Notes on Wagner's Parsifal Act 1

Notes on Act 1 of Richard Wagner's last music-drama Parsifal, relating to interesting points in the Prose Draft of 1865.

Parsifal act 1, Bayreuth Festival 1966, Wieland Wagner.

The Naming of the Hero

A thread that may be followed from the Celtic story of Peredur to Wagner's story of Parsifal, is the revelatory encounter between the young boy and a female relative. In the story of Peredur, they meet immediately after the boy leaves the Grail Castle.

Left: Act I of Parsifal in Wieland Wagner's production for the Bayreuth Festival 1966. The incident of the swan is an important event, indeed the most important event of the first act, because it triggers the moral development of Parsifal.

Wolfram fragments this encounter. He gives this cousin the name, Sigûne, and she also appears in his misleadingly-named poem, Titurel. Parzival meets her before he arrives at the Grail Castle, as well as after. She reveals to him his true name. 'Upon my word, you are Parzival!' said she of the red lips. 'Your name means, pierce-through-the-heart.' In Wolfram's poem, the news about Herzeloyde's death is not revealed until the Good Friday meeting with the hermit, and it is he and not the cousin who breaks the news to Parzival.

This is one of many points on which Wagner seems to have had some direct or indirect knowledge of Chrétien or other sources, since he does not follow Wolfram at all. The fate of Herzeleide is revealed to Parsifal in the forest before he is admitted to the Grail Castle, not by Sigûne but by Kundry, and it is also the latter who calls him by his true name, on her second entry in Act 2.

The literary motif of a hero who does not know his own name — suggesting that he has not yet discovered who he is — is one that is found not only in the Grail romances but also in a group of stories (or variants of the same story) about The Fair Unknown.

Wagner's sketch for the headdress of the Grail Knights
Left: Wagner's sketch for the knights' headdress.

The Community of Knights

It is clear both from Wagner's libretto and this Prose Draft, that the community of knights had been actively opposing evil from the foundation of the brotherhood by Titurel until its recent defeats by Klingsor. In particular, the loss of the spear and wounding of Amfortas, which have left the knights without effective leadership. As Gurnemanz relates, they now waste their time in fruitless adventures or in dreaming of the recovery of the spear. They have turned inwards. The hollow banality of their ceremonial song suggests that the community is divided and decadent. It is possible that Wagner intended this as a metaphor for the state of the German Volk, awaiting a revival of the German spirit.

A modern version of the Grail knights costumes, Berlin Staatsoper 2007

It is sometimes claimed that Wolfram described the Grail knights as Templars. This is incorrect. The word that he used was Templeisen, which might be rendered into English as Templists, or something similar. As in Wagner's version of the story, the knights serve the Grail in the Grail Temple. Nor did Wagner state that his knights were Templars, only that their costumes resembled the dress of knights belonging to the Order of Templars.

Catharism and Crusaders

Wagner sets the outer acts of his drama in the mountains of northern Spain at a time when it was land between Christian Europe and Moorish Spain. Maybe he did so simply to emphasise that the Grail domain is on the edge of the Christian world, located between areas of religious certainty, in a religious "no-mans-land". It could also refer to one the "heretical" communities who were the target of the Albigensian Crusade in this region, at about the same time as Wolfram was writing his poem Parzival. So rather than thinking of Wagner's knights as Templars or Crusaders, perhaps we should regard them as a community of believers who have been persecuted by a Crusade and taken refuge in a forest deep in the mountains.

It is thought that Wolfram began writing Parzival in about 1200. At this time there were several different religious sects in what is now southern France, the Oc region or Languedoc, and in particular around the town of Albi. The Albigensians or Cathars were a sect with dualistic beliefs similar to those of the Manicheans. It has been suggested (in the writings of Otto Rahn, E. Anitchkof and J. Evola) that some of the ideas provided to Wolfram by the mysterious Kyot originated with this sect, with whom Kyot may have come into contact in Provence or the Languedoc. Although the surviving evidence indicates that they only studied the canonical Gospels, their beliefs seem more closely related to some of the Gnostic Gospels. The word Cathar comes from the Greek καθαροι, meaning Pure Ones. Little is known about them, because in 1208 Pope Innocent III launched a Crusade against these heretics that, in a succession of campaigns over a period of forty years, destroyed their communities with great cruelty. Later, the Catholic Church created the Inquisition, initially with the purpose of eliminating all traces of Cathar heresy from France, Spain and northern Italy.

What is known about the Cathars includes the following. The Pure Ones were strict vegetarians, abstaining from all animal products. They were celibate, although many of the ordinary believers were married. They worshipped a deity who was above Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. The latter appears to have been identified with the devil or Lucifer, and thus the Catholic Church (and presumably also the Jewish believers, although they seem to have been treated with unusual tolerance in this region) were regarded as devil-worshippers. The world had been created by Lucifer and belonged to the devil. They believed that Lucifer had waged war against Heaven, as a result of which souls had been trapped in fleshly bodies. We may note, in passing, that one of the stories about the origin of the Grail says that it was a jewel that fell from Lucifer's crown. According to Wolfram and to the Wartburgskrieg, the Grail was a stone that was brought to the earth by the neutral angels, i.e. those who did not take sides in the warfare between God and Lucifer.

The Cathars awaited a Messiah who would be the son of a widow; like Parzival. One of their symbols was the dove, which according to Wolfram was the bird that brought a wafer to the Grail on each Good Friday. It is also said that they believed in reincarnation, and that through good works one could obtain redemption from sins committed in a previous life.