[O]n 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. Full of this sentiment, I suddenly remembered that the day was Good Friday, and I called to mind the significance this omen had already once assumed for me when I was reading Wolfram’s Parsifal. Since the sojourn in Marienbad, where I had conceived the Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had never occupied myself again with that poem; now its noble possibilities struck me with overwhelming force, and out of my thoughts about Good Friday I rapidly conceived a whole drama, of which I made a rough sketch with a few dashes of the pen, dividing the whole into three acts.Richard Wagner, My Life, Book 2
After his 1857 vision, it would take Richard Wagner 25 years to achieve his Grail quest. Wagner had already touched upon the Grail with his 1850 opera of the Grail Knight Lohengrin. 1865 saw the debut of Tristan und Iseult, a tragedy inspired by Gottfried von Strassburg’s 12th century romance Tristan. After attaining the patronage of his ardent fan King Ludwig II of Bavaria that same year, Wagner came back to his vision and wrote a first draft of Parsifal’s story with character notes. But for the next twelve years his attention was occupied with his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen and with setting up his new theater in Bayeruth.
Wagner was unable to attend Lohengrin’s Weimar premiere. His passionate support for the 1849 Dresden Uprising led to a decade of exile in Switzerland and France. Those years were dogged with continual financial troubles. Wagner repeatedly found himself leaving town one step ahead of his angry creditors. Tristan und Iseult’s debut came after six years of futile efforts to stage Tristan in Paris, Vienna, Strasbourg and Rio de Janiero. An 1861 Paris production of Tannhäuser closed after three performances marred by loud heckling. But amidst all that turmoil, Wagner found solace in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer. As he explained in a December 16, 1854 letter to Franz Liszt:
[Schopenhauer’s] principal idea, the final denial of the will to live, is of terrible seriousness, but it is uniquely redeeming. Of course it did not strike me as anything new, and nobody can think such a thought if he has not already lived it. But it was this philosopher who first awakened the idea in me with such clarity.
To the Christian and pre-Christian elements of the Grail Legend Wagner added a Schopenauer-inspired strain of Buddhism. Parsifal and the other characters are entangled in what Schopenhauer called “Mâyâ, the veil of deception, which blinds the eyes of mortals.” They can only be redeemed through compassion, “the direct participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, in the sufferings of another, leading to sympathetic assistance in the effort to prevent or remove them; whereon in the last resort all satisfaction and all well-being and happiness depend.”
Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, Parsifal is without the knowledge of good and evil. His first act upon wandering into Monsalvat’s grounds is to kill a swan with his bow. He knows not what to do nor even who he is. “I had many,” he replies when asked for his name, “but I know none of them anymore.” Parsifal is Will to action without any real sense of purpose. He leaves the isolated forest in which his mother raised him because he was seduced by the sight of knights in armor. He sees the Grail ceremony but is unable to understand it. But his foolishness is pure: in Christian parlance, he is like unto a little child. And as Mark 10:15 reminds us “whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall not enter into it.”
Parsifal experiences the world in all its beauty and terror. His enemy, the sorcerer Klingsor, has cut himself off from those feelings. Klingsor desired the Grail but knew only the chaste could attain it. He castrated himself to attain chastity, but in doing so made himself forever unworthy of the Grail. Klingsor has freed himself of the Will-to-Live (which is most strongly seen in our instinct for procreation) but instead of the Will-to-Redeem he has replaced it with the Will-to-Destroy. His life is now dedicated to corrupting Grail Knights with the aid of his seductive flower maidens.
Klingsor has possession of the Spear of Longinus which once belonged to Amfortas, the King of the Grail Castle. Amfortas was seduced for a moment, long enough for Klingsor to grab the lance and stab him in the side. Since that time Amfortas has suffered endless agony from his wound and crushing shame from his failure to guard the sacred relic. Each time he serves the Grail his strength is renewed and his suffering prolonged. But yet he continues to serve, kept up only by the hope of future redemption.
Both Klingsor and Parsifal are assisted by Kundry. Kundry is the Loathly Damsel who appears to the Grail Knights as an ugly wild woman. She is the beautiful and seductive leader of Klingsor’s Flower Maidens. She is Herodias who mocked Jesus on the Cross and is now condemned to wander the earth. Kundry’s effort to seduce Parsifal results in the Pure Fool’s enlightenment as he resists – but her failure results in Parsifal’s enlightenment and her ultimate salvation. By transmuting lust into compassion Parsifal regains the Spear which ultimately brings Amfortas relief from his suffering and Kundry release from her burdensome life.
Wagner called Parsifal “Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel,” a Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage. For Wagner Christ’s teaching “was the deed of free-willed suffering. To believe in him, meant to emulate him; to hope for redemption, to strive for union with him.” Wagner hoped that Parsifal’s audience might partake in the final lines, “Miracle of supreme salvation!/Our Redeemer redeemed!” Even today there is considerable disagreement as to whether or not Parsifal is a Christian work. Perhaps the best response to that question comes from Wagner scholar Ulrike Kienzle:
Is Parsifal a Christian music drama? We need to answer “no” to this question if we wish to regard Wagner’s last work as reinforcing the dogmas of the church, whether Protestant or Catholic. However, we can answer “yes” if we take the interwoven paths of medieval and modern mysticism seriously as components of the Christian tradition … In his last music drama, Wagner propounds an ethic of nonviolence and advocates a reconciliation between man and nature. His attempt at forming a synthesis of Indian and Christian beliefs participates in an interreligious dialogue that is still being carried out today.
Featured Image: Jean Delville, Parsifal, 1894