Swans and Geese: Wagner's Wildfowl
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
und suche dir, Gänser, die Gans!
Off with you, be on your way!
Take advice from Gurnemanz:
In future leave our swans
go seek -- you gander --
hese 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.
he 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.
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:
A 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!'.
The incident of the swan: Wieland Wagner's Parsifal in 1956.
agner'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).
here 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.
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 Parzival could have inspired this scene. Firstly, in Wolfram's account of Parzival's boyhood:
[Wolfram's Parzival, book 3.]
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.
uch 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
Amfortas Bathing, oil painting by Franz Stassen.
Here is the episode of the swan in Wagner's Prose Draft:
While 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!'.
he 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, perhaps stronger, candidate for an Indian inspiration, according to Suneson, is an incident in the
epic Ramayana, which Wagner was reading with great enthusiasm a few days before writing the 1865 Prose Draft. Combined with the
first passage in Wolfram, this is a credible basis for what Wagner wrote in that draft.
Parsifal Act 1 in the 1989 Bayreuth production by Wolfgang Wagner. Parsifal: William Pell, Gurnemanz: Hans Sotin. ©Bayreuther Festspiele.
agner'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.
[Arthur Schopenhauer, Über die Grundlage der Moral, section 19, 1839.]
The 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.¹
[Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt on 7 June 1855, Liszt-Briefe II, 73-80, tr. Spencer and Millington]
... 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
ere, 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.
nce 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.
t 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.
n 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.
n Parsifal the bird is a swan, which also provides a musical connection (see number 33 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
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.
n 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.
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.]
© Derrick Everett 1996-2019. This page last updated (minor adjustment to layout) --- Fri 3 May 2019 23:30 CET ---