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uring his Dresden years (1843-49) Richard Wagner found many ideas for stage
works in medieval literature. Some of those ideas he would develop into operas or
music-dramas (such as Lohengrin, the Ring, Die
Meistersinger and Parsifal) while others remained no more than possible
subjects for musical and dramatic treatment (such as Wieland der Schmied).
The starting point for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, as every Wagnerian
surely knows, was a Middle High German epic, the Nibelungenlied. Wagner's
studies for the Ring did not end there, however; he proceeded to read other
medieval sagas, studies of medieval literature by scholars such as the Grimm brothers
and not least the Old Norse Eddas. As far as scholars have been able to
discover, Wagner's first contact with the myth of Parsifal was the poem
Parzival by Wolfram
von Eschenbach, which he read at Marienbad in 1845. The first opera that resulted
from his reading of Wolfram was Lohengrin, which was in outline based upon
the last section of Wolfram's poem. More than a decade later, when Wagner returned to
Parzival ¹, he
found (as he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk) the
poem unsatisfactory as the basis of an opera. As with the Ring, Wagner began
to explore other versions of the same legend. Of the many versions of the Percevalian
myth, at least three were available to him (in the 1860's and 1870's): Wolfram's Parzival (in
various translations including that by Görres), Chrétien's
Perceval (in the modern French translation
by Potvin) and the anonymous Peredur (in the
French translation by de Villamarque).
Left: Die heil'ge Quelle selbst... The Forest Well in Marienbad, drawn in
1840. Wagner came to this spa to drink the mineral waters in 1845.
olfram's work is based on an unfinished poem by Chrétien de Troyes, together with at least two other sources that
have not survived. There is some evidence, although only at third hand, that Wagner
had read Chrétien's Perceval: The Story of the Grail and its so-called
Continuations, in a modern French version, in 1872. (This is mentioned in Du Moulin
Eckhart's biography of Cosima, in which he records that Wagner
had studied the
Grail legend in Wolfram von
Eschenbach and Chrétien de Troyes, and now again the
remarkable and unique book by Görres, which is more invention than fact, has
stimulated his creative processes ...).
hrétien had drawn upon a tradition of Celtic stories, including possibly an early version of Peredur son of Evrawc; or, alternatively, the tale of Peredur might have been based on an imperfect recollection of
Chrétien's poem. This story appeared in the Comte de
Villemarque's Contes populaires des anciens
Bretons,which Wagner is known to have read while in Paris in 1860. Chrétien's Perceval (or li
Contes del Graal or Perceval le Gallois) roughly follows the story of
Peredur (or the reverse) up to and including the meeting
with the hermit on Good Friday.
same Celtic stories inspired other writings in which the
Grail became a Christian
symbol. This variation was also adopted by some of the authors who attempted to
complete Chrétien's unfinished poem. Wagner may have found
this interpretation, which he claimed for his own, there or
possibly in a summary of another work: Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie. This poem tells the story of Joseph and
his family, guardians of the Christian Grail; its first part
is based on the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. There are two sequels, the
poems Merlin and Perceval, the second of these either not written
by de Boron or completed by another hand. Although there is no evidence that Wagner
had any direct knowledge of Robert de Boron -- whose writings were rediscovered in
the early 19th century and first published in modern French in 1841 -- indirect
knowledge of de Boron's work cannot be ruled out.
rail romances were by no means the only sources drawn upon by Wagner as he
developed his libretto. There are other works of literature (in various genres
including poems, novels and scriptures) that beyond all reasonable doubt provided
ideas for Wagner's libretto: three of them are the medieval romance Roman d'Alexandre, the religious poem Barlaam und Josaphat and the 19th century novel, Le juif errant. In a separate article the current author discusses
the influence of the Buddhist literature of northern India on
the text of Parsifal, with particular reference to two incidents in the
opera that derive from these sources.
agner was reticent about his sources, even dismissive of the influence of
Wolfram. He told Cosima that Wolfram's text had nothing to do with Parsifal; when he
read the epic, he first said to himself that nothing could be done with it,
few things stuck in my mind - the Good Friday, the wild
appearance of Condrie. That is all it
was. In particular, he found the Question an
unsatisfactory element of the plot. But Wolfram was without
doubt important as a stimulus for his thinking and further reading.
agner's Bayreuth library as preserved at Haus Wahnfried contains only one
text of Chrétien's Perceval. If it is the edition that Wagner studied in
1872, then several interesting points can be noted. The book is Ch. Potvin's Perceval le Gallois and consists of
seven volumes, published between 1866 and 1871, containing the
- Vol. i: Le roman en prose. According to Sebastian Evans, in his
Introduction, his translation of the anonymous Perlesvaus was made from the first volume of
Potvin, published in 1866.
- Vol. ii-iii: Perceval,
believed to be entirely by Chrétien de Troyes.
- Vol. iv: The First Continuation, an anonymous story about Gawain. There are several versions of this
continuation. Although it is not present in the manuscript translated by Potvin,
two of the manuscripts contain an interpolation that tells the same story as de
Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, although in much less
- Vol. v: The Second Continuation, by one Gautier or Wauchier de Denain.
According to Jessie L. Weston, the First and Second
Continuations are not so much a completion of Chrétien, as a retelling of a Grail
story in which Gawain, not Perceval, is the hero. Weston
believed the original of this story to have been composed by a Welsh poet,
Bleheris, Blihis or Bréri. The original ending was not included in the manuscript
translated by Potvin, but it has survived in a single manuscript. 1868.
- Vol. vi: Gerbert de Montreuil's Continuation, incomplete. The
ending of this Continuation may have been discarded and lost; it now forms a bridge
between the extant Second and Third Continuations. 1870. The original version was
probably written in parallel with and independently of:
- Vol. vii: The Third Continuation, by Manessier, apparently derived in
part from Perlesvaus and from the
Quest of the Holy Grail. 1870.
first point to note is that Lucy Beckett was wrong
in her assertion that the Continuations were
not differentiated in the text Wagner
would have read; they were published in separate volumes, and the change in style
from volume iii to volume iv (since the First Continuation has the character of an
oral recitation) would have been fairly obvious. But Beckett is correct when she
writes that the First Continuation identifies the bleeding
spear with that of Longinus, while the Second says that the cup contains the blood of
Christ; important because neither of these features appear in Perceval . This interpretation of the Grail is also found in other versions of the story, although even in
the early romances there is considerable variation in the concept of the Grail: according to Wolfram it is a stone that fell from heaven.
more importantly, Wagner's bookshelf contains volume i, Perlesvaus. Although this account of the Grail legend has many parallels with Wolfram's poem (for example, in the emphasis on healing the
Grail king -- the theme of the Waste
Land is missing), it differs from the latter (and from Chrétien) in two important respects: the Grail king is not physically wounded, but has
languishment, i.e. he is spiritually disabled; and there is a unique
emphasis on the failure of the Quester. Both elements may be detected in Wagner's
noted in the accompanying article on Kundry, an
interesting feature of Perlesvaus (also
present in Peredur) is that the Grail-bearer and the Loathly
Damsel (or High Messenger) are one and the same. The last point to note was made
by Jessie Weston in her book From Ritual to Romance. In the manuscript translated by
Potvin, the First Continuation states that the
is tempting to conclude that Wagner's version of the story was influenced by his
reading of the first volume of Potvin. Unfortunately,
however, none of Potvin was published before 1866, and we have Wagner's Prose Draft of 1865 which contains all of the elements mentioned
above. If Wagner was familiar with Perlesvaus in 1865, it must have been as a result of
reading secondary sources such as San-Marte's
might be useful to list the most significant sources of Parsifal. A
"definitive" list would be difficult to produce and is unlikely to be beyond
criticism. Although there is much that is relevant in the reading matter mentioned in
the copious biographical documentation (much of it recorded by Cosima or by Richard
Wagner himself), it is likely that he read many other things that have not been
recorded: books, articles in periodicals, journals or newspapers. Nor do we always
know what ideas he received second-hand, in conversation with Cosima (who was also
well-read, especially in the French classics) or with one of his friends and
acquaintances, or in correspondence. So any list of sources must be to some extent
speculative, concerning what Wagner read and when, and selective, since the relative
importance of source material is subjective; it depends upon what the commentator
considers Wagner's drama to be about. For what it is worth, then, here is my
||Wagner reads Wolfram von Eschenbach's poem Parzival whilst on
vacation. At this stage it is no more than one among many possible subjects for
dramatic treatment. Wagner does not seem to have thought any more about Parzival
until he considered introducing him into the last
act of Tristan.
||Wagner reads Rudolf von Ems' translation of Barlaam und Josaphat. This appears as item no. 8 in von
Westernhagen's catalogue of Wagner's Dresden library.
|Not earlier than 1850
||Wagner reads, or reads about, the Roman
||Wagner reads Arthur Schopenhauer's essay On the Basis of Morality
and learns that the only viable basis of morality is compassion. The section of
this essay concerning hunting is of direct relevance to
the swan incident in Parsifal.
||Following up a reference in Schopenhauer's On the Will in Nature,
Wagner reads Eugène Burnouf's Introduction to
the History of Indian Buddhism where he finds the idea of becoming wise
through compassion -- and a story that becomes the scenario for a Buddhist drama,
||In search of background for the further development of Die Sieger
Wagner reads various accounts of the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni. He notes the
parallels between the early life of the Buddha and the
sheltered youth of Wolfram's hero Parzival.
||Wagner returns to Wolfram's Parzival. He writes to Mathilde saying that he can to nothing
with this "thoroughly immature phenomenon".
||In Paris Wagner reads the tale of Peredur son of
Evrawc, in French.
|Not earlier than 1866
||Wagner reads at least part of Robert Spence Hardy's Manual of
Buddhism. This title first came to his attention when he read Schopenhauer's
On the Will in Nature in 1855 (in the chapter headed "Sinologie" there
is a reading list about Buddhism; this book is item no. 23 on that list). His
interest in the book would have been stimulated on reading about it in the
third edition of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and
||Further reading about Buddhism, at first in secondary sources, later the
Sutras in the edition of Coomara
|Not earlier than 1866
||Wagner reads Potvin's editions of the Perlesvaus and (in 1872 if not
also before) of Chrétien's Perceval.
|Not earlier than 1868
||Wagner reads Potvin's edition of the Continuations to Perceval.
||Wagner reads the preface to Joseph Görres' edition of Lohengrin.
Here he finds the hypothesis that the name Perceval/Parzival derives from the
Arabic, "fal parsi", supposedly meaning, "pure fool". Therefore he changes the
name of his hero to "Parsifal".
||Wagner reads diverse literature about the origins of Christianity, together
with Church history.
||In search of details (such as names for minor characters) for the poem of
Parsifal, Wagner reads San-Marte's
Parzival-study but finds it of little help.
||Wagner completes the poem (libretto) of Parsifal.
In his autobiography Mein
(My Life) Wagner wrote:
... I suddenly said to myself that this was
Good Friday and recalled how meaningful this had seemed to me in Wolfram's
Parzival. Ever since that stay in Marienbad, where I had conceived
Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had not taken
another look at that poem; now its ideality came to me in overwhelming form, and
from the idea of Good Friday I quickly sketched out an entire drama in three
. So Wagner had not looked at Parzival
since 1845, nor is there
any evidence that he had read any other Grail romances during the intervening
twelve years. What it was that Wagner sketched out in the inspiration of a spring
morning in 1857 is the subject of a paper that is shortly to be published
elsewhere. Here it is sufficient to note that Wagner only returned to
two years later, after Mathilde Wesendonk had sent him a new
edition of Wolfram's poem.