Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner; drawing by David Levine

Si c’est l’amour divin, je le connais.”

Charles de Brosses, on Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy

The Metropolitan’s Parsifal (1974 season), the recent release of a superior recording of the opera, and the publication of a monumental critical edition of the score provoke re-examination of a masterpiece whose music is ever more highly regarded even as a wider audience is beginning to understand that the drama’s underlying philosophy is truly repugnant.1 In no sense is Parsifal a decline; on the contrary, Wagner’s musical powers are at their pinnacle. The importance of stage action is reduced, but the musical rendering of the drama is more self-sufficient than ever before—of necessity, given the large part played by transformations that are uniquely within the power of music to express.

Wagner’s musical language continued to evolve during the composition (1877-1882), and his affective and emotional range to expand. He was still discovering new, more liquescent chord sequences and intensifications of sound colors, fulfilling his promise that the instrumentation would be “like layers of clouds which part and then re-form.” The orchestral blends and separations are without precedent. But while the reputation and historical importance of Tristan have long been established, it is only recently, and to a large extent through Debussy and Schoenberg, that the profound influence of Parsifal on the beginnings of twentieth-century music has been recognized. Verklaerte Nacht and the final Adagio in Lulu are inconceivable without the Prelude to the third act of Parsifal, as are Pelléas and Erwartung without other parts of Wagner’s opera.

Concerning the performance, the recording, and the publication, the production at the Metropolitan warrants mention if only because it succeeds in imposing the Theater of the Absurd on opera’s ranking Solemnity. Thus the great bells knelling the death of the king and the hour of the Crucifixion have been replaced at the Met by a species of electric door-chimes in a different key from that of the orchestra, making Gurnemanz’s “Mittag” sound like first call for lunch on the S.S. Bremen. The chorus, too, within moments of most of its entrances, manages to drift into excruciating micro-tonal regions which it would never have been able to find if demanded by the score.

Yet the jarrings from this and other musical faux pas are minor compared to the visual discordances. Klingsor’s spear, looking about as lethal as a paper airplane and effortlessly plucked from the air by its intended target, raised titters that turned this dramatic and musical crisis into a farce. And Klingsor’s garden, an ithyphallic fantasy at the Met—pistils and stamens like necks and corks of giant champagne bottles—was in radical disagreement with the Pre-Raphaelite tableaux of the rest of the opera. The Flower Maidens’ falsies, moreover, worn outside and just above nature’s realities, suggested a Jean Genet drag scene with Klingsor as the transvestite madame. (Although Klingsor is self-castrated, his Er ist schön, der Knabe,” with the lip-smacking appoggiatura on the “K,” seems to invite a pederastic interpretation of him.) And finally, though the period of the opera is that of the Moorish conquest of Spain, the Met dressed the Grail Knights of the last scene like contemporaries of Velásquez, or so it seemed in the eerie glow of the blood-filled chalice.

The Solti recording far outclasses its precedessors both in the quality of its cast, chorus, orchestra, engineering, and in the performance. The most recent competitor, the DGG album conducted by Boulez, offers compensations in rhythmic precision, but distorts the music beyond justification, being shorter by an hour than Toscanini, and by a half-hour than Solti—who is never too slow. Boulez’s speed record is as pointless in relation to the character of the opera as is his staccato articulation. The woodwind chords in measures 17-19 of the Prelude, for example, are traditionally played with a minimum of separation—and rightly, according to the phrasing in Wagner’s manuscript. But Boulez cuts these notes to about half of their written lengths, thus producing a peculiarly asthmatic effect. No doubt this style was adopted in reaction to the usual turgid conducting of Wagner, but the antidote simply substitutes one kind of abuse for another.

The new edition of the score, having been sponsored by Volkswagen, may be a penitential offering in atonement for noise and air pollution. But whatever the reason, the publication’s technical attributes—print, paper, size, binding, readability—are as commendable as its scholarship. To illustrate the thoroughness of the latter, Wagner’s comments during rehearsals for the premiere (July, 1882), taken down by two assistants, are reproduced in parallel columns filling sixty-three pages. Some surprising discoveries in the new score await the musician, especially in the revelation of differences between the holograph and the first edition. The strings at the beginning of the Prelude, for example, were not muted in Wagner’s manuscript, while the all-important horn part in measures 60-64 was added at a later date. This may seem like pedantry, but it is mentioned because alterations of this size indicate the extent to which experience could induce the composer to revise his conception of color and balance.


One other recent publication should be noted, Professor Kratz’s monograph on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s “Parzival.”2 The book is long and Wagnerians can skip much of it (including such anachronisms of psychoanalysis as the classification of the twelfth as the most phallic century because of a prevalence of erect spears). Yet Kratz illuminates the dramatic structure of the opera. According to him the main subjects of Wolfram’s epic are the problems of dynastic succession, the transference of power, and the establishment of sovereignty through ownership of the Grail. Wagner read the sixteen books of Wolfram’s poem in 1845, and the composer’s prose and other writings in the years after that explore these same questions of property (in which Wagner was a disciple of Proudhon and perhaps of Marx3 ), and of leadership (Wagner’s Parsifal, though a man of destiny, becomes the head of the Grail community by common consent).

At the same time Wagner developed a new dramatic formula which required the spiritualization of history through legend. In Wagner’s Barbarossa, the Christian king’s power is sustained by a mysterious hoard identified with both the Nibelungen gold and the Holy Grail—which sounds like a subject for Max Weber. From the beginning, therefore, an essential connection exists in Wagner’s mind between Parsifal and the Ring, and the transpositions and parallelisms between the works are much stronger than is generally acknowledged. Whether or not Wotan is reborn in Titurel, Siegmund in Amfortas, Siegfried in Parsifal, Alberich in Klingsor, Brünnhilde in Kundry, the ideas of these protagonists—renunciation of love as a means to power, the redemption of the world by innocent heroes—are embodied in both works. Furthermore, both dramas end with expiations, that of Parsifal in hope, the wound of suffering humanity having been healed, that of the Ring in pessimism, except for the survival of “immutable justice.”

Nothing is new about all of this, but what is important to consider are the musical parallels. In fact, so freely does the composer of Parsifal seem to dip into the leitmotif index of the tetralogy that one sometimes wonders if he had forgotten that he was not composing a fifth Ring opera. Thus Kundry’s awakening in Act III, and especially the descending thirds in the clarinets at the change of key, could easily be mistaken for a passage from Das Rheingold; Amfortas’s “Der du jetzt in göttlichem Glanz” might have come from the third act of Die Walküre and Gurnemanz’s “Heil der, mein Gast” from the first act of the same opera; and the resemblance between the music of the Flower Maidens and that of their aquatic sisters in the Rhine, at the beginning of the last act of Götterdämmerung, is obvious. But this list could be continued ad nauseam, and if it were to include symbolisms, such as the one of the spear motive moving upward in the “Christian” drama and downward in the pagan, it would be endless.

With an unerring sense of the anthropological structure in Wolfram’s poem, Wagner took from it the concept of the two disabled monarchs, the “Fisher King” dying of old age, and his mortally wounded son.4 If the anthropological process were not of the utmost importance, the composer might conveniently have excluded the dying king, Titurel, and concentrated on Amfortas, his son. By retaining the father, Wagner builds the problem of dynastic succession into the structure of the drama and makes it the frame for the metaphysical subject of redemption through Divine Grace. And it is this structure, in which oratorio-like scenes of ritual and pageantry enclose the real opera in the second act, that gives the work its dramatic cohesiveness.

Wagner’s instincts for the drama were more reliable than those for its religious subject matter. The latter is vague in Parsifal, to be sure, though sufficiently clear to serve the composer’s needs in evoking the mystical atmosphere of a sacramental service. The theology of the knights is not Athanasian, no reference being made to a triune God, but it could be that of a sect which had degenerated into heresy as a result of isolation. On the other hand, the “pure innocence” of the future priest-king and rescuer of the Grail is, at least in Wagner’s context, only partly a Christian virtue. In short, his notion of purity of character seems to be limited to chastity—which by no means distinguishes the Christian from the faithful of other religions—and to a state “beyond good and evil,” which is definitely anti-Christian. “What is ‘good’?” Parsifal asks, after shooting the swan, and the answer is simply a reflection of Wagner’s anti-vivisectionism. So, too, Gurnemanz’s discourse before the Good Friday service might have been derived from Schelling’s belief that “Oneness with nature was the stage of man before the fall.” But of the actual tenets of Christian teaching, as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount, Parsifal, both the person and the opera, is oblivious.


Wagner’s knights are Christians by virtue of their belief in the mythology of the Crucifixion, their faith in divine redemption, and their participation in a primitive, nonclerical Mass. This last is “real” only in terms of Wagner’s drama, it should not be necessary to say, but after having chosen to depict the principal ceremony of a still active religion the composer might at least have prefaced his libretto with the statement that the resemblance was intentional but insignificant. Religious prejudice is one of the reasons that Parsifal has not attained the same eminence as Tristan—together with another prejudice, this one justified because of the insipid sanctimony that has surrounded the opera since it was first reserved for performance uniquely in the Master’s private temple. But “celebration” is a more fitting word than “performance,” since applause, considered profane, is still withheld after the first act. The result of this misguided piety is that the opera actually has been regarded as Christian, although the one faith practiced in Bayreuth was and is Wagnerism.

And Wagnerism is the true religion of Parsifal. Ironically, it is superior to the opera’s sham Christianity, at any rate for the composer’s musico-dramatic purposes. Thus, his personal Weltanschauung provided him with a scheme of opposites offering rich opportunities for contrasts. Where the difficulty begins is that the composer’s favorite doctrines are racial purity and male chauvinism, both scarcely more disguised here than in his most odious polemics of the time (cf. Art and Religion, 1880). In fact no other work by the musical genius so blatantly trumpets his crank philosophy. And even so, the artist triumphs over the bigot. If Parsifal is dramatically weaker than Tristan, this is partly because redemption is a state of being rather than an action, partly because the third act “conversion” of the lover is more convincing than the formal conversion of love’s renouncer.

The Knights of the Grail are pure, noble, and Aryan, of course, whereas the opera’s female population is corrupt, non-Aryan, and belongs to a menial class. Klingsor, the archvillain of the piece, is a Jew (so Wagner told Cosima), and so, apparently, is Kundry, his accomplice.5 These two demonic and supernatural beings also happen to be the opera’s most human characters—though the competition is admittedly slight, Parsifal himself having one of the lowest profiles possible to attain and still remain upright.

Kundry, the freak, is one of Wagner’s greatest creations, and as she herself is timeless so he almost succeeds in suspending time while she sings. Wagner had already made goddesses, Amazons, and even brides out of women, but none of the others, including Isolde, has Kundry’s charm. In relation to Parsifal she is both seductress and protectress, the latter with a suggestion of Mary Magdalene, for the washing of the feet can only have been intended to evoke the Biblical scene, as the zart music, its beauty bordering on the lachrymose, surely indicates. But there are two Kundrys, the bewitching singer who is Klingsor’s slave, and the messenger of the Grail, who is virtually dumb—except for fits of hysterical laughter, a curse for having laughed during the Crucifixion—though her silences and trances increase rather than diminish her mystery.

Klingsor, in comparison, is a bit part; he is on stage for less than a quarter of an hour (depending on the conductor), but his music precedes him with such force in the first act, and is so vivid in the second, that he remains indelible. As for the kings, Titurel is too feeble to be very engaging, while the ailing Amfortas poses technical problems, being obliged to simulate constant agony while singing. Vis-à-vis the Grail community his relationship resembles that of Oedipus to Thebes: both kings are themselves the source of the plagues from which their people suffer. But Sophocles is more practical than Wagner. Not Oedipus but the Theban people are sick, whereas Amfortas is borne on a litter, or staggers about stanching his wound, while the knights appear to be in good health. This accounts for the brevity of Amfortas’s part, at least compared to that of Gurnemanz, who is not really a participant at all but a narrator in disguise, and who is not bleeding but only boring.

This leaves Parsifal (literally, “poor fool”), whose progress from simpleton to thaumaturge poses the opera’s most difficult musical characterization. Wagner casts him in the heroic mold, equipping him with a fanfare motive that is suitably dignifying in slow tempo but when tooted at high speed tends to recall “The Lone Ranger.” Boulez’s album notes remark favorably on the way in which this motive is “distended” (bloated?) as well as worked into a variety of tempi and meters. But the similar augmentation of Siegfried’s horn call in the “Rhine Journey” is a more successful example, and in fast triple-time Parsifal’s motive sounds awkward indeed. Wagner over-works this tune. The identity of the hero, decked out like an armadillo at the beginning of Act III, is supposed to be unknown, but Wagner, who could never keep a secret, announces him at least a dozen times with the motive.

“Too much blood,” Nietzsche remarked, and Parsifal does seem to be morbidly preoccupied with it, what with a bloodied swan, a bloodstained spear, the incarnadine aura of the Grail, and the bleeding of Amfortas before the audience’s eyes. His wound, it should be said, is sexual, punishment for disobedience of the rule of chastity. When Parsifal kisses Kundry at the opera’s climax, the implication is that the poison which he tastes, and somehow recognizes as the same one from which Amfortas sickens, is oestrual blood. Thus does Wagner signify the uncleanness of Woman. (All except mother, that is, for the Grail is a mother symbol, or perhaps it would be better to say, in this fraternity of knights, a house-mother one.) The Met was once picketed because a monk was shown assassinating Verdi’s Don Carlo. By this precedent, Ms. Friedan and associates would be justified in staging a march against any opera house with Parsifal in its repertory. It is one of the most rabidly misogynist of all great works of art.

At the same time, any company capable of performing Parsifal that does not do so should have its subsidies withdrawn. The music is miraculous, more perfectly sustained than any other by Wagner. The contemptible philosophy of the piece offers exactly the dramatic situations that most perfectly match his musical language at this summit of his development. Those aforementioned opposites are characterized, among other devices, by an extension and deepening of conventional associations of diatonic and chromatic harmony, except that by the time of Parsifal Wagner’s language is chromatic, the diatonic music in the opera being rarer than one’s impression of it, for which reason, no doubt, it stands out in such striking relief.

The other devices are mainly stylistic. Thus the Flower Maidens’ scene is a catalogue raisonné of the traditional means by which femininity is represented in music, including the valse meter, the embellishments (trills, tremolos, curving figurations), the coloration (harp, muted strings, solo violin), and the articulation (staccato and pizzicato), this last to suggest dainty laughter and coquettishness.

Parsifal makes entirely new uses of orchestral color. Debussy wrote to the young Stravinsky, “You have an orchestral infallibility that I have found only in Parsifal,” and surely the Russian musician remembered the compliment when he later heard the opera in Bayreuth, and then again in Monte Carlo, after which he told reporters that “since Parsifal there have been only two operas, Elektra and Pelléas.” The instrumentation fascinated him, and even in the 1920s when he had completely rejected. Wagner—“There is no musical form; [Wagner] simply submits the form to the text, and it should be the other way around”6—Stravinsky praised the instrumentation.

Without seeing the score even a listener with a very sensitive ear cannot distinguish the instruments playing the unison beginning the Prelude. The violins are halved, and doubled by cellos, a clarinet, a bassoon, as well as, for the peak of the phrase, an alto oboe. The full novelty of this both as intensity and as timbre—the color change with the oboe—can be appreciated only after the theme is repeated in harmony and in one of the most gorgeous orchestrations even of Wagner’s technicolor imagination. Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra exploit the idea of varying the sonorities in a unison line, and a whole musical era, beginning with Webern, annexed this Wagnerian principle.

The heroine of Schoenberg’s Erwartung owes almost everything to Kundry, and dramatically as well as musically, for both women have mysterious pasts, both are on quests, and both seek exorcism. Their vocal ranges are the same, and their laughter, moaning, whispering, and screaming—this last even on the same notes (a high B to a low C-sharp)—are similar. But Parsifal’s influence on Debussy was no less fruitful. Thus the theme of the first orchestral interlude in Pelléas is practically a Xerox of the march theme at the end of Wagner’s first act. More surprising than harmonic and orchestral influences, however, is that of vocal style. The seraphic music of Wagner’s hero at “Werd heut zu Amfortas ich noch geleitet?” and “Ich sah sie welken” may well have inspired the faux moyen-âge chanting in Pelléas.

Wagner wrote: “The world is taught how to behave itself properly towards all others [sic]. But how to behave towards a man of my sort it can never be taught because such a case occurs too rarely.” Apart from the question of whether the planet could accommodate more than one Richard Wagner, even this colossal egotism can be forgiven in one who endows the world with the music of Parsifal.

(This is the second of two articles on Wagner.)

This Issue

October 31, 1974