Richard Wagner and The Sacrament of Baptism

Parsifal: Die Taufe nimm, und glaub' an den Erlöser! (Parsifal act three)

Judaism in Music

Right: portrait of Hermann Levi by Franz von Lenbach, 1882. Head portrait of the conductor Hermann Levi, an oil painting by Franz von Lenbach 1882

Wagner's relationships with his many associates and supporters of Jewish extraction were complicated by the virulent anti-Semitism which he had expressed in his notorious pamphlet Judaism in Music. In this matter as elsewhere, we see that Richard Wagner was totally indifferent to the feelings of others. Despite his ambiguous, indeed often hostile, attitude towards the Catholic Church, Wagner desired that his Jewish friends should undergo baptism as a first step away from Jewishness; but baptism alone was not enough:

open quotes ... such redemption as this may not be achieved through self-content or coldly indifferent complacency, but that it must be fought for, by us as well, through sweat and deprivation, and through the fullest measure of suffering and anguish. Join unreservedly in this self-destructive and bloody battle, and we shall all be united and indivisible! But bear in mind that one thing alone can redeem you from the curse that weighs upon you, the redemption of Ahasuerus: going under! close quotes

[Judaism in Music, as it appeared in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik on 6 September 1850.]

Hermann Levi

open quotes In the case of Hermann Levi the collaboration with Jews threatened to become particularly embarrassing. Levi was being considered as director of Parsifal because of his outstanding qualities as well as his position as court conductor for the king of Bavaria. But Parsifal was not, for Wagner, an ordinary musical work. He called the opera a stage consecration festival play [Bühnenweihfestspiel] and thereby indicated its religious objective. In fact, Parsifal was deeply affected by the idea of redemption and made use of the central Christian symbols of the Crucifixion and the sacrificial death of the Son of God on Good Friday. As artificial as this superimposition of Christian symbols on the saga of the Holy Grail may seem to us, Wagner was serious about the revivification of the primordial Christian experience. He had already expressed himself in this sense on the religious function of art — his art — in the essay Religion and Art in 1880. Even if this essay is to be dismissed as the belated justification for an artistic inspiration, Cosima's diaries testify that during the last decade of his life, at any rate, Wagner held fast to the idea of Christ as an intermediary — the noblest that humanity has produced — and the Christian mysteries such as baptism and communion. close quotes

[The Darker Side of Genius: Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism, Jacob Katz, 1986.]

Below: the opening notes of 'Parsifal' with Hermann Levi's signature dated 1891. Opening notes of 'Parsifal' with Hermann Levi's signature, dated 1891

Note that Katz accepts the view of many commentators, one that is based on a literal interpretation of Wagner's own statements about Parsifal in letters to Ludwig, which regards it as a work with a "religious objective".

Piero della Francesca - Baptism of Christ

Above: Piero della Francesca: the Baptism of Christ

Christian Sacraments

open quotes [Richard] earnestly reproached Malwida [von Meysenbug] for not having her ward baptised. This was not right, he said, not everyone could fashion his religion for himself, and particularly in childhood one must have a feeling of cohesion. Nor should one be left to choose: rather it should be possible to say, You have been christened, you belong through baptism to Christ, now unite yourself once more with him through Holy Communion. Christening and Communion are indispensable, he said. No amount of knowledge can ever approach the effect of the latter. People who evade religion have a terrible shallowness, and are unable to feel anything in a religious spirit. close quotes

[Cosima's Diary entry for 12 December 1873.]

open quotes He says he cannot understand how one can hold out against baptism when one has been born into a Christian community, though he does admit that if one has been born outside it, there is no point in seeking admission to it, since the church is now in such a bad way. He can think of nothing more unbearable than a priest, but that has nothing to do with the act of baptism or the symbol of redemption. close quotes

[Cosima's Diary entry for 27 April 1879.]

Wagnerian Christianity

Yet Wagner himself was to fashion his religion for himself. In his Religion and Art he tried to reduce Christianity to faith, love and hope. It was this truncated, Wagnerian Christianity that Wagner now wished to bestow upon Hermann Levi, the son of a Rabbi. On 19 January 1881, Wagner informed Levi of this intention. Like Kundry in Parsifal or the infidel Feirefiz in Parzival, Levi had to be baptised before he could enter the sanctuary of the Grail.

Bayreuth postcard showing Kundry's baptism from the third act of Parsifal

Wagner seems to have deluded himself that his version of Christianity could be palatable to Levi; who remained indifferent. On 29 June, when Levi was once more in Bayreuth, Wagner unwisely showed him an anonymous letter that called upon the composer to keep his work pure and not to allow it to be directed by a Jew. According to Cosima, in a letter to her daughter Daniela, there were also insinuations about a relationship with her. Levi was deeply offended and left abruptly. Wagner wrote to him immediately.

open quotes Dearest and best of friends, much as I respect all your feelings, you are not making things easy either for yourself or for us! What could so easily inhibit us in our dealings with you is the fact that you are always so gloomily introspective! We are entirely at one in thinking that the whole world should be told about this shit but what this means is that you must stop running away from us, thereby allowing such stupid suspicions to arise! You do not need to lose any of your faith, but merely to acquire the courage of your convictions! Perhaps some great change is about to take place in your life — but at all events — you are my Parsifal conductor! So, come on! come on! Yours, RW.close quotes

[Letter to Hermann Levi, 1 July 1881.]

Levi returned to Bayreuth two days later. Wagner gave up attempts to convert him to Wagnerian Christianity and it was Levi who conducted the first performances of Parsifal in 1882, to Wagner's total satisfaction.

Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, 2013