An Introduction to Wagner's Parsifal
Wagner's Parsifal (1882) is a drama surrounded by controversy and confusion. It has been accused of being immoral, blasphemous, decadent, racist and misogynist. It has been called a supreme song of love and pity.
his web site presents and assesses a wide range of views about, and reactions to, Wagner's Parsifal, together with some primary material, some source material, comparisons of the opera Parsifal with that source material, and even some background to the source material. It is an attempt to help those who are intimidated by Parsifal and a guide through the controversy and confusion surrounding it. This introduction has been added to give the reader a starting point. The web site was conceived as a single hypertext document, in which internal links will take the reader to related material, or in some cases to a glossary, to biographical notes or to the bibliography. After following a link, you can use the back-button of your web browser to return to the page you were reading earlier. You will also find some navigation links at the top and bottom of each page. The home page provides a search function.
[Mark Twain writing from Bayreuth, At the Shrine of St. Wagner, 1891]
[Eduard Hanslick writing from Bayreuth, Neue Freie Presse, July 1882]
arsifal is widely regarded as one of the more demanding works in the operatic repertoire, not only for the performers but also for the audience. Those who come to the opera without preparation -- and sometimes even those who have prepared, since "standard" reference works such as Kobbé's Complete Opera Book or the New Grove Dictionary of Opera provide only incomplete and sometimes even inaccurate information about it -- can find Parsifal perplexing. Understandably when those who write those "standard" reference books, and even those who write books about Wagner's life and works, lack a clear understanding of what it is about, or even what it is that happens in the course of the Parsifal drama. Typically these writers excuse their inability to explain it by stating that Parsifal is ambivalent and obscure (which it is), or that it is inconsistent (which it is not), or that it has many layers and dimensions (which is true) and that these are equally important (which is untrue).
Right: Parsifal (John Treleaven) with the Grail, in a recent production at the Wels Festival, Austria.
ince 1882 Parsifal has been widely regarded as a religious work, even as a Christian mystery-play. Yet there are grounds to doubt that it is a religious work, at least in the sense that a Bach Passion or Händel's Messiah are religious works. By decision of the composer it was reserved for his own theatre at Bayreuth, and performed only in the Wagner festivals, until the copyright expired at the end of 1913 despite attempts by the Wagner family to get an extended copyright granted to them. Many interpreted all this as an indication that Parsifal was too sacred to be performed on a profane stage. Earlier, however, Wagner had wanted to restrict his other stage festival-play (Bühnenfestspiel), the Ring, to Bayreuth and was only prevented from doing so by economic necessity. Like Parsifal, the Ring was intended only to be performed for a Festival audience, with the extended rehearsal that Wagner believed these works needed and which only a Festival could provide. Since Parsifal was the only opera written for Wagner's theatre and with a knowledge of its special acoustics, he called it his stage-dedicatory festival-play (Bühnenweih- festspiel).
he Festspielhaus is, after all, a theatre and not a temple or church, except in the sense that it is a temple to
high art. One that sells beer and sausages (which are always excellent, incidentally) during the intervals. Nietzsche condemned
f it is not a religious work, then perhaps Parsifal is a work about religion, or about religious ideas?
Michael Tanner 1 has suggested that it is about the psychopathology of religion. Obviously it contains a good deal of religious
language, with even more references to redemption (Erlösung) and salvation (Heil) than in Wagner's earlier dramas, to which it adds
references to a Redeemer (der Erlöser) and the Saviour (der Heiland), who might or might not be coincident. So religion
certainly is on the agenda. When Parsifal was first performed, in 1882, the presentation on stage of a kind of Holy Communion (in which blood apparently turned into wine and bread) caused offence to some, although a mainstream Christian might
find more to take offence at in the libretto, such as the implication that Parsifal redeems himself through his works, or that he is able to redeem the heathen Kundry,
without, it seems, the Christian God being involved. Some commentators have suggested that it is not about religion at all, pointing to
Wagner's statement, made in 1880:
Travellers to the East. Richard Guhr, 'Trias der Wende' (Trinity of Transition). © Richard- Wagner-Gedenkstätte.
n closer examination the libretto of Parsifal reveals hints of religious concepts and even doctrines, although few of them are familiar to most westerners. Wagner was a traveller to the East, to use Hermann Hesse's term; following the lead of Schopenhauer (on the left of the picture, holding a statue of the Buddha, one that he kept by his desk), in 1856 Wagner began to read about oriental religions, in particular those of India, Ceylon, Nepal and Tibet. He read about rituals and ritual objects, doctrines, legends, saints and sages. Some of these esoteric elements found their way into the libretto of his Parsifal, although they are so unfamiliar to a western audience or to a western producer, even today, that they tend to be overlooked even when they are structural rather than decorative, essential rather than incidental. In the 1870's Wagner's reading turned to the origins of Christianity (in the books by Strauss, Renan and Gfrörer), although he also found time to read (among much else, as Cosima's Diaries reveal) the Vedic Oupnekhat (a version of the Upanishads that was in effect Schopenhauer's Bible) and Buddhist Sutras translated from the Pali Canon. Hence the richness of the religious language and symbolism in the libretto that he completed in the spring of 1877.
he unfamiliar and eclectic nature of the material from which this tapestry was woven, together with the obscure and
elliptical style of the text, has had some unfortunate consequences. Producers, who are often given all too short notice to prepare a production of
Parsifal and who all too often tackle it as their first Wagner opera (perhaps taking seriously Noël Coward's observation that Parsifal is much
like Camelot, only funnier) find the libretto impenetrable and look for short cuts. Every few years, it
seems, one of them, about to direct Parsifal as his first Wagner opera, gives a press conference or interview in which he or she says that they have
o make matters worse, there are scribblers (like those whom Wagner called
f the "standard" reference books (in which discussion of Parsifal these days tends to be monopolized by
the omnipresent Barry Millington) do not explain Parsifal, and none of the many Wagner biographies do
much better, then the scribblers can make up whatever suits their fancy and they can find in Parsifal whatever they want to find there. It is a game that
anyone can play. Thus we read that Parsifal is a work about homosexuality, or vegetarianism,
or about seduction by vegetables. Barry Millington (who has written a great deal about Wagner and his works, not
least Parsifal, a work which he has evidently studied closely), has stated 3 that there is, in his view,
[Barry Millington in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, entry for Parsifal.]
[Wagner and Philosophy, Bryan Magee, 2000, page 279]
o what is the ordinary opera-goer to make of all this? Many of them take it for granted that the libretto of Parsifal, like that of Tristan, is impenetrable, and simply enjoy the music. Some of them
read all of the interpretations and the pronouncements of the "great Wagner experts" and become even more confused than they were before. The problem with
the "experts" is that, at least where Parsifal is concerned, the "expert" knows many details but fails to see the big picture; without which, they fail to
distinguish between those details that are essential and those that are incidental. The Wagner expert who came closest to understanding Parsifal was
Carl Dahlhaus 5, although even he sometimes failed to see the wood for the trees. Lucy Beckett, in her valuable survey of critical appraisals of Parsifal, concludes that Dahlhaus' assessment of
[Goethe to Zelter]
[Wagner's autobiography, My Life, tr. Andrew Gray]
Right: The cottage which Wagner called "das Asyl" or "the asylum". Although much rebuilt since Wagner lived there, it still stands beside the Wesendonk Villa, which is now the Museum Rietberg. Those who get a chance to visit Zürich should visit the "Asyl", the museum's wonderful collection of Buddhist art, and the linden trees at the bottom of the garden, under which Wagner must have sat (like Siegfried) or lain (like Tristan) while he was working on the score of Siegfried and the libretto of Tristan und Isolde in 1857.
y ideality here, Wagner meant the ideas of Wolfram's poem
Parzival (of about 1210). Some of them interested him and some of them did not. What he did not explain in the passage quoted above, or anywhere else, was
what his own ideas were on that spring morning, a few days after Richard and Minna Wagner had moved into a cottage (das Asyl) close to the Wesendonk villa. He said only that he was inspired by
hen Parsifal first appears on stage, bursting in upon a placid but troubled religious community who have concealed themselves and their temple deep in a pathless forest, the boy has only recently left his mother. She has kept from him all knowledge of old age, sickness and death. Emerging from this sheltered childhood, not yet an adult, he does not know the distinction between good and evil. He does not even know his own name, who he is or what he is; although he vaguely remembers that he has had many names, all now forgotten. At this stage Parsifal's life lacks purpose; if he has had any goal or mission, then it has been forgotten. Subsequent events, both onstage and offstage, influence his moral and spiritual development, which Wagner describes in words and music. As the more insightful commentators have realized, Parsifal has an inner action which is distinct from the outer action. The inner action is internal to the title character: the impact of new experiences upon the mind of the spiritual hero. Whilst, in the outer action, Amfortas, Titurel and Kundry are independently-acting characters, they also function as symbols in the inner action, developing in the consciousness of Parsifal.
Left: A sketch for Act 3 of Parsifal by Wieland Wagner, 1937.
agner later confessed to Cosima that there was an error in the autobiography that he had
dictated to her. It was not a Good Friday at all, he admitted, just
t is often said that Wagner's Parsifal is based on the medieval Grail romances,
and in particular Wolfram's Parzival (although Chrétien's Perceval and the Welsh Peredur are often mentioned too, and it is known that Wagner studied these romances). This tends to lead the reader of, for example, an opera
program into believing that Parsifal is a work of Arthurian romance, which the opera-goer expects to see shining in Celtic twilight. As Carl Suneson has pointed out, however,
o one of the key ideas in Parsifal is the concept of a saint or sage, seeking wisdom and spiritual liberation. In the widest possible sense — Wagner wrote of the true geniuses and true sages of all ages — and also in a specific, narrow sense, the character Parsifal is an instance of an archetype, the saint or sage, the spiritual hero. In Wagner's terminology, he is a member of the race of saints, as well as being a member of the race of heroes. Wagner's use of the word Geschlecht, which can be translated as "race", has been much misunderstood. When he wrote of a race of saints, for example, he did not mean that saints were a biological breed or strain; he meant the class of individuals, whom we call saints. His Parsifal is both a hero and a saint; he is a spiritual hero, who overcomes the world. In this sense he is victorious. Carl Suneson, in his insightful monograph about Wagner and India, suggested that a particular kind of ascetic Buddhist saint was the model for Wagner's Parsifal:
[Richard Wagner och den Indiska Tankevärlden, Carl Suneson, Stockholm, 1985, tr. present author]
he relevance of this kind of enlightened Buddhist saint, the bodhisattva as he appears in the
Mahāyāna scriptures, had not (as far as the present author can determine) been mentioned by earlier commentators on
Parsifal, although that there are references in Parsifal to Buddhism and to the life of the Buddha was first explained
more than a century ago. Most commentators since then have mentioned that there are (Mahayana) Buddhist elements in the libretto, without expanding on this
statement. In view of the fact that Wagner had been reading (early in 1856) the first detailed account to appear in any European language of the
Mahāyāna doctrines, Burnouf's Introduction à l'histoire du Buddhisme
indien, the book in which he found the legend on which he based the sketch for The Victors, this influence is plausible. Seen in connection with what
Wagner wrote in 1860 about Parsifal's purity, the doctrine of the transfer of merit, to which
Professor Suneson refers, helps to explain what happens in the Good Friday Meadow. As Parsifal, the newly
anointed priest-king of the Grail, baptizes the heathen Kundry as his first act in his new role, there is
a complementarity of Christian and Buddhist doctrines. As a Christian saint, Parsifal absolves Kundry of her sins; as a Buddhist
saint, Parsifal transfers to her some of the merit that he has gained through good works in countless earlier lives. Thus Kundry is
he presence of Buddhist or pseudo-Buddhist and Vedic elements in the libretto of Parsifal has long been recognized and the more intelligent and better-informed commentators writing about Parsifal have acknowledged that in the formative years of this drama, Wagner's thinking was more influenced by Buddhism than it was by Christianity. Regrettably too much of the literature concerning the Buddhist and oriental elements of the text has been speculative and inaccurate (see the review of this literature at the beginning of Suneson's monograph; unfortunately it is only available in Swedish and German). Even Carl Suneson's analysis of the Buddhist and Hindu ideas in Parsifal fails to penetrate Wagner's libretto, although Suneson's suggestions that Monsalvat was in part inspired by the forest ashrams of Valmiki's Ramayana, that the incident of the swan draws on some famous lines of Sanskrit attributed to Valmiki, and that Parsifal follows the path of the bodhisattva (see above) are all persuasive and deserve to be more widely known. It is remarkable that none of the commentators who have considered the Buddhist and oriental ideas in Parsifal have understood that a critical event in the life of the Buddha determines the structure of the first act of Wagner's Parsifal, even though most of them (following Heckel) acknowledge that another critical event in the Buddha's life underlies the action of the second act, whilst only Suneson approaches an understanding of what happens in the central scene of the third act.
[Wagner's essay Religion and Art, 1880, tr. William Ashton Ellis]
Left: Bayreuth postcard showing Kundry, reclining on what G.B. Shaw called
a Gower Street sofaand attempting to seduce Parsifal (act two). Wagner joked,
Really she should be lying there naked, like a Titian Venus. His reference to Venus is fitting , since his ideas about Kundry were finalized in 1860 while he was writing the Venusberg scene for the Paris Tannhäuser.
y ideal representation here, Wagner meant the representation of ideas, specifically those that he regarded as deep truth. The quotation above has been taken from the opening of an 1880 article by Wagner, one of a series of increasingly cranky essays that he wrote in 1878- 1882 for publication in Wolzogen's journal, the Bayreuther Blätter. There has been much attention given to these essays in recent decades. Authors such as Robert Gutman, Hartmut Zelinsky and more recently Barry Millington 6 have attempted to explain the ideality of Parsifal on the basis of these so-called regeneration writings, so called because they are full of ideas that preoccupied Wagner in 1878-1882 (although in fact the arguments advanced by Gutman et al are based on passages, taken out of context, from Religion and Art of July 1880 and its supplements), including his concern about the supposed degeneration of the human race and his hope for its regeneration. The main ideas connected together in these essays were not Wagner's own but those that he had found during the 1870's in the writings of the naturalist Charles Darwin, combined of course with Wagner's interpretation of Schopenhauer, and from 1880 the vegetarian Gleizès and the racial theorist Count Gobineau. To the extent that these essays contain references to Parsifal, which Wagner was completing in this period, they do tell us about how he saw the opera in the light of his current preoccupations. Since none of these ideas had been considered by Wagner during the development of the text of Parsifal, however, Gutman, Zelinsky and Millington are misguided when they propose to explain the ideality of Parsifal on the basis of essays that reflect on the finished work.
[Wagner in Dent's Master Musicians series of biographies, Barry Millington, 1984, pages 268-9]
he error of which Barry Millington (following Robert Gutman, although with some reservations about Gutman's more eccentric ideas) has convinced himself (and unfortunately too many
other people), is that the ideas that preoccupied Wagner in 1880-1882 found expression in Parsifal, the libretto of which he completed in the spring of 1877. A comparison of the libretto with the Munich Prose Draft of 1865, one which the reader is invited to
make for themselves, shows that Wagner in 1877 closely followed what he had drafted in 1865, the main difference being that the Spear
assumes greater importance in the later version. Lucy Beckett concludes that the
[Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt on 7 June 1855, Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt, Tr. Francis Hueffer, vol. II, page 71]
Left: In H-J Syberberg's. Parsifal film the flower maidens are presented as women oppressed by men, to whom they are only playthings, and Klingsor is a pimp.
or Schopenhauer and for Wagner, the teachings of Jesus, presented only in distorted
form in the Gospels, had been inspired by ideas that had spread from India. The deep truth that Jesus had recognised and taught, they
believed, had been lost from sight in Christendom, until it was rediscovered by Schopenhauer, who then found that some of his key ideas
had been taught in India centuries before Jesus. Christianity was, for Wagner,
t is hardly surprising that none of the many attempts that have been made to interpret Parsifal in terms
of Christian theology has succeeded. This failure has been excused by Lucy Beckett, in her Cambridge Opera
Handbook to Parsifal, on the grounds that Parsifal is inconsistent (an evaluation that was echoed by Millington in his biography of Wagner),
since, according to Beckett, in Parsifal Wagner had attempted to reconcile pagan and Christian ideas,
resulting in an
[Beckett, page 140]
ere it might be noted that Beckett, like most commentators on Parsifal, assumes that Wagner developed his libretto by compressing material from Wolfram's Parzival and supplementing it with "bits and pieces" from other Grail romances. The reader is advised to read the accompanying article on Wagner's sources for a more accurate picture of where Wagner quarried his raw material; even better, to read Wolfram and try to identify anything in it that is referenced directly in Wagner's opera Parsifal. Unfortunately Beckett's narrow view of the sources led her to the mistaken conclusion that the "pagan" (non-monotheistic) elements of Wagner's Parsifal were either residues from the distillation of Wolfram's poem or taken from other Grail romances. But this is certainly not the case: consider (as Beckett does not) the early medieval poem Barlaam and Josaphat, which this author would argue was the inspiration for more of Wagner's text than was Wolfram's Parzival. The former is a "pagan" story (originally about the Buddha) that passed through a Christian filter to become a story about two (fictional) Christian saints. Does any "paganism" remain in the version of this story that Wagner had on his bookshelf in Dresden?
here is another aspect to this business of pagan and Christian elements in Wagner's text: even today, western audiences are likely to recognize symbols such as the Grail, as well as the rituals in the opera, as deriving from Christian traditions. Since western audiences are less likely to be familiar with Wagner's non-Christian sources (say, the Ramayana or accounts of the life of the Buddha), it is understandable that audience members experience Parsifal in a Christian context; taking the Grail, as does Beckett, in its "full Christian sense". Wagner used Christian language, especially in the temple scenes; but it should be noted that even these scenes are set in a temple and not in a church. If audiences have mistakenly seen this Parsifal opera as a work of Christian piety, then Wagner is to blame for his use of Christian symbols and religious language borrowed from the Christian liturgy.
n the other hand, although it is less obvious to a Christian audience (or at least to one that is more familiar with Christianity than with Buddhism), there are suggestions in Parsifal of Buddhist doctrines and Buddhist legends. These influences are immediately recognised by Buddhists and by those who have studied Buddhism when they attend a performance of Parsifal. Recently the present author spoke to a German film-maker, who had been commissioned to make a film about the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni. When he began studying the film-script, this producer realized that he had seen some of this before; these incidents were in Wagner's Parsifal! In fact this is not all that remarkable, given that Wagner had already been working on (or at least, researching) a drama about the Buddha (The Victors or Die Sieger) during the year (May 1856 to April 1857) before his "Good Friday" inspiration.
[Wagner's Parsifal: the Journey of a Soul, Peter Bassett, 2000. This book is highly recommended as the best introduction to Parsifal currently available.]
agner's interest in reincarnation, a doctrine in which he confessed his belief in 1860, is another aspect of Wagner's religious and spiritual outlook of which evidence can be found in Parsifal. Not only reincarnation, in fact, but also the theory of karma fascinated Wagner. The reader will be able to find a discussion of how these ideas were reflected in Wagner's works in the studies by Wolfgang Osthoff and Carl Suneson respectively. As Schopenhauer had pointed out, reincarnation had been taught throughout the world in antiquity, and not only in India. It is probable that Wagner believed that Jesus had taught a doctrine of reincarnation, which his disciples had failed to understand. Thus it was an element of his true Christianity, of which Parsifal was an expression.
wo of Wagner's later dramas are more closely related than is widely recognized. It is almost certain that neither Tristan und Isolde nor Parsifal would exist, had not Wagner discovered the philosophy of Schopenhauer in the autumn of 1854. The most important difference between these works, in relation to this philosophy, is that Tristan expresses some of Schopenhauer's metaphysical ideas, while Parsifal is more concerned with his ethical ideas and especially with the primary importance that Schopenhauer assigned to compassion 8. Compassion (Mitleid) is at the centre of Parsifal just as longing (Sehnen) is at the centre of Tristan und Isolde 9.
[Wagner, Michael Tanner, 1996, pages 198-9.]
Right: Bayreuth postcard showing the traditional ending of Parsifal.
From the dome a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal's head. Kundry, with her gaze resting on Parsifal, sinks lifeless to the ground. Amfortas and Gurnemanz kneel in homage before Parsifal, who swings the Grail over the worshipping knights.
Redemption to the redeemer (ogg format, mono, duration 3.5 min.)
learly Michael Tanner's experience of the work differs from that of
Lucy Beckett. Both Parsifal and Tristan reflect the Schopenhauerian (and also Buddhist) doctrines
according to which suffering is an inevitable part of life, and desire is the cause of suffering. In Tristan we are shown that even the desire to escape
from this world causes suffering. In Parsifal we see a
osima Wagner records a statement by Richard about how Kundry had experienced
Isolde's transfiguration many times. Isolde dies in the hope that she will be united with Tristan in the realm of eternal night. Kundry in Parsifal and Brünnhilde (who in the 1856 ending of Gütterdämmerung declares herself
Footnote 1: The Total Work of Art by Michael Tanner, in The Wagner Companion, ed. P. Burbridge and R. Sutton, 1979.
Footnote 2: Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, ed. John Warrack, chapter 4: Sachs and Schopenhauer. Richard Wagner: Parsifal, ed. Lucy Beckett, chapter 6: A Proposed Interpretation. For Wagner's opinion of academics the reader is referred to the third installment of his article The Public and Popularity (August 1878), PW 6, pages 70-81.
Footnote 3: Wagner in Dent's Master Musicians Series, 1984, pages 269 to 271. This ill-judged section of the chapter on Parsifal disfigures what is otherwise a well-written and informative biography. See also Millington's article on Parsifal in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Many Wagnerians are still waiting for Barry Millington to present the
abundant evidencethat he claimed supports his view that Parsifal is about
Footnote 4: Lucy Beckett provides a perceptive and polite refutation of Robert Gutman's bizarre and fantastic interpretation of Parsifal in her Richard Wagner: Parsifal, pages 121-3.
Footnote 5: Richard Wagners Musikdramen, 1971. The chapter on Parsifal is on pages 204-223 of the Reclam edition. It has been translated into English by Mary Whittall as Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, 1979; pages 142-155.
Footnote 6: Robert Gutman's strange and often inaccurate Wagner book is Richard Wagner: The Man, his Mind and his Music, 1969. Scarcely any of H. Zelinsky's polemics are available in English, although some of his ideas were discussed by Barry Millington in the journal Wagner, vol. 8, 1987, pages 114-20 (Parsifal: A Wound Reopened). The most substantial article, despite its brevity, about the work by Millington is Parsifal: Facing the Contradictions, in Musical Times, 1983, pages 97-8.
Footnote 7: Volume 2, chapter XV.
Footnote 8: For an understanding of the ethical foundation of Parsifal, the reader is advised to study Schopenhauer's On the Basis of Morality, which is sometimes found in one volume combined with the essay on the freedom of the will as The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. Those who prefer to read the original German will find the former essay in Schopenhauer's Collected Works, volume III, pages 632-815. For a general introduction to the philosopher, see Bryan Magee's book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. The only extended discussion of Schopenhauer's ideas in Wagner's Parsifal is to be found in Ulrike Kienzle's Das Weltüberwindungswerk: Wagners 'Parsifal'. Unfortunately Kienzle concentrated on the ideas developed in The World as Will and Representation and neglected the essay on the foundation of morality, which is more directly relevant to Parsifal.
Footnote 9: Wagner and Philosophy, Bryan Magee, 2000, page 215. (US title: The Tristan Chord).