of a Soul.