|© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013|
Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but it was not finished until twenty-five years later.
It was to be Wagner’s last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular acoustics of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
|Metropolitan Opera House – New York|
Wagner preferred to describe Parsifal not as an opera, but as “ein Bühnenweihfestspiel” – “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”.
|Wolfram von Eschenbach|
Wagner’s spelling of Parsifal instead of the Parzival he had used up to 1877 is informed by the etymology of the name Percival, deriving it from an Arabic origin, ‘Fal Parsi‘ meaning “pure fool”.
After encountering Arthur Schopenhauer’s work in 1854, Wagner became interested in oriental philosophies, especially Buddhism.
According to his own account, recorded in his autobiography ‘Mein Leben’, Wagner conceived Parsifal on Good Friday morning, April 1857, in the ‘Asyl‘ (German: “Asylum”), the small cottage on Otto von Wesendonck’s estate in the Zürich suburb of Enge, which Wesendonck – a wealthy silk merchant and generous patron of the arts – had placed at Wagner’s disposal.
“… on Good Friday I awoke to find the sun shining brightly for the first time in this house: the little garden was radiant with green, the birds sang, and at last I could sit on the roof and enjoy the long-yearned-for peace with its message of promise.
In September 1877 he began the music by making two complete drafts of the score from beginning to end.
The first of these (known in German as the ‘Gesamtentwurf‘ and in English as either the ‘Preliminary Draft’ or the ‘First Complete Draft’) was made in pencil on three staves, one for the voices and two for the instruments.
The second complete draft (‘Orchesterskizze‘, ‘Orchestral Draft’, ‘Short Score’) was made in ink and on at least three, but sometimes as many as five, staves.
This draft was much more detailed than the first and contained a considerable degree of instrumental elaboration.
The second draft was begun on 25 September 1877, just a few days after the first: at this point in his career Wagner liked to work on both drafts simultaneously, switching back and forth between the two so as not to allow too much time to elapse between his initial setting of the text and the final elaboration of the music.
The ‘Gesamtentwurf‘ of Act III was completed on 16 April 1879 and the ‘Orchesterskizze’ on the 26th of the same month.
The full score (‘Partiturerstschrift‘) was the final stage in the compositional process.
It was made in ink and consisted of a fair copy of the entire opera, with all the voices and instruments properly notated according to standard practice.
Wagner composed ‘Parsifal’ one act at a time, completing the ‘Gesamtentwur‘ and ‘Orchesterskizze‘ of each act before beginning the ‘Gesamtentwurf‘ of the next act; but because the ‘Orchesterskizze‘ already embodied all the compositional details of the full score, the actual drafting of the ‘Partiturerstschrift‘ was regarded by Wagner as little more than a routine task which could be done whenever he found the time.
The ‘Vorspiel of Act I’ was scored in August 1878.
The rest of the opera was scored between August 1879 and 13 January 1882.
|Paul von Joukowsky|
On 12 November 1880 Wagner conducted a private performance of the ‘Parsifal Vorspiel’ for his patron Ludwig II of Bavaria at the Court Theatre in Munich (see left).
The premiere of the entire work was given in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth on 26 July 1882 under the baton of the conductor Hermann Levi.
Stage designs were by Max Brückner and Paul von Joukowsky who took their lead from Wagner himself.
The Grail hall was based on the interior of Siena Cathedral (see left) which Wagner had visited in 1880, while Klingsor’s magic garden was modelled on those at the Palazzo Rufolo in Ravello (see right).
In July and August 1882 sixteen performances of the work were given in Bayreuth conducted by Levi and Franz Fischer.
The production boasted an orchestra of 107, a chorus of 135 and 23 soloists (with the main parts being double cast).
At the last of these performances, Wagner took the baton from Levi (see right) and conducted the final scene of Act 3 from the orchestral interlude to the end.
At the first performances of ‘Parsifal’ problems with the moving scenery during the transition from Scene one to Scene two in Act 1 meant that Wagner’s existing orchestral interlude finished before Parsifal and Gurnemanz arrived at the Hall of the Grail.
Engelbert Humperdinck (see left), who was assisting the production, provided a few extra bars of music to cover this gap.
In subsequent years this problem was solved and Humperdinck’s additions were not used.
Thirty-seven years had gone by between the first idea for the work and its completion.
The Upanishads are a collection of Sanskrit philosophical texts which form the theoretical basis for the Hindu religion.
They are also known as Vedanta, (the end of the veda).
The Upanishads are considered by orthodox Hindus to contain revealed truths (Sruti) concerning the nature of ultimate reality (brahman), and describing the character and form of human salvation (moksha).
More than 200 Upanishads are known, of which the first dozen or so are the oldest and most important and are referred to as the principal or main (mukhya) Upanishads.
Historians believe the chief Upanishads were composed over a wide period ranging from the Pre-Buddhist period to the early centuries BCE, however, there has been considerable debate among authorities about the exact dating of individual Upanishads.
|Chariot of Krishna and Arjuna
Their significance has been recognized by writers and scholars such as Schopenhauer, Emerson and Thoreau, and of course Wagner, among others. Scholars also note similarity between the doctrine of Upanishads and those of Plato and Kant.
The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana.
Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandava princes, the Mahabharata contains much philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or purusharthas (12.161). Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata is the superlative ‘Bhagavad Gita’ – ‘The Song of the Lord’, often considered as work in its own right.
Richard Wagner undoubtedly had exceptional intuitive abilities, and could see many extremely subtle realms and interrelations directly; also that he suffered deeply because all too often he simply could not find the words to express what took place so clearly before his spiritual eye.
It is therefore understandable that he identified with the figure of Amfortas – (see right): Wagner believed in living life to the full; he also saw things but could not grasp them.
The basic spiritual tendency running through the opera is compassion.
Reincarnation and karma are clearly described in several places – without them the whole drama would be inexplicable.
A number of symbols and mythical elements are important for a general understanding of the work.
First, the symbol of the Grail combines elements of legends from Persia and Asia Minor with those from Celtic mythology.
It is closely related to the musical concepts of idée fixe or ‘motto-theme’.
The term itself is an anglicization of the German ‘Leitmotiv’, literally meaning “leading motif”, or perhaps more accurately, “guiding motif.”
A musical motif has been defined as a ‘short musical idea…melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three’, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: “the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity.”
In particular such a motif should be ‘clearly identified so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances’ whether such modification be in terms of rhythm, harmony, orchestration or accompaniment. It may also be ‘combined with other leitmotifs to suggest a new dramatic condition’ or development.
The technique is notably associated with the ‘music dramas’ of Richard Wagner.
The Vorspiel to “Parsifal” is based on three of the most profound leitmotifs in the entire work.
The Grail Legend
|Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival|
Every German schoolboy knew the great folk tale of the Grail by heart.
|Lucifer – Prince of Heaven|
Lucifer was a Prince of Heaven before his sin prompted God to cast him to Hell.
The Grail, the cup which Jesus used at the Last Supper, was made from the stone which fell from Lucifer’s crown as he plunged to earth (see left).
Lucifer (the Light-bringer) brought the mental principle to evolving humanity.
The stone from Lucifer’s crown can therefore be regarded as ego-consciousness or “I am I”: without the awakening mind principle humanity would not be able to acquire knowledge, and the first step along this path is “I am I.”
That this stone was fashioned into a cup or bowl which was used to catch the blood of Christ elevates its meaning because it then stands for the divine self.
As Wagner remarked, it becomes “Grail consciousness” — purified, redeemed “I am.”
The Grail is entrusted to Titurel.
He gathers a brotherhood of knights around him, called the knights of the Grail, who devote themselves to the service of this Grail consciousness through noble deeds.
A second important symbol is the spear, derived from the spear of Longinus (see left) who, it is said, thrust it into Christ’s side during the crucifixion, shedding the Savior’s blood.
It stands for higher mind, that part of us which must decide whether the mind will aspire to spirit or succumb to material desire.
A third central symbol is the swan (see right), denoting the north.
Wagner uses the swan as a symbol of those beings who, though still devoid of individual consciousness, are located in the divine realms, but have their whole development before them; this symbol is identical with that of the angel.
In the last scene a dove appears, symbol according to Wagner of “divine spirit, which floats down idealistically onto the human soul.” It is the Holy Ghost or Spirit.
That the reveille sounds from the realm of the Grail indicates that it is a spiritual call.
Wrapped in thought, he sings: “There is but one thing can help him, only one man.”
When a knight asks the man’s name, he avoids answering.
This announcement of the foolish innocent (“Fal parsi,” hence Parsifal) refers to the reincarnating ego, which hastens from life to life.
It has to leave this state, descend to the physical realm, and experience all the conflicts that evolution entails.
|Parsifal und der Schwan|
|Parsifal und der Schwan|
This “descent” or gaining of independence is represented by Wagner in the slaying of the swan by Parsifal.
Gurnemanz, the wise initiate, restrains him.
He says, “Amfortas, my son, are you in your place? Shall I again today look on the Grail and live ?“
If, however, the innovators fail, the effort comes to a standstill; the teachings ossify, and what used to be the content becomes a veil, until nothing is left of the original impulse.
Titurel must therefore die.
But the Chorus sings again: “Enlightened through knowledge, the innocent fool: – wait for him, the appointed one.“
But Parsifal cannot answer, as he is overcome by the suffering he has seen.
He must first acquire occult knowledge on the physical plane.
This alone will enable him to internalize what he has seen and make it part of his consciousness.
Thus tragedy is preordained.
|Parsifal und die Blumenmädchen|
When Parsifal enters the magic castle, Klingsor conceals himself and turns the area into a beautiful tropical garden where young maidens clad in soft-colored veils dance.
In the world of appearances it is impossible to understand such decisions.
|Parsifal and his Mother
When Kundry tells of his mother’s grief when he ran away to seek higher things, she awakens the pity of the higher self with regard to the personal self.
Parsifal sinks down at Kundry’s feet and torments himself with severe self-reproaches.
Parsifal experiences here the possibly strongest temptation the aspiring human being can encounter.
Overpowering pity in the face of suffering has proved the undoing of many who betrayed their divine ideals for the sake of alleviating suffering.
In his state of weakness, Kundry tells Parsifal of the great love between his parents; nevertheless, he does not give in to Kundry’s fantasies, but instead sees a vision of Amfortas before him.
|The Temptation of Parsifal -1894
This time he does not merely see the sorrow in the realm of the Grail, as in the first act, but suffers it directly.
Parsifal suddenly starts up with a gesture of the utmost terror, his demeanor expresses some fearful change; he presses his hands hard against his heart as if to master an agonizing pain.
He cries: “Amfortas ! The wound! The wound! It burns within my heart !“
Parsifal remembers what he saw in the temple of the Grail and “falls into a complete trance.“
The vision of his link with divinity awakens once again within him.
He is filled with deep understanding, which no longer relates to the personal self, nor to the suffering of the spiritual self (Amfortas), but to the innermost heart of creation, calling us to the ultimate vision of the cosmos.
It is compassion for his own essential being – his ‘true will’ which is enchained by the fetters of desire.
This understanding activates the ‘true will’ and sets in motion the will to complete the process of attaining the divine vision.
Kundry tries to hinder Parsifal’s understanding, but he recognizes the demonic nature of her attempt.
Kundry tries to kiss Parsifal, but he forcefully repulses her.
This is the turning point of the whole drama.
The deceptive maneuver of the black magician which brought about the downfall of Amfortas and the knights of the Grail, is penetrated by Parsifal, enabling him to achieve clearness of vision.
He sees through the bewildering attacks of his adversary and hears the call of the divine will to redemption “in proving himself through the understanding he feels for the sorrow of humanity” (quotation from Wieland Wagner).
Only now does Klingsor begin his most powerful attack on the initiant.
Through Kundry he attempts to conjoin universal love with the personal.
Kundry reveals to Parsifal the tragedy of her existence and her own suffering, saying:
‘One for whom I yearned in deathly longing, whom I recognized though despised and rejected, let me weep upon his breast, for one hour only be united to you and, though God and the world disown me, in you be cleansed of sin and redeemed !’
Parsifal here recognizes Klingsor’s seductive attack on his will to Truth.
He discerns the way in which the human desire nature repeatedly feigns reformation, and binds us to the material world.
He again repulses Kundry, saying: “For evermore would you be damned with me if for one hour, unmindful of my mission, I yielded to your embrace.”
The seducing skills become increasingly spiritual (geistig).
Kundry begs for pity and promises Parsifal the attainment of divinity.
But the initiant understands that in no event must he allow himself to be ruled by the desire nature; only if desire is used to liberate the aspiring human ego will it be redeemed.
He says to Kundry: “Love and redemption shall be yours if you will show me the way to Amfortas.”
Kundry tries once again to win Parsifal’s act of redemption for herself: she tries to embrace him and implores him to take pity, but it is too late: Parsifal is already in a higher state of consciousness.
He vigorously pushes her aside.
The initiant has withstood the test.
Kundry flies into a fury and curses “the fool” in her selfish longing for redemption.
She tries to prevent him from reaching the Grail.
|Parsifal – Klingsor|
The third act, concerning redemption, takes place in the realm of the Grail on the morning of Good Friday: flowers are in bloom all around and desire moves through the whole of nature, awakening it to new life.
Gurnemanz enters from a humble hermit’s hut, when he hears Kundry moaning.
He notices a change in her: the wildness has vanished.
She allows Gurnemanz to reawaken her from her paralysis.
Her only concern seems to be to serve the knights of the Grail, but Gurnemanz informs her of a change in the knightly order: the spring of divine wisdom has failed.
Everyone now looks after himself.
Meanwhile Parsifal enters clad in black armor, which Wagner regarded as a symbol of the True Will, – the fighting strength of the personal self.
He saw the conquest of the powers of illusion as an act requiring personal effort and struggle – the assertion of the higher will in the midst of personal, earthly life: a strong awareness of suffering can raise the intellect of the higher nature to knowledge of the meaning of the world.
Those in whom this sublime process takes place, it being announced to us by a suitable deed, are called heroes. – (Collected Writings of R. Wagner, vol. 10)
Gurnemanz calls upon the “stranger” to lay down his weapons at this holy spot.
Parsifal then “thrusts the spear into the ground before him, lays shield and sword beneath it, opens his helmet, takes it from his head and lays it with the other arms, then kneels before the spear in silent prayer. . . . Parsifal raises his eyes devoutly to the spearhead.”
In the realm of the Grail the weapons of the personal consciousness are sacrificed to the power of intuition: the helmet of intelligence, the shield of courage, and the sword of the active will, while the point of the spear represents the moment of maximum concentration which leads the ultimate creativity.
Gurnemanz now recognizes the spear, and also the man who had once slain the swan.
The spear is back in the realm of the Grail: the power of intuition shines again.
When asked where he comes from, Parsifal answers: “Through error and the path of suffering I came; . . . An evil curse drove me about in trackless wandering, never to find the way to healing; numberless dangers, battles, and conflicts forced me from my path even when I thought I knew it.“
Gurnemanz reports that since Titurel’s death the state of the Order has worsened: intuition has been completely lost, and the Grail itself remains enclosed within the shrine.
The knights now feed only on dogmas.
Parsifal springs up in intense grief – he feels responsible for the knights’ suffering since he, the chosen “Redeemer,” had succumbed to illusion.
Amfortas is due to open the shrine in which the Grail is concealed on that very day, when his father is carried to his grave.
Gurnemanz wants to take Parsifal to him, but first, one of the most significant scenes of the opera takes place: as Kundry bathes Parsifal’s feet, the full consciousness of his task awakens in him.
Once the purification and cleansing of the personal self have been carried out, Gurnemanz proceeds to anoint his head – his spiritual judgment must likewise light up pure and spotless within the personal self – enabling the personal self to be united with the divine self of its own free will.
Parsifal is thereby made King of the Grail.
His first office is to baptize Kundry: the desire nature is incorporated into the community as an element necessary to progress, and becomes the driving force of pure divine love.
That desire no longer serves the lower, but the higher self, brings about a transformation in the whole of nature.
In Gurnemanz’s words: “Thus all creation gives thanks, all that here blooms and soon fades, now the nature, absolved from sin, today gains its day of innocence.”
Parsifal then kisses Kundry gently on the forehead.
In the distance the sound of bells is heard.
As they approach the temple of the Grail, time once more becomes space and the interior of the temple becomes visible.
It is the same scene as at the end of the first act, but more gloomy.
Two processions of knights enter the stage, one carrying Titurel’s coffin, the other with Amfortas on his deathbed.
The knights are aware that without the creative power of intuition of the Grail, they are doomed to die.
They are not strong enough to open the shrine themselves and therefore insistently press Amfortas to do so, but in his immeasurable pain he is no longer able to open the shrine.
He calls upon the knights to kill him, since no one is able to close the wound.
At this moment the higher self breaks through: Parsifal enters the hall, accompanied by Gurnemanz and Kundry and, touching the wound with the end of the spear, says: “But one weapon serves: only the spear that smote you can heal your wound.“
The personal mind, gravitating to things of earth, opened up the gulf in human nature; the intuitive mind closes the fissure between the spiritual and earth-bound poles.
Parsifal continues: “Be whole, absolved and atoned! For I now will perform your task. O blessed be your suffering, that gave pity’s mighty power and purest wisdom’s might to the timorous fool !“
Parsifal steps towards center stage, holding the spear aloft before him, saying: “I bring back to you the holy spear !“
All gaze in reverence at the uplifted spear, to whose point Parsifal raises his eyes and intones:
‘O highest wonder ! This that could heal your wound I see pouring with holy blood yearning for that kindred fount which flows and wells within the Grail.
No more shall it be hidden: uncover the Grail, open the shrine!‘
Parsifal then mounts the altar steps, takes the Grail from the shrine now opened by the squires, and kneels before it in silent prayer and contemplation.
|The Holy Grail|
|Der Speer des Schicksals|
The Grail begins to glow with a soft light, increasing darkness below and growing illumination far above.
A beam of light: the Grail glows at its brightest.
From the dome a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal’s head.
Kundry slowly sinks lifeless to the ground in front of Parsifal, her eyes uplifted to him.
Amfortas and Gurnemanz kneel in homage to Parsifal, who waves the Grail in blessing over the worshipping brotherhood of knights.
Wagner by these stage directions for the final scene epitomizes the ultimate triumph of the heroic soul.
The divine spirit, symbolized by the dove, hovers over Parsifal’s head, – the consciousness of the ‘True Will’ experiences its innate divinity.
|Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche|
Friedrich Nietzsche heard the ‘Parsifal Vorspiel’ (Prelude) for the first time in Monte-Carlo in January 1887 :
‘Putting aside all irrelevant questions (to what end such music can or should serve?), and speaking from a purely aesthetic point of view, has Wagner ever written anything better?
The supreme psychological perception and precision as regards what can be said, expressed, communicated here, the extreme of concision and directness of form, every nuance of feeling conveyed epigrammatically; a clarity of musical description that reminds us of a shield of consummate workmanship; and finally an extraordinary sublimity of feeling, something experienced in the very depths of music, that does Wagner the highest honour; a synthesis of conditions which to many people – even “higher minds” – will seem incompatible, of strict coherence, of “loftiness” in the most startling sense of the word, of a cognisance and a penetration of vision that cuts through the soul as with a knife, of sympathy with what is seen and shown forth. Has anyone ever depicted so sorrowful a look of love as Wagner does in the final accents of his Prelude ?’
‘I cannot think of it without feeling violently shaken, so elevated was I by it, so deeply moved.
It was as if someone were speaking to me again, after many years, about the problems that disturb me.
When listening to this music one lays Protestantism aside as a misunderstanding – and also, I will not deny it, other really good music, which I have at other times heard and loved, seems, as against this, a misunderstanding !’
While popular mythology presents the Grail as the cup Jesus Christ used at his last supper, occult groups dismiss this materialistic interpretation as a “blind” to preserve for initiates the Grail’s true meaning: the quest for racial purity defined in gnostic symbolic style as the “philosopher’s stone” (see right), the “third eye” or the spiritual “crown” of Lucifer (see left) which fell from his forehead when he lost his place in heaven.
Heinrich Himmler (see left) believed that if conception took place in an Aryan cemetery, the resulting child would receive the spirit of “all the dead heroes” buried there; accordingly, lists of Nordic cemeteries were published in the SS periodical ‘Das Schwarze Korps’.
The Jewish God of the Old Testament
The “spiritual wretchedness” is the Jewish “Old Testament”, rejected by Gnostics as evil, which teaches that the Creator of heaven and earth is the ‘Most High God’.
|Führer und Reichskanzler
Adolf Hitler – Speaking
from the film by
For Hitler (see right) the Gnostic themes of the Grail quest and the cosmic struggle between Light and Darkness were perfectly portrayed in Richard Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’.
Then the unknowing but pure human being (Parsifal) is led into temptation, either to submit to the frenzy and to the delights of a corrupt civilisation in Klingsor’s magic garden, or to join the select band of knights who guard the secret of life, which is pure blood itself.
|Der Speer des Schicksals
© Peter Crawford 2012
‘All of us suffer the sickness of miscegenated, corrupted blood.
He who desires the dependent joys of peace and order will sink back down to the unhistorical mass, no matter what his provenance.