The Magic Flowers that Grow in Klingsor's Garden

Parsifal: Ich sah sie welken, die einst mir lachten: ob heut' sie nach Erlösung schmachten?

Le Chevaliers aux Fleurs - Georges Rochegrosse Above: Le Chevalier aux Fleurs (1894) by Georges Rochegrosse.

Spring on the First Green Hill

When Wagnerians refer to the "Green Hill" they mean the hill in Bayreuth on which Wagner built his Festival Theatre. Before Wagner settled in Bayreuth, however, he had lived on another "Green Hill", in the Enge district of Zürich, where his patrons the Wesendonks had built a villa overlooking the lake. It was on a spring morning in 1857, a few days after Richard and Minna Wagner had moved into a cottage close to the Wesendonk villa, that Richard was inspired to make his first sketch for his drama Parsifal. While walking in the garden of the villa he was put into a creative frame of mind by what he later described as a pleasant mood in nature. In that same garden, a few weeks later, he would sit under the ancient linden tree and think about the music he was writing at the time, the second act of Siegfried. Later the same year Wagner would put this work aside to concentrate on another drama, Tristan und Isolde which was still only music. It was in that autumn on the first green hill that this revolutionary work took shape; we can imagine Wagner thinking about it as he sat under the ancient linden tree overlooking the lake, waiting for Mathilde.

On that morning in the garden, however, Wagner thought about spring. He saw the flowers emerging from the soil and the buds appearing on the linden trees. No doubt he thought about animals emerging from hibernation, something that his mentor Schopenhauer had written about. Sleep, wrote Schopenhauer, was very much like death. Awakening from hibernation was a kind of reincarnation, a subject that Wagner had recently read about in Burnouf's book about Buddhism. While this book was fresh in his mind, Wagner's thoughts also went back to the Good Friday passage in a book that he had read twelve years before and not looked at since, Wolfram's Parzival. It was from these thoughts that Wagner developed the concept of his drama about Parzival; returning to the cottage (which he would later call his Asyl, although his first name for it was Wahnheim) he quickly sketched out an entire drama in three acts.

Soundbytes Flowermaidens and Parsifal (ogg format, mono, duration 5.5 minutes)

Magic maidens

It is possible that Wagner thought of the maidens as flowers from the very beginning. It is also possible that at first he did not think of presenting them as flowers but simply as magic maidens conjured up by the sorcerer Klingsor (just as the dead nuns were conjured up by Bertram in Meyerbeer's Robert le diable). In the Munich Prose Draft there is no suggestion that the maidens have been grown in the magic garden: concealed in that castle are the most beautiful women in all the world and of all times. They are held there under Klingsor's spell for the destruction of men, especially the Knights of the Grail, endowed by him with all powers of seduction. Men say that they are she- devils.

Vienna Flowermaidens 2017 Left: Vienna Maidens 2017.

In the libretto (written twelve years after that Prose Draft) Klingsor's maidens are variously referred to as magic maidens and as flowers. Their music seems to have grown out of musical ideas that Wagner had first conceived for his Rhine daughters. In both cases these female creatures are seductive but essentially innocent (even if this is not always made clear in modern productions). Where the Rhine daughters are natural, however, the flower maidens are unnatural, like everything that originates in Klingsor's magic. This does not prevent Parsifal, in the third act, from expressing his compassion for them.

Daughters of Mára
Right: The daughters of Mára. ©Museum Rietberg (formerly the Villa Wesendonck).

Attention has been drawn (initially by Karl Heckel in 1896) to the similarities between the second act of Parsifal and traditional accounts of an episode in the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni. In an attempt to prevent the future Buddha from achieving enlightenment, the dark lord Mára sent an army of demonic warriors against him. They were unable to harm the future Buddha, or even to distract him from his meditations. Then Mára sent to the future Buddha his daughters, fearfully seductive demons in female shape. They sang, danced and laughed but were unable to seduce the future Buddha. In Wagner's version it is Klingsor the sorcerer who first sends his knights against Parsifal, who overcomes them and enters the magic garden. There he is surrounded by the magic maidens whom Klingsor has conjured out of flowers. Like the future Buddha (who was protected by his virtue), the young hero (who is protected by his innocence) is immune to the enticements of the maidens.

Flowermaiden costume design, for Bayreuth 1882
Left: Flower Maiden costume (tulip) by Paul von Joukowsky, Bayreuth 1882. Richard Wagner Museum.

Flower maidens

The flower maidens, or Klingsor's magic maidens, do not appear in any of the Grail romances. In Wolfram's poem we read of maidens kept captive in Clinschor's castle, which is a variant of the Castle of Wonders in Chrétien's story and the Castle of Maidens in several related stories. It appears probable that Wagner's main source for the magic maidens was the Roman d'Alexandre, a French poem of the early 12th century¹.

Alexander enters a forest whose entrance is guarded by genies. Here he finds beautiful, welcoming maidens, each at the foot of a tree. They cannot leave the forest alive. When Alexander asks his guides about them, he is told that they go underground in the winter, but with the return of warm weather, they spring up and blossom. They open as flowers, in which the central bud becomes the girl's body and the leaves her garment².

The Villa Ruffolo in Ravello, with Klingsor's tower.
Right: Villa Ruffolo with Klingsor's tower.

The first modern French version of the Roman d'Alexandre was published in Stuttgart in 1846. In 1850, H. Weissman published an adaptation by Lamprecht of the 12th century German version. It is known that Wagner was familiar with Lamprecht's Alexanderlied, since in his autobiography (Mein Leben, page 390) he mentioned that he had attempted to imitate its style. It has also been suggested that Wagner might have been inspired by a pantomime that he enjoyed at the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, during his visit to London at the end of 1855. This production, with the title The Christmas, was a pot-pourri of fairy tales. Apparently in one scene the female chorus were dressed as flowers. This may have reminded Wagner of the maidens in the Roman d'Alexandre. So the origins of the flower maidens are diverse: their roots can be found in a medieval romance, a Buddhist legend and a Christmas pantomime.

Flowermaiden costume design for Bayreuth 1882
Left: Flower Maiden costume (rosebush) by Paul von Joukowsky, Bayreuth 1882. Richard Wagner Museum.

Footnote 1: See Bayreuther Blätter, 1886, pages 47 ff., Hans von Wolzogen, Tristan and Parsifal.

Footnote 2:
Cil li ont respondu, qui sorent lor nature: 
"A l'entree d'yver encontre la froidure 
Entrent toutes en terre et müent lor faiture, 
Et qant estés revient et li biaus tans s'espure, 
En guise de flors blanches vienent a lor droiture. 
Celes qui dedens naissent s'ont des cors la figure 
Et la flors de dehors si est lor vesteüre, 
Et sont si bien taillies, chascune a sa mesure, 
Que ja n'i avra force ne cisel ne costure, 
Et chascuns vestemens tresq'a la terre dure. 
Ainsi comme as puceles de cest bos vient a cure,
Ja ne vaudront au main icele creature 
Q'eles n'aient au soir, ains que nuit soit oscure." 
Et respont Alixandres: "Bone est lor teneüre; 
Ainc mais a nule gent n'avint tele aventure." 

[Roman d'Alexandre, Paris version, Branch III, lines 3530-3544]