Notes on Wagner's Parsifal Act 3

Notes on Act 3 of Richard Wagner's last music-drama Parsifal, relating to interesting points in the Prose Draft of 1865, and in Wagner's other writings.

Right: Wagner sketched by Paul Joukowsky while reading on 12 February 1883. He was reading Fouqué's Undine. Below: "Nur eine Waffe taugt", Arnaldo Dell'Ira (1903-1943).
Nur eine Waffe taugt - Arnaldo Dell'Ira.
A sketch of Wagner reading, dated 12.02.1883. Paul Joukowsky.

Pure Blood and Holy Blood

In Wagner's Gobineau-influenced essay, Herodom and Christendom, he considers how the degeneration of the human species might be attributed to two causes: the eating of animals (as suggested by Gleizès) and the mixing of races (as suggested by Gobineau). Wagner's remedy for this degeneration was the blood of Christ, which had for him a mystical significance:

open quotes Thus, if we found the faculty of conscious suffering peculiarly developed in the so-called white race, in the Saviour's blood we must now recognise the quintessence of free-willed suffering itself, that godlike compassion which streams through all the human species, its fount and origin. close quotes

[Heldenthum und Christenthum, September 1881]

Unfortunately people who talk about Parsifal on the radio or television, or who hold forth in the opera house bar, often say something like, we must not ignore the ideas inherent in the work. But what these people regard as "ideas inherent in the work" do not appear in the libretto, do not appear in the music (if that were possible) and do not even appear in the Prose Draft. What they are talking about are ideas that Wagner discussed in four articles that he wrote in 1880-81. Although it is possible to get the impression that these are Wagner's own ideas, in fact mostly he was discussing ideas proposed by other people. Wagner was not in the habit of giving credit to other people: it is a general problem with his writings that he does not make clear which ideas are his own, or where he got them. So the radio experts and the interval bar philosophers talk about ideas supposedly "inherent in this opera" that are not there at all, and often not Wagner's ideas, and in some cases notions, attributed to Wagner, that he did not accept or agree with.

Wagner's mention of the so-called white race is a reference to the ideas of Count Gobineau, which he considered in the 1881 article. Wagner was not in the habit of classifying people into races, although in private conversation he might have made negative comments about certain ethnic groups or nationalities. None of these ideas appear in the 1865 Prose Draft, which has been written more than a decade before Wagner even heard of Gobineau. There is nothing in the Prose Draft about miscegenation or vegetarianism, neither does it mention a degeneration of the species: the text concerns the young hero and his encounter with a community that is becoming progressively more distressed and dysfunctional. Gobineau suggested that the human species could be divided into three "races": respectively white, black and yellow. This was by no means new; it can be traced back to the biblical account of the sons of Noah. Gobineau further suggested that the so-called white race was superior to the black and yellow races. This idea was consistent with the colonialist mentality of the period, which was not shared by Wagner. It should be noted that these ideas were put forward by Gobineau and only reported by Wagner in his article.

Insofar as "pure blood" (the Saviour's blood) is a subtext in Parsifal, it must be understood in the context of this essay, i.e. in relation to Mitleid, while keeping in mind that the essay is from 16 years after the Prose Draft. We might relate two elements of the draft to Herodom and Christendom: first, the Buddhist-like reverence of the Grail community for birds and animals, and secondly, the ritual cleansing of Kundry in baptism (allowing her release from the eternal cycle of rebirth) which Barry Millington (in his biography of Richard Wagner) sees as an expression of a Schopenhauerian pacification of the will (obliteration of the whole being, of all earthly desire, he told Cosima).

There is more to Parsifal than meets the eye; in his letters and in confidences to Cosima, Wagner hinted that there were hidden secrets in the work. Those secrets are not necessarily, however, as dark as some would have us believe. Some commentators (including Millington) take the view that the drama is infused with the ideas of Wagner's last decade: a heady mix of Schopenhauerian pessimism, antivivisection and vegetarianism, and strange theories about race and blood. Also, not least, Wagner's theories of art and religion, and his hopes for the future of mankind, as expressed in the somewhat incoherent essays of his last years.

As Lucy Beckett once pointed out, in her book on the opera, the final libretto closely follows the 1865 Prose Draft, with the exceptions noted here: therefore the libretto does not contain any significantly new ideas that are not found in the Prose Draft. As those who take the trouble to study the final libretto and to compare it with the 1865 Prose Draft should be able to verify. There is, in the libretto, one possible reference to vegetarianism (in the Prose Draft the knights adopt a "profane" diet, while in the libretto they survive on roots and herbs). The view put forward by writers such as Gutman, and other misguided professors from small colleges in the American midwest, that the libretto of Parsifal is filled with ideas about racial superiority and religious triumphalism, is simply wrong.