Wagner on his opera Parsifal
Letter to Mathilde Wesendonck, 1 October 1858
ut I am also clear in my own mind why I can even feel greater fellow-suffering for lower natures than for higher ones. A higher nature is what it is precisely because it has been raised by its own suffering to the heights of resignation, or else has within it - and cultivates -- the capacity for such a development. Such a nature is extremely close to mine, is indeed similar to it, and with it I attain to fellow-joy. That is why, basically, I feel less fellow-suffering for people than for animals. For I can see that the latter are totally denied the capacity to rise above suffering, and to achieve a state of resignation and deep, divine calm. And so, in the event of their suffering, as happens when they are tormented, all I see - with a sense of my own tormented despair - is their absolute, redemption-less suffering without any higher purpose, their only release being death, which confirms my belief that it would have been better for them never to have entered upon life1. And so, if this suffering can have a purpose, it is simply to awaken a sense of fellow-suffering in man, who thereby absorbs the animal's defective existence, and becomes the redeemer of the world by recognising the error of all existence. (This meaning will one day become clearer to you from the Good Friday morning scene in the third act of Parzival.)Wesendonck-Briefe 101-5, tr. Spencer and Millington.
These words from Ulrike Kienzle provide a perfect link between the extracts that I had quoted above and below. I have borrowed them from her recent essay, Parsifal and Religion: A Christian Music Drama?, of which the German original appeared in her book, ...daß wissend würde die Welt! Religion und Philosophie in Richard Wagners Musikdramen (Wagner in der Diskussion, Band I, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 2005, pages 189-229). A slightly revised version of the essay has been included in A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal, ed. William Kinderman and Katherine R. Syer (Camden House, Rochester and Woodbridge, 2005, pages 80-130) in an English translation by Mary A. Cicora.
Letter to Mathilde Wesendonck, 30 May 1859
ooked at closely, it is Anfortas who is the centre of attention and principal subject. Of course, it is not at all a bad story. Consider, in heaven's name, all that goes on there! It suddenly became dreadfully clear to me: it is my third-act Tristan inconceivably intensified. With the spear-wound and perhaps another wound too, - in his heart -, the wretched man knows of no other longing in his terrible pain than the longing to die; in order to obtain this supreme solace, he demands repeatedly to be allowed a glimpse of the Grail in the hope that it might at least close his wounds, for everything else is useless, nothing - nothing can help him: - but the Grail can give him one thing only, which is precisely that he cannot die; its very sight increases his torments by conferring immortality upon them...
et someone do it who will carry it through à la Wolfram; it will then cause little offence, and in the end may perhaps sound like something, maybe even something quite pretty. But I take such things far too seriously. Yet just look at the extent to which Master Wolfram has made light of it, by contrast! That he has understood absolutely nothing of the actual content is of no great matter. He tacks one event on to the next, one adventure to another, links together the Grail motif with all manner of strange and curious episodes and images, gropes around and leaves any serious reader wondering what his intention can have been? To which he is bound to reply that he himself in fact knows no more about what he is doing than the priest understands the Christianity that he serves up at the altar without knowing what is involved.-
hat's how it is. Wolfram is a thoroughly immature phenomenon, although it must be said that his barbaric and
utterly confused age is largely to blame for this, fluctuating as it did between early Christianity and a more modern political economy. Nothing could ever come to fruition at such a period; poetic
profundity was immediately submerged in insubstantial caprice. I almost agree with Frederick the Great who, on being presented with a copy of Wolfram, told the
publisher not to bother him with such stuff!
Left: Henri Fantin-Latour: "Parsifal et les filles-fleurs", from L'Illustration, 29 April 1893.
onsider only this one point that, of all the interpretations to which the Grail has been subjected in the various legends, this superficial deep thinker should have chosen the most meaningless of all. That this miraculous object should be a precious stone is a feature which, admittedly, can be traced back to the earliest source, namely, the Arabic texts of the Spanish Moors. One notices, unfortunately that all our Christian legends have a foreign, pagan origin. As they gazed on in amazement, the early Christians learned, namely, that the Moors in the Caaba at Mecca (deriving from the pre-Muhammadan religion) venerated a miraculous stone (a sunstone - or meteoric stone - but at all events one that had fallen from heaven). However, the legends of its miraculous power were soon interpreted by the Christians after their own fashion, by their associating the sacred object with Christian myth, a process which, in turn, was made easier by the fact that an old legend existed in southern France telling how Joseph of Arimathea had once fled there with the sacred chalice that had been used at the Last Supper, a version entirely consonant with the early Christian Church's enthusiasm for relics. Only now did sense and reason enter into it, and I feel a very real admiration and sense of rapture at this splendid feature of Christian mythogenesis, which invented the most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion. Who does not shudder with a sense of the most touching and sublime emotion to hear that this same goblet, from which the Saviour drank a last farewell to His disciples and in which the Redeemer's indestructible blood was caught and preserved, still exists, and that he who is pure in heart is destined to behold it and worship it himself. Incomparable!...
had to make a completely fresh start with Parzival! For Wolfram hadn't the faintest idea of what he was doing: his [i.e. Parzival's] despair in God is stupid and unmotivated,
and his conversion is even more unsatisfactory. The thing about the Question is that it is so utterly preposterous and totally meaningless. I should simply have to
invent everything here. And then there is a further difficulty with Parzival. He is indispensably necessary as the redeemer whom Anfortas longs for: but if Anfortas is to be placed in his true and appropriate light, he will become of such
immense tragic interest that it will be almost impossible to introduce a second focus of attention, and yet this focus of attention must centre upon Parzival if the latter is not simply to enter at the end as a deus ex machina who leaves us completely cold. Thus Parzival's development
and the profound sublimity of his purification, although entirely predestined by his thoughtful and deeply compassionate nature, must again be brought into the foreground. But I cannot choose to work
on such a broad scale as Wolfram was able to do: I have to compress everything into three climactic situations of violent intensity, so that the work's
profound and ramified content emerges clearly and distinctly; for my art consists in working and representing things in this way.
Ulrike Kienzle, ibid. Translation by Mary A. Cicora, slightly modified to match Spencer's translation of the extract above.
Diary entry for 17 June 1881
Footnote 1: Wagner's belief stated here is, characteristically, one that he had received from Arthur Schopenhauer, whose pessimistic philosophy taught that it was better never to have been born at all. In his most famous book, The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer cited a number of precedents for this view, including the following:
Footnote 3: Although one possible interpretation of the "two kings" motive that runs through the Grail Romances is that the Fisher King represents Christ while the old, hidden king represents God the Father.
Footnote 4: Although Ulrike Kienzle's essay is brilliant, insightful and among the best treatments of the religious aspects of Parsifal to date, I have to disagree with her argument that the Anfortas problem led to the duality of Kundry, and from there to rebirth as an element of the drama, which appears in the Prose Draft of 1865; because it is my conviction that ideas Wagner had found in his reading about Indian religions already influenced his earliest thoughts about the drama, in the period 1857 to 1860. Even if he did not, at that time, consider Kundry to be living an unending cycle of rebirths, Wagner probably at an early stage considered Parzival to have grown in "purity" through a succession of earlier lives in which he had names that he has forgotten.