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Thomas Mann on Wagner and his Parsifal

... it is my third-act Tristan inconceivably intensified

[Wagner's letter to Mathilde Wesendonk, 30 May 1859]

This intensification was the involuntary law of life and growth of Wagner's productivity, and it derived from his own self-indulgence. He had been labouring all his life, in fact, on the pain- and sin-laden accents of Amfortas. They were already heard in the cry of Tannhäuser: Alas, the weight of sin overwhelms me!. In Tristan they attained to what then seemed to be the ultimate of lacerated anguish. But now, as he had realised with a shock, that would have to be surpassed in Parsifal and raised to an inconceivable intensity. Actually, what he was doing was simply pressing to the limit a statement for which he had always been unconsciously seeking stronger and profounder situations and occasions. Photograph of the author Thomas Mann

The materials of his several works represent but stages - self-transcending inflections - of a unity, a life work self-enclosed, fully rounded, which unfolds itself, yet in a certain manner was already there from the start. Which explains the box-within-box, one-inside-another, of his creative conceptions: and tells us also that an artist of this kind, a genius of this spiritual order, is never at work simply on the task, the opus, in hand. Everything else weighs upon him at the same time and adds its burden to the creative moment. Something apparently (but only half apparently) mapped out, like a life plan, comes to view: so that in the year 1862, while he was composing The Meistersinger, Wagner foretold with complete certainty, in a letter written to von Bülow from Bieberich, that Parsifal was going to be his final work - fully twenty years before it was presented. For before that there would be Siegfried, in the midst of which both Tristan and The Meistersinger were going to be put forth; and there was, furthermore, the whole of the Twilight of the Gods to be composed: all to fill out spaces in the work program. He had to carry the weight of The Ring throughout his labours on Tristan, into which latter work, from the outset, the whisper of Parsifal was intruding. And that voice was present still while he was at work on his healthy Lutheran Meistersinger. Indeed, ever since the year, 1845, of the first Dresden production of Tannhäuser, that same voice had been awaiting him. In the year 1848 there came the prose sketch of the Nibelungen myth as a drama, as well as the writing of Siegfried's Death, from which The Twilight of the Gods was to evolve. In between, from 1846 to '47, Lohengrin took shape and the action of The Meistersinger was sketched out - both of which works belong, actually, as satyr-play and humorous counterpart, in the Tannhäuser context.

These years of the eighteen-forties, in the midst of which he reached the age of thirty-two, hold together and define the entire work plan of his life, from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal, which plan then was executed in the course of the following four decades, until 1881, by an inward labour on all of its boxed-together elements simultaneously. Thus in the strictest sense, Wagner's work is without chronology. It arose in time, it is true; yet was all suddenly there from the start, and all at once...

What is to be said ... for the seriousness of that seeker after truth, that thinker and believer Richard Wagner? The ascetic and Christian ideals of his later period, the sacramental philosophy of salvation won by abstinence from fleshly lusts of every kind; the convictions and opinions of which Parsifal is the expression; even Parsifal itself - all these incontestably deny, revoke, cancel the sensualism and revolutionary spirit of Wagner's young days, which pervade the whole atmosphere and content of the Siegfried ...

To the artist, new experiences of truth are new incentives to the game, new possibilities of expression, no more. He believes in them, he takes them seriously, just so far as he needs to in order to give them the fullest and profoundest expression. In all that he is very serious, serious even to tears - but yet not quite - and by consequence, not at all ...

Take the list of characters in Parsifal: what a set! One advanced and offensive degenerate after another: a self-castrated magician; a desperate double personality, composed of a Circe and a repentant Magdalen, with cataleptic transition stages; a lovesick high priest, awaiting the redemption that is to come to him in the person of a chaste youth; the youth himself, 'pure' fool and redeemer, quite a different figure from Brünnhilde's lively awakener and in his way also an extremely rare specimen - they remind one of the aggregation of scarecrows in von Arnim's famous coach ... It is music's power over the emotions that makes the ensemble appear not like a half- burlesque, half-uncanny impropriety of the romantic school, but as a miracle play of the highest religious significance.

[Thomas Mann, Leiden und Grösse der Meister, tr. Lowe-Porter]