The works of Richard Wagner: Parsifal

In continuation of a series exploring the works of Richard Wagner, Lucas Dié next delves into the plot of the three-act opera ‘Parsifal’. Taking twenty-five years to write, this significant and surreal piece of work was to be the last opera Wagner completed before his death in 1883.

Richard Wagner first conceived the idea of an opera about Percival in 1845, upon encountering Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem Parzival. However, life got in the way and it was 1857 by the time he got around to jotting down the first bits and pieces while in exile in Zurich. He then eventually  got stuck into composing when asked to do so by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1865, but it took the constant nagging of his wife, Cosima, to get it finished. It was to be the last opera he wrote.

Richard Wagner intended the play to act as a sort of hallowing rite for the stage in the new Wagner temple of Bayreuth. He requested it should only be played there, with its particular acoustics in mind. As such, apart from Royal requests in Munich, the opera wasn’t played anywhere outside Bayreuth until the Metropolitan Opera broke Wagner’s ban on 24th December 1903 – after a court ruling declared that performances in the US could not be stopped. 

Angered, Wagner’s wife, Cosima, later prevented any of the cast of the 1903 New York production from singing in Bayreuth. However, the Wagner family eventually lifted the opera’s performance ban on New Year’s Day 1914 – some opera houses were so keen to stage the work that performances of Wagner’s work began at midnight of that very day.

And so, to the plot. Parsifal as the title hero is an innocent fool who knows nothing of the world. He has to learn human compassion to be able to fulfill his destiny, and this is his journey. The opera introduces him at his arrival at the Castle of the Grail. He is a woodsy boy, completely lacking in all knowledge of worldly matters. 

But then, he is pushed into the world. Klingsor educates him in vice and seduction, with a view to corrupting Parsifal and locking him away from the Grail and Castle. Parsifal eventually withstands temptation and returns to the Castle of the Grail to heal King Amfortas.

There is no history behind Parsifal. There are a few leads and ideas, but as to how valid they are must be left to the those interested. For starters, Richard Wagner started out with a fake etymology of the name Percival. He believed it came from the Persian parsi (fool) and fal (pure). A more valid but not proven provenience for the name can be found in French and has to do with riding and knights. 

The Holy Grail plays an important part in the opera, but again, there is no history of such a vessel. The word might come from Greek, Roman or Occitan dialects – though the latter use a similar word for any kind of pot.

Another important implement is the spear that pierced Christ’s side. That, at least, has some history – if a shaky one. Empress Helena was supposed to have found it. Then in the 8th century, it formed part of the regalia of the King of the Lombards. This was passed to the King of Burgundy, who in turn handed it to the Holy Roman Emperor. Today, it is on show in Vienna as part of the crown jewels of the Habsburg Emperors of Austria.

The complete story which inspired the opera is found in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem Parzival, which relates the adventures of Parzival and Gawan (Gawain). It loosely forms a part of the King Arthur cycle and both knights are named as part of the round table. The only other source is Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval Le Gaulois, which remained incomplete. Wolfram von Eschenbach pretends not to trust Chretien de Troyes, following his storyline slavishly over several chapters.

In the poem, the stories of the two knights are told in parallel; Gawain is perfect and always right, while Parzival is flawed and often in trouble. Gawain succeeds where Parzival struggles; Parzival makes wrong decisions and has to live with the consequences, while Gawain is always sure and always right.

In the end, it is Parzival who becomes the new king of the Castle of the Grail, because he understands human frailty. Despite all the things happening to him, Parzival remains a pure soul and an innocent. As the birth of a son is already implicit in the legend, we might conclude that there was another immaculate conception for Lohengrin.

The exceptional thing about Parsifal (the opera) is the fact that there is no real dilemma. However, the opposite poles of the spectrum of human endeavor are clearly marked out and explored. Richard Wagner doesn’t want the audience to ponder a dilemma. Instead, he is a man on a mission. The mission being to prove that art and music can be a religious experience outside of a church and outside of accepted doctrine.

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