Posts Tagged ‘Parsifal’

Wagner’s “Parsifal”: some confused thoughts of a layman

It is not the least of the lunacies inflicted on us by the internet that everyone gets to pretend to be an expert on everything. Or, rather, that expertise is any matter is seen not to count: everyone’s opinion is equally valid and equally important. That certain opinions aren’t really opinions at all, but judgements based on knowledge and on understanding, matters not a jot. After years of finding myself annoyed by this, I decided to join what I couldn’t beat: hence this blog, where, on the basis that a cat may look at a king, I freely pontificate on all manners of things I know next to nothing about. True, I do admit to my ignorance, and have no pretence of being anything other than a layman, an amateur – a dilettante, even. But even if I didn’t admit to all this, I don’t see why I shouldn’t add my voice to the cacophony when other voices sometimes even less qualified than my own freely make themselves heard, and, indeed, often get paid for doing so. But that’s the modern world for you.

Now that’s done with, I can with a free conscience write about a work I really do not understand, despite having been acquainted with it now for some thirty years and more: Wagner’s Parsifal. In my previous post, I wrote about the apprehensions I had in going to see a cine-cast of it from the Metropolitan Opera; having now seen it, and still somewhat shaken by the experience, I feel I need to get something down in words on what I feel about it. Not a review of last night’s performance: there are those better qualified than I for that sort of thing. But rather, an attempt to articulate the various wild and whirling and frequently conflicting thoughts I have about this work, in the hope that in attempting to articulate, I may come across a clearer understanding of it myself.

Firstly, the plot. It is a commonplace, and, I think, a mistaken one, that operas invariably have silly plots, and that one should simply forget about the storyline and enjoy the glorious music instead. But that won’t do. Opera has its conventions, true; more accurately, different types of opera have different conventions. But within those conventions, the drama of opera has to be taken seriously, because the music is in service of that drama, and cannot, must not, be considered in isolation to it. Even with plots that may be silly outside the confines of opera, the music must be able to create a world – and not necessarily a realistic world – in which the drama may be communicated with conviction. If it cannot do this, the opera has failed in its most basic terms. But that is not so with Parsifal: whatever else it may be, it is an artistic triumph. And that being the case, we must take seriously its content.

Here, the problem is not so much that the plot is silly: it is, rather, that it cannot be adequately understood without, at the very least, some degree of sympathy with its religious content. The nature of the religious content, however, has been subject to much interpretation and controversy. And even ridicule. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to ridicule it here, especially given that in the secular age we live in, ridicule of religion is commonplace. But ridicule won’t help explain why I was so affected by the performance last night. If I wish to come to a better understanding of that, I need to put aside any cynicism I may have about religion, and try to understand, as best I can, what it is the opera communicates – what it is that I am reacting to.


So here, for what it’s worth, is the plot, which I will try to summarise without any snide comments that are all too easy to make. (And if you already know the plot, please feel free to skip this section.)

It’s a work about the mythical Holy Grail, but it’s not a search for the Grail: the Grail, symbolising, presumably, the presence of the Divine in our world, is already here. But its power to sustain is diminished. Amfortas, the King who rules over the Knights of the Grail, has sinned, and as a consequence, the Grail appears to be losing its potency. The sin was sexual in nature: in setting out to vanquish the evil Klingsor, Amfortas had allowed himself to be seduced by a beautiful temptress. This temptress was an instrument of Klingsor’s, and, while he had been in her embrace, Klingsor had stolen from him his spear – the sacred spear that had pierced Christ when on the cross. With this spear, Klingsor had wounded Amfortas, and the wound, a constant reminder of Amfortas’ sexual sin, and also of his neglect for that which was holy, now refuses to heal. This spear now in the possession of hands that are defiled, and the land ruled by Amfortas and the Knights of the Grail is consequently in decline; and Amfortas is in constant pain, both physical and spiritual.

Into this environment come two outsiders: a mysterious woman, Kundry, who, though seeking to serve, is despised by the knights, but to whom the saintly Gurnemanz shows compassion; and then, Parsifal himself, a lad who is a “fool” – a young man utterly bereft of education or of knowledge, ignorant even of his own name, living and acting merely by his instincts. Kundry knows about him: his mother had deliberately raised him to be ignorant, so he won’t be drawn into battle and killed as his father had been; but one day, the young Parsifal had seen soldiers pass the house, and, enchanted by the sight, had wandered with them away from home. Now, Kundry tells us, his mother is dead.

Parsifal, as he enters, has, in his ignorance, shot dead a swan. Gurnamanz reprimands him, but wonders whether this could be the “holy fool” promised in a prophesy as one who will restore to the Kingdom of the Grail that which has been lost. So he takes the lad to witness the ritual of the Grail. But it means nothing to Parsifal. He is no holy fool, Gurnemanz decides – just a fool.

In the second act, the music seethes and writhes with a sense of evil: we are in the realm of Klingsor. Gurnemanz had earlier told us about Klingsor: he had, in the past, attempted to join the Knights of the Grail, but had been refused because he had not been “pure”. (The subtitles last night said “pure in heart”, but Wagner’s libretto is uncompromising: “pure”, it says, without qualification. It should be noted, however, that if Wagner does indeed mean racial purity here, he does not say that either: we are free to provide our own definition of “purity”.) After the refusal to admit him, Klingsor, to rid himself of sexual desire, had castrated himself; and he had then acquired demonic magical powers. Now, we see him in his realm. He has under his power Kundry, whom he awakens from her sleep. It was indeed Kundry who had seduced Amfortas on that fateful day the sacred spear had been lost. Now, she is summoned, against her will, to seduce the young Parsifal, who is approaching.

Parsifal is still the fool, the innocent we had seen before. He is enchanted by the seductive warbling of the Flower-Maidens, whose singing we may find either sensual or sickly, depending on how sybaritic we are. Then, Kundry appears, and calls Parsifal by his name. She tells Parsifal, much to his distress, how his mother had died, heartbroken by the absence of her son. With Parsifal now emotionally subdued, Kundry gives him a more than motherly kiss. But the kiss has on Parsifal an electrifying effect: suddenly, he understands. He understands now what he had failed to understand when he had witnessed the ceremony of the Grail; he understands now the spiritual agony of Amfortas, and the need to restore to the Kingdom of the Grail the stolen spear. He understands also his own guilt in not having understood before; he understands his responsibility – both what he is responsible for, and also, what he is responsible to. Kundry’s further advances are resisted. As she becomes increasingly desperate, she reveals her past lives: in a past incarnation, she had seen Jesus carry the cross, and had laughed at him. And for this, she is cursed in all her future reincarnations. She is now doomed to be for ever, through all her lives, in Klingsor’s power, unable to do the good she so craves, unable to escape the endless cycle of evil. Kundry’s seduction resisted, Klingsor appears himself to vanquish Parsifal: but his spear, that sacred spear, sticks in the air; and, on Parsifal making the sign of the cross, Klingsor’s evil empire collapses.

In the third act, we are back in the Kingdom of the Grail. Many years have passed since we had been here last. With the power of the Grail in decline, the place is now virtually a wasteland: there is no longer a community of knights – they now each forage for themselves. Society is in a state of utter dissolution.

Kundry is again present, but all she can now utter is an inarticulate moan: “dienen … dienen…” – “to serve, to serve”. Gurnemanz, now older, still has compassion for her; but he is powerless. Again, Parsifal enters, but he too is aged now, and tired with much travel and with worldly suffering. He carries with him the sacred spear. Having reached this place he had been seeking for so long, he disarms himself, plants the spear into the ground, and prays. Gurnemanz recognises him now, and recognise also the spear. The day is a sacred one: it is Good Friday, when nature renews itself. At this, the climactic point of the work, Gurnemanz anoints Parsifal as the new king, and Parsifal baptises Kundry; she, mistaking him for Jesus, wipes his feet with her hair. She is at last freed from the cycle of suffering and of evil, and her eventual death brings release – nirvana, if you will – from the cycle.

Amfortas is finally made whole, and Parsifal now presides over the ceremony he had previously failed to understand. The final chorus tells us of the “Redeemer redeemed”.


What is one to make of all this? Especially in the secular age that we now live in? Is this all mere lazy sentimental religiosity, as so many claim? It’s tempting to think so, for that saves one the very considerable trouble of trying to untangle it all. The Christian eucharist, the sacred symbol of the Holy Grail, the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and of renunciation (themselves derived from Hinduism), the Schopenhauerian ideas of relinquishing will and desire, the European pagan tradition of the Fisher King presiding over a waste-land and awaiting redemption … What a curious hotchpotch it all is! Is it actually worth untangling? Or should we just say “the music is wonderful”, and leave it there?

No, that isn’t enough. I have often wondered why and how it is that even those of us who are not religious believers can nonetheless be affected by religious art; the consensus of opinion appears to be that we respond despite the religious content, but I am inclined to think that we respond it not despite, but because of it; that, no matter how advanced the position we may place ourselves on the scale of more-atheist-than-thou, there remains that embarrassing but significant aspect of our psyche that responds to religious concepts; and this being the case, we should put our embarrassment to one side and try to understand just what it is that we are responding to. Even if it means trying to negotiate the deep waters of theology of which I know and understand so little. But, I can only re-iterate, I am not speaking from the perspective of an expert: this is but a layman’s view.

The first point that strikes me is that in the theology underpinning this work, divine presence in the world, as symbolised by the Grail and by the spear, is not unconditional: whether this is because God is not absolutely powerful, or because God chooses to exercise His power only in certain circumstances, humans must by their own actions justify the presence of the divine if they are not to turn the world they inhabit into a moral and physical waste land.

So far, so understandable. But I start to have problems when I consider the nature of the transgression that has caused the efficacy of divine presence to diminish. There are many terrible crimes in this world – crimes that may justifiably be described as “sinful”: disdain for compassion, unrestrained greed, wanton cruelty, defilement of innocence, genocidal hate, and so on. Does illicit sex really score so highly on this scale? Amfortas was caught in what we would nowadays call a “honey trap” – tempted by a beautiful woman on a mission specifically to tempt him. And yes, he had neglected his sacred duty, and had failed to protect the sacred spear. Reprehensible though all this is, one can’t help feeling that the punishment greatly outweighs the transgression. To attach so great a weight to a sexual transgression seems to me to reek of an obsessive censoriousness regarding sexual matters that so many secularists – myself, I confess, included – find so distasteful about so many religious codes of morality.

Unless, of course, we are to take his failure to protect the sacred spear as symbolic of a greater desecration; but what it may be symbolic of, I am not too sure. I remain worried by the linking of a sin that is not forgiven (insofar as Amfortas’ wound does not heal) with an act of sex that is consensual, not accompanied with violence, and not even a betrayal of any living partner.

But the wound does remain unhealed: not even the proximity of the Grail can bring divine forgiveness here. It is unclear to me whether God deliberately does not heal, or whether He can not heal: in the context of the dramatic situation, I suspect the latter. To ensure divine presence in this world of ours, to suffuse the Real with the Eternal, humanity must play its part. Divine presence cannot be taken for granted.

Fair enough. Let us move on.

A holy fool, we are told, must resolve this. The holy fool is a figure familiar to Russian culture: we have one in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (based on a play by Pushkin), and Dostoyevsky’s Idiot is, of course, a variation on it. The potency of this character comes, I presume, from the fool’s innocence: a fool is, after all, unaware of evil. But by the same token, the fool must also be unaware of good: Parsifal’s first act in the opera is, after all, to kill a presumably symbolic swan. I don’t really understand the concept of the “Holy Fool”, and neither do I understand the significance of the prophesy that only a Holy Fool can restore divine presence to the world.

But there are further puzzles to come: the point surely is that this fool we see doesn’t restore the divine. The Parsifal we see restoring the sacred spear is not a fool at all, holy or otherwise, but a man of wisdom and of understanding. How did this wisdom come about? The prophecy speaks of a fool made wise through compassion; and indeed, Parsifal does indeed feel compassion – for Amfortas, for Kundry, for the state to which the kingdom of the Grail is reduced. But is not the compassion felt after he has attained wisdom and understanding? These qualities are not attained through compassion, but through a moment of magical transformation: he become wise instantaneously, when Kundry kisses him. Where does this magic come from? From the divine? Presumably so: it is hard to imagine where else it might have come from. But if this divine presence is powerful enough, and willing enough, to grant him this wisdom and understanding, then why had it not been powerful enough, or willing enough, to forgive Amfortas for his transgression, and heal his wound? Why does it not forgive the penitent and suffering Kundry, and release her from the cycle of evil and of suffering? Either there is a gap here in Wagner’s scheme, or there is something very important that I am missing. It is not merely a detail of the plot: on the contrary, it seems to me central to the whole thing. If humans are to play their part in ensuring divine presence in the world, then what part is it precisely that we are expected to play? If it is to feel compassion, “mitleid”, then Gurnemanz already feels this; what is it that Parsifal brings to the proceedings that Gurnemanz cannot?

This is where I feel lost. Human action is insisted upon, and yet at the same time denied, insofar as the human action that redeems the world is presented as a consequence solely of divine intervention. It doesn’t, for me, add up, no matter how hard I try to empathise with the religious perspective underlying this work.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as irrelevant – to say, as so many have done, that the music is wonderful, and let us merely be satisfied with that. That was effectively Nietszche’s position: he loved the music deeply, and yet was revolted by its Christian sentiments. For to Nietzsche, belief in God, in the transcendent, is to devalue the human; such belief is to admit that human values, on their own, are not sufficient. To present the world bereft of divine presence as but a wasteland is, according to this viewpoint, to impoverish human life itself:

Everything that has grown up in the soil of impoverished life, the entire false coinage of transcendence and another world, has in Wagner’s art its sublimest advocate…
– from “The Wagner Case” by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by T. Common

Once again, I feel out of my depth commenting on this. (In case anyone is marvelling at my erudition on this matter, let me confess that I am not at all well-read in Nietzsche, and was only guided to this quote by Lucy Beckett’s book on Parsifal.) But I can’t help wondering whether belief in “human values” and the desire for transcendence are necessarily as mutually exclusive as Nietzsche appears to have thought. My beloved Wordsworth, I suspect, would not have thought so.


So there we are. I have rambled on long enough about things I do not understand. I know what I experienced last night was tremendous: whatever doubt I may have about it in the cold light of day were swept away in the presence of that extraordinary music. To such an extent, indeed, that one may even begin to resent the music for being so powerful, and forcing us to accept and even be moved by that which otherwise we would reject. Settembrini was, perhaps, right: music, as John E. Woods’ translation has it, is “politically suspect”:

“Music is invaluable as the ultimate means of awakening our zeal, a power that draws the mind trained for its effects forward and upward. But literature must precede it. By itself, music cannot draw the world forward. By itself, music is dangerous.”
– from “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann, Part 4, Chapter 4, translated by John E. Woods

The reluctant Wagnerian

This Saturday, I shall be in a nearby cinema to see and hear a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera New York of Wagner’s Parsifal. I was persuaded to get tickets for this by our lad, who, despite all the love and affection that his doting parents have lavished upon him over the years, has turned out a diehard Wagnerian. I do not doubt that this particular production is very fine; I do not doubt that it features some of the best singers of today: names such as Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape are hard to argue against, after all. Neither do I doubt that the orchestral playing, the choral singing, the conducting (Daniele Gatti will be in the pit), etc., will all be top notch.  Indeed, I have put myself through this opera before, having listened often to recordings of the full work, and also having heard it live on no less than three occasions. I confess also that at times, the effect of the music has been so overwhelming, that I have found myself completely drawn into it – to such an extent that I had become unaware of anything but the music, unaware even of those hours passing by. But nonetheless, I feel strangely apprehensive about this Saturday.

I know that I am by no means the first who has felt himself both drawn to and repelled by Wagner, but let me state right away that the repulsion has nothing to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Not that I doubt that he was grotesquely anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his own times; and I am, further, prepared to accept the possibility that his racism did, as has been alleged, indeed find its way into his works. This does, admittedly, remain a controversial point, and emotions often run high when it is raised; and I am not myself sufficiently knowledgeable in this area to offer my own opinion on the matter. But I am prepared, at least, to accept the possibility that his racist ideology did indeed seep into his work, and even, as some claim, form its ideological basis. But if it did so, then it did so in a coded form, since at no point in any of his works is either race in general or Jewry in particular explicitly mentioned. This means that those of us blissfully unaware of whatever code Wagner may or may not have used can appreciate his work without the slightest thought of whatever psychopathic unpleasantness may or may not underlie it. No: whatever uneasiness I feel about Wagner’s operas, it is not on ideological grounds. It is something else.

But when I try to specify what that something else is, I find myself on uncertain ground. That his work has a powerful effect on me cannot be denied: I remember in particular a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the English National Opera a number of years ago that held me effectively hypnotised: I really had lost all sense of my surroundings, all sense of time passing. And, during the Edinburgh Festival of 2006, I attended an outstanding concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, featuring a then relatively unknown Jonas Kaufmann in quite resplendent voice as Walther. (I doubt we could afford to go and see Jonas Kaufmann now, given his current superstar status in the opera world!) So good was this performance, that even after five hours and more, I actually found myself thinking it was too short! So yes, I have indeed been under Wagner’s spell – many, many times.

But perhaps that is the point. Do I like being under his spell? Do I like getting to the state where I forget my surroundings, where I forget the passage of time? Do I like being drawn in to quite such an extent? And the answer to that, I think, is no, I don’t. There is something – for want of a better word – unhealthy, I find, about all this, something sickly. I cannot define it: but there is something intangible about Wagner’s work that is not to my taste, and I find myself resisting; although I do know that once that music starts, any resistance on my part will very soon melt away.

Even with Parsifal, the last and, in many ways, the most problematic of Wagner’s operas. It’s an odd hotchpotch of Christianity, Buddhism, mysticism, medieval myth, and – so I’m told – the philosophy of Schopenhauer. It is also, according to some, the most overt expression of Wagner’s racist ideology, although its racist aspect, should it exist, remains as obscure to me as any other aspect of the work. The whole thing may indeed be very profound, as is claimed, but, although I have known it for some thirty or so years, and although I have indeed made some effort to understand it better (Lucy Beckett’s book on this opera is justly renowned), I have never been able to make much sense of it. Now, I have given up trying: whatever its depths, its concerns are not, I think, mine. Debussy seems to me to have hit the nail on the head: after an entire essay ridiculing the opera and attacking it in no uncertain terms, he ended by declaring it to be “one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music”. That’s good enough for me. The whole strikes me as utterly incomprehensible – or, at least, not comprehensible to a mind such as mine – but I am all for lovely monuments of sound.


This year is, of course, the bicentenary of those two great giants of the opera, those mighty opposites Wagner and Verdi. And inevitably, there have been discussions of which of the two we prefer; or, even, who was the greater. I’ll politely pass on the latter question, but the former is an interesting one, as our personal preference between the two defines so much of our aesthetic values. Music journalist Jessica Duchen thinks it is no contest: for her, it’s Wagner. Peter Conrad, on the other hand, has written an entire book to demonstrate the superiority of Verdi. As for me, while I am looking forward, albeit apprehensively, to Parsifal, I can’t help wishing that our dear boy had sided with Verdi instead, and that, instead of Parsifal, we could go off together to see something like, say, Don Carlos. For there is to Verdi a generosity of spirit and a healthy, forthright humanism that, for me at least, leave the twilight murk of Wagner’s world far behind.