Meyerbeer's Robert and Wagner's Parsifal
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Richard and Cosima Wagner hinted that there were secrets in Parsifal.
Certainly, it is a work with many levels, dimensions and external references. One of
the most fascinating of these references is to an opera by another composer who had
at one time been Wagner's mentor and benefactor. It has been suggested that Wagner
had modelled the second act of Parsifal upon part of an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer. If so, was it because Wagner trying to convey
some message about the relationship of his Gesamtkunstwerk to the operatic
tradition? Or does it have more to do with his relationship to Meyerbeer?
lthough Meyerbeer had encouraged and promoted the
young Wagner, the younger composer came to resent his erstwhile patron. It seems that
this resentment festered into virulent anti-Semitism, as expressed in the essay
Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music). In Wagner's letters to
Meyerbeer, he addresses his patron in terms of adulation and self-abasement. Several
of them begin with
My deeply revered Lord and Master. In one of these letters
... you will readily understand me when I tell you
that I weep tears of the deepest emotion whenever I think of the man who is
everything to me, everything ... But my head & my heart are
no longer mine to give away, - they are your property, my master; - the most that
is left to me is my two hands, - do you wish to make use of them? - I realise that
I must become your slave, body & soul, in order to find food and strength for
my work, which will one day tell me of my gratitude. I shall be a loyal &
honest slave ...
[Richard Wagner to Giacomo Meyerbeer, 3 May 1840; tr. Spencer and
is not surprising that Wagner looked back upon his relationship to Meyerbeer with repugnance. Wagner tried to explain himself to
Towards Meyerbeer my
position is a peculiar one. I do not hate him but he disgusts me beyond measure.
This eternally amiable and pleasant man reminds me of the most turbid, not to say
most vicious, period of my life, when he pretended to be my protector; that was a
period of connections and back stairs when we are made fools of by our protectors,
whom in our inmost heart we do not like. This is a relation of the most perfect
dishonesty; neither party is sincere towards the other; one and the other assume
the appearance of affection and both make use of each other as long as their mutual
interest requires it. For the intentional impotence of his politeness towards me I
do not find fault with Meyerbeer; on the contrary, I am
glad not to be his debtor as deeply as, for example, B[erlioz?]. But it was quite
time that I should free myself perfectly from this dishonest relation towards him.
Externally there was not the least occasion for it, for even the experience that he
was not sincere towards me would not have surprised me, neither did it give me the
right to be angry, because at bottom I had to own that I had intentionally deceived
myself about him. But from inner causes arose the necessity to relinquish all
considerations of common prudence with regard to him. As an artist I cannot exist
before myself and my friends, I cannot think or feel, without realizing and
confessing my absolute antagonism to Meyerbeer, and to
this I am driven with genuine desperation when I meet with the erroneous opinion
even among my friends that I have anything in common with with Meyerbeer.
[Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt, 18 April 1851;
tr. Francis Hueffer]
Left: Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. Lithograph by J. Arnout. ©Bibliothèque
de l'Opéra, Paris.
view of the above, it is most surprising to find that there are dramatic and musical
parallels between the third act of Meyerbeer's Robert
le Diable, a work that Wagner knew intimately from before his time in Paris (he
conducted a performance of the work in 1838), and the second act of
Parsifal. This has been demonstrated by Walter Keller.
[Tribschener Blätter, xxx, December 1971, pp.6-12; translated in
Wagner, v13 nr2, May 1992, pp.83-90.]
Parallels in Dramatic Structure
obvious parallels in the respective action of the two acts suggests that Wagner was,
either consciously or unconsciously, thinking of Robert le Diable when he
wrote his Prose Draft of 1865. Wagner had last heard
Meyerbeer's opera at the Paris Opera in 1860. Keller
lists the following parallels.
|Robert le diable
|A hall in the ruined convent of
St. Rosalie, with cloisters to the right and a cemetery to the left. Centre stage
is a marble statue of St. Rosalie herself, holding a green cypress branch in her
enchanted castle, in the inner dungeon of a tower that is open to the sky.
The foot of the tower is shrouded in darkness.
|Scène et évocation
Bertram, the prince of darkness, conjures up the shades of those formed nuns who
were unfaithful to their vows:
Nonnes qui reposez sous cette froide
|Using his magician's powers,
Klingsor conjures up Kundry's soul; her spirit
appears in the shadows.
Herauf! herauf! Zu mir!
|Procession des nonnes
Swathed in their funerary shrouds, the nuns rise slowly from their graves and,
roused to a brief semblance of life, foregather in the hall.
|In the blue light, Kundry's figure rises up. She seems asleep. She moves like on
awaking. Finally she utters a terrible cry.
Bertram announces Robert's imminent approach and orders the nuns to seduce
|Klingsor announces Parsifal's
imminent approach and orders Kundry to seduce him.
The nuns cast off their veils, revealing seductive dancing costumes underneath.
They join in a lively bacchanale but withdraw on Robert's entrance.
Maidens scene. From all sides rush in the Flower maidens clad in light
veil-like garments, first singly, then in groups, forming a confused,
many-coloured throng. They seem as though just startled out of sleep.
Robert enters through the cloisters.
jumps down into the garden.
|Premier air de ballet
The nuns attempt to seduce Robert by plying him with drink.
Deuxième air de ballet
The nuns attempt to seduce Robert through gambling.
Troisième air de ballet
They try to seduce him through love.
|The maidens deck themselves with
flowers. They dance in a graceful, childlike manner about Parsifal, caressing him
gently. Parsifal is at first fascinated and then repelled by them:
Lasst ab! Ihr fangt mir nicht!
|Although the abbess Hélène
succeeds in persuading Robert to drink and gamble, he recoils from the cypress
branch. Finally, however, drunk with love, he steals a kiss from
the abbess, then tears the branch from the statue's hands and disappears through
||Parsifal attains to knowledge
through Kundry's kiss. He repulses her.
Demons rise up out of the ground, seize the nuns and disappear with them
underground. The nuns' shrouds remain lying on the floor of the stage.
|Parsifal catches the Spear which
has been hurled at him, whereupon the castle falls as by an earthquake. The
garden withers to a desert; the ground is scattered with faded flowers. Kundry
sinks down with a cry. Parsifal, hastening away, pauses on top of the ruined
wall, and turns back to Kundry.
Du weisst, wo du mich wieder finden
kannst! He hastens away.
Parallels in Key Structure
hat is more surprising, however, is the discovery that the key structure
of the two Stollen (in Lorenz's analysis) of the second act of Parsifal,
follows the key structure of the finale to act 3 of Robert. Keller lists the
||e flat minor
||E flat major
||Parsifal storms the castle
||E flat major
||D major (rel. major)
||Arrival of maidens
||E flat major (rel. major)
||Noch nie sah ich
||Maidens flirt with Parsifal
||A flat major
||Du Zager und Kalter
||A flat major
|Premier air de ballet
||Departure of maidens
this is a conscious reworking of Meyerbeer, is then
Wagner's Abgesang, the Tristanesque scene between Kundry and Parsifal,
intended to prove the superiority of Wagner's art? If we look for them, references to
Wagner's life and his quest for the Gesamtkunstwerk are not hard to find in
Parsifal: the near quotation of the Swan motif from Lohengrin in
the first act, and the allusions to Tristan, not least in the three periods
following the kiss. Perhaps the autobiographical message of Parsifal is that
Wagner had broken free of the spell cast upon him by his antithesis, his Klingsor:
Coincidence or intentional?
ince writing the above, I have become more sceptical about the parallels that
Keller claimed to have detected between Robert and Parsifal. It is
quite possible, even likely, that the parallel in dramatic structure of the
corresponding parts of these two dramas arose by coincidence. It does not even seem
necessary to suppose an unconscious influence, although that too is a possibility.
What seems more likely, in my view, is that Wagner realised that his scene with
Parsifal and the magic maidens resembled Meyerbeer's scene with Robert and the nuns
-- and that he chose to emphasise, rather than conceal, the parallel when he composed
tonal parallels too might be coincidental. The tradition of associative tonality
dictates that b minor is the villain key, which Wagner
therefore associates with Klingsor, while G major is the
mother-child key, which Kundry employs when she reminds the boy of his mother. So in
my opinion, the question of whether Parsifal contains real references to
Robert remains open.