Parsifal is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the medieval (13th century) epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail. Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but it was not completed until twenty-five years later. The first production was in Bayreuth in 1882.
After first encountering his work in 1854, Wagner followed Schopenhauer's lead and became interested in oriental philosophies, particularly Buddhism. "Die Sieger" ("The Victors", 1856) was a sketch Wagner wrote for an opera based on a story from the life of Buddha. The themes which were later explored in Parsifal of self-renouncing, reincarnation, compassion and even exclusive social groups (castes in Die Sieger, the Knights of the Grail in Parsifal) were first introduced in "Die Sieger".
According to his own account, recorded in his autobiography Mein Leben, Wagner conceived Parsifal on Good Friday morning, April 1857, in the Asyl, or “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. The composer and his wife Minna moved into the Asyl on 28 April:
... 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. 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 Parzival. Since the sojourn in Marienbad [in the summer of 1845], where I had conceived Die 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. (Mein Leben, Vol II)
In fact, as he later admitted to his second wife Cosima Wagner, this account had been coloured by a certain amount of poetic licence:
22 April 1879: R[ichard] today recalled the impression which inspired his “Good Friday Music”; he laughs, saying he had thought to himself, “In fact it is all as far-fetched as my love affairs, for it was not a Good Friday at all - just a pleasant mood in Nature which made me think, ‘This is how a Good Friday ought to be’”. (Cosima Wagner, Die Tagebücher)
The work may indeed have been conceived in the Asyl in the last week of April 1857, but Good Friday that year fell on 10 April, when the Wagners were still living at Zeltweg 13 in Zürich. If the prose sketch which Wagner mentions in Mein Leben was accurately dated (and most of Wagner’s surviving papers are dated), it could settle the issue once and for all, but unfortunately it has not survived.
Wagner did not resume work on Parsifal for eight years, during which time he completed Tristan und Isolde and began Die Meistersinger. Then, between the 27th and30 August 1865, he took up Parsifal again and made a prose draft of the work; this contains a fairly brief outline of the plot and a considerable amount of detailed commentary on the characters and themes of the drama. But once again the work was dropped and set aside for another eleven and a half years. During this time most of Wagner’s creative energy was devoted to the Ring cycle, which was finally completed in 1874 and given its first full performance at Bayreuth in August 1876. Only when this gargantuan task had been accomplished did Wagner find the time to concentrate on Parsifal. By 23 February 1877 he had completed a second and more extensive prose draft of the work, and by 19 April of the same year he had transformed this into a verse libretto - or “poem”, as Wagner liked to call his libretti).
In September 1877 he began the composition of 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 or Particell) 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 Gesamtentwurf 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 Prelude of Act I was scored in August 1878. The rest of the opera was scored between August 1879 and 13 January 1882.
Early performances of Parsifal
On 12 November 1880 Wagner conducted a private performance of the Prelude for his patron Ludwig II of Bavaria at the Court Theatre in Munich. The premiere of the entire work was given in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth on 26 July 1882 under the baton of the German-born Jewish conductor Hermann Levi. In July and August of this year sixteen performances of the work were given in Bayreuth under Levi and Franz Fischer. At the last of these, Wagner took the baton from Levi and conducted the closing bars.
For the first twenty years of its existence, the only staged performances of Parsifal (apart from eight private performances for Ludwig II at Munich in 1884 and 1885) took place in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the venue for which Wagner conceived the work. The Bayreuth authorities allowed concert performances to take place in various countries during this time (e.g. London in 1884, New York in 1886, and Amsterdam in 1894) but they maintained an embargo on stage performances outside Bayreuth. On 24 December 1903, after receiving a court ruling that performances in the USA could not be prevented by Bayreuth, the New York Metropolitan Opera staged the complete opera, much to the chagrin of Wagner's family. Unauthorized stage performances were also undertaken in Amsterdam in 1905, 1906 and 1908. In 1913, Wagner's centenary year, Bayreuth's monopoly on the work was finally broken and since then the work has been freely staged throughout the world.
- Parsifal (tenor)
- Kundry (soprano or mezzo-soprano)
- Gurnemanz (bass)
- Klingsor (bass)
- Amfortas (baritone)
- Titurel (bass)
- First and Second Knights of the Grail (tenor and bass chorus)
- Four Esquires (soprano, alto, tenor)
- A celestial voice (alto)
- Flowermaidens (six soprano soloists and two semi-choruses chorus for soprano and alto)
- Brotherhood of Knights of the Grail (tenor and bass chorus)
- Youths and Boys (tenor, alto and soprano chorus)
- 3 Flutes
- 3 Oboes
- Alto Oboe (a cor anglais is usually used today in place of Wagner's now obsolete alto oboe)
- 3 Clarinets
- Bass clarinet
- 3 Bassoons
- Double bassoon
- 4 Horns
- 3 Trumpets
- 3 Trombones
- Contrabass tuba
- 2 Harps
On- or Off-stage instruments
Place: country and castle of Montsalvat and Klingsor's magic palace.
In a wood near the castle of Monsalvat, home to the Knights of the Grail, Gurnemanz, one of the Knights of the Grail, wakes his young squires and leads them in prayer. He notices the retinue of Amfortas approach, and asks the leading Knight for news of the King’s health. The knight tells him that the King has suffered during the night and is going early for his bath. The squires ask Gurnemanz to explain how the King’s injuries can be healed, but before he can do so a wild woman – Kundry - bursts in. She offers a balsam for the King’s pain which she claims is from Arabia and then collapses, exhausted.
Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, arrives, carried on a stretcher. He asks for Gawain, only to be told that this Knight has left without his permission. Angrily, Amfortas says that this sort of impetuousity was what led him to Klingsor’s realm and to his downfall. He receives Kundry’s potion and tries to thank her, but she answers, incoherently, that thanks will not help and urges him to his bath.
The King leaves, and the squires question Kundry mistrustfully. Gurnemanz tells them that Kundry has often helped the Grail Knights but that she appears and disappears at her whim. When he asks her why she does not stay to help, she replies that she never helps. The squires think she is a witch and sneer that if she is so helpful, why does she not find the Holy Spear for them? Gurnemanz says that this is destined to be the job of another. He tells them that Amfortas had been the guardian of the Spear, but lost it when seduced by a fearsomely attractive woman in Klingsor’s domain. Klingsor had stabbed Amfortas with the Spear: this is the wound which causes Amfortas’ suffering and it will never heal.
Two squires, returning from the King’s bath, tell Gurnemanz that Kundry’s balsam has eased the King’s sufferings for the moment. His squires ask Gurnemanz whether he knew Klingsor. He tells them of how the Holy Spear, which was used to wound the Redeemer on the Cross, and the Grail which caught His blood, had come to Monsalvat to be guarded by the Knights of the Grail under the rule of Titurel – Amfortas’ father. Klingsor had yearned to join the Knights, but had been unable to drive impure thoughts from his mind and resorted to self-castration which led to his expulsion. Klingsor then bitterly set himself up in opposition to the Kingdom of the Grail, learning dark arts and establishing a domain full of beautiful flower-maidens who seduce and destroy the Knights of the Grail. It was in this way that Amfortas lost the Holy Spear, which is now in Klingsor’s hand. Gurnemanz relates how Amfortas then had a vision in which he was told to wait for a “holy fool, enlightened by compassion” (“Durch Mitleid Wissend, der Reine Tor”) who would finally heal his wound.
At this moment, cries are heard from the Knights: a swan has been shot, and a young man is dragged in carrying a bow. Gurnemanz berates the boy, telling him that this is a holy domain, and asking what had the swan ever done to injure the boy. The boy remorsefully breaks his bow and is unable to answer any question put to him: why is he here, who is his father, how did he arrive at the realm of the Grail and what is his name? When asked what he does know, the boy says he has a mother called Herzeleide, and that he made his bow himself. Kundry has been watching and now she tells them that the boy’s father was Gamuret, a knight killed in battle, and how the boy’s mother had forbidden her son to use a sword, fearing that he would suffer the same fate as his father. The boy exclaims that after seeing Knights passing through his forest he immediately left his mother to follow them. Kundry laughs and tells the boy that his mother has died of grief, at which the boy attempts to attack Kundry, but then collapses in grief. Kundry suddenly seems overcome with sleep, but cries out that she must not sleep and wishes that she would never waken. She crawls off to rest.
Gurnemanz invites the boy to observe the Grail ritual at Monsalvat. The boy does not know what the Grail is, but remarks as they walk that although he scarcely moves, he has travelled far. Gurnemanz tells him that in this realm, time becomes space.
They arrive at the Hall of the Grail and observe the ceremony. The voice of Titurel is heard, telling his son, Amfortas, to uncover the Grail. Amfortas is racked with shame and suffering. He is the Guardian of the Grail, and yet he has succumbed to temptation and lost the Holy Spear: he declares himself unworthy of his office. He cries out for forgiveness (“Erbarmen!”) but hears only the promise of future redemption by the “Holy Fool, enlightened by compassion”. The Knights and Titurel urge him to reveal the Grail, which he finally does. The Hall is bathed in the light of the Grail as the Knight commune by taking bread and wine. Amfortas has collapsed, and is taken out. Slowly the Hall empties leaving only the boy and Gurnemanz, who asks him if he has understood what he has seen. The boy cannot answer and is roughly ejected by Gurnemanz with a warning not to shoot swans. A voice from on high repeats the promise of redemption.
The second act begins in Klingsor’s castle, where Klingsor calls up his servant to destroy the boy who has strayed into his domain. He calls her: HellRose, Herodias, Gunddrigga and finally Kundry, transformed here into the fearsomely beautiful woman who seduced Amfortas. She wakes from her sleep and initially resists Klingsor, mocking his enforced chastity, but soon succumbs to his spell. Klingsor calls up Knights from his domain to attack the boy, but can only watch as they are slain. He sees the boy stray into his Flowermaiden garden and calls on Kundry to seek the boy out – but she has already gone.
The boy finds himself in a Garden surrounded by the beautiful and seductive Flower-maidens. They call to him and entwine themselves around him, chiding him for killing their lovers and for resisting their charms. They fight amongst themselves to win his love but are stilled when a voice calls out the boy’s name: Parsifal. Parsifal suddenly remembers that this is the name his mother used when she appeared in his dreams. The Flower-maidens fade away, calling him a fool, leaving Parsifal and Kundry alone. He wonders if this has all been a dream and asks how she knows his name. Kundry tells him that she knows his name from his Mother who had loved him and tried to protect him from his father’s fate, but who had been abandoned by him and finally died of grief. Parsifal is overcome with grief and blames himself for his mother’s death. He thinks he must be very stupid to have forgotten his mother. Kundry says that this is his first sign of understanding, and that she can help him understand his mother’s love by kissing him. Kundry’s kiss is, however, anything but maternal, and Parsifal reacts immediately by realising that this is how Amfortas was seduced – he feels the wound burn in his side, and now understands Amfortas’ passion during the Grail Ceremony. Filled with this compassion for Amfortas, Parsifal rejects Kundry.
Furious, Kundry tells Parsifal that if he can feel compassion for Amfortas, then he should feel compassion for her as well. She relates how she saw the Redeemer on the cross and laughed at Him. For this lack of compassion, she has been condemned to wander through the centuries looking for rest. Parsifal tells her that they would both be condemned for ever if he succumbed to her. Kundry again calls for his compassion, telling him that she is now the slave of the Spear-carrier. As he rejects her again, she curses him to wander without ever returning to the Kingdom of the Grail, and finally she calls on Klingsor to help her.
Klingsor appears and throws the Spear at Parsifal, but the Holy Fool catches it and destroys Klingsor and his Kingdom by making the sign of the Cross with the Spear. As he leaves, he tells Kundry that she knows where she will find him.
The Third act opens again at the Kingdom of the Grail, many years later. Gurnemanz, now aged and bent, hears a crying outside his hut and discovers Kundry unconscious. He revives her, using water from the Holy Spring, but she will only speak the word “serve” (“Dienen”). Gurnemanz wonders if there is any significance in the fact that she has reappeared on this, special, day. He then notices a figure dressed in full armour approaching. He cannot see who it is because the stranger wears a helmet, and does not speak. Finally the apparition removes its helmet and Guremanz recognises the boy who shot the swan, and then realises that the spear carried by him is the Holy Spear.
Parsifal tells of his desire to return to Amfortas. He relates his journey, wandering for years unable to find the path back to the Grail: he has often been forced to fight, but has never wielded the Spear in battle. Gurnemanz tells him that the curse preventing Parsifal from finding his right path has now been lifted, but that in his absence Amfortas has refused to reveal the Grail, and that Titurel has died. Parsifal is overcome with remorse, blaming himself for this state of affairs. Gurnemanz tells him that today is the day of Titurel’s funeral rites, and that Parsifal has a great duty to perform. Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet and Gurnemanz anoints him with water from the Holy Spring, recognising him as the pure Holy Fool, now enlightened by compassion, and as the new King of the Knights of the Grail.
Parsifal comments on the beauty of the meadow and Gurnemanz explains that today is Good Friday, when all the world is renewed. Parsifal gives his blessing to the weeping Kundry.
Once more they travel to the Hall of the Grail. Amfortas is brought before the Grail and before Titurel’s coffin. He cries out to his dead father to offer him rest from his sufferings, and wishes to join him in death. The Knights of Grail urge Amfortas angrily to reveal the Grail to them again, but Amfortas in a frenzy says he will never reveal the Grail and commands his Knights to kill him. At this moment, Parsifal arrives and says that only one weapon can perform this task: with the Spear he heals Amfortas’ wound and forgives him. He returns the Spear to the keeping of the Grail knights and once more reveals the Grail. All kneel before him and Kundry, released from her curse, sinks lifeless to the ground.
Criticism and Influence
Wagner conceived of Parsifal not as an opera, or even as a "music drama" but as "ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" - "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage". As his last opera, it remains his most controversial. The quasi-Christian elements in Parsifal have sometimes led to it being regarded almost as a religious rite. Friedrich Nietzsche, who was originally one of Wagner's champions, clearly hated the idea of it as a pseudo-Christian ritual, although he admitted that the music was sublime: "Has Wagner ever written anything better?" (Letter to Peter Gast, 1887). Claude Debussy, who was in later years very critical of Wagner and his influence, called it "one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music". Gustav Mahler was at the premiere: "When I came out of the Festspielhaus, unable to speak a word, I knew that I had experienced supreme greatness and supreme suffering, and that this experience, hallowed and unsullified, would stay with me for the rest of my life". Parsifal was a major inspiration for T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and was recorded in a controversial film by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.
Some writers see in the opera the promotion of racism and anti-semitism. It is suggested that Parsifal is the "pure-blooded" hero who overcomes Klingsor, who is perceived as a Jewish sterotype, particularly since he opposes the quasi-Christian Knights of the Grail. Such claims remain heavily debated, since there is actually little in the libretto to support them, and it needs to be pointed out that if Parsifal so clearly expressed the concept of Aryan supremacy then it would have been popular with the Nazi party in 20th Century Germany. In fact, the Nazis banned all performances of Parsifal.
Other writers (particularly Bryan Magee) see Parsifal as Wagner's last great espousal of Schopenhaurian philosophy. Parsifal can heal Amfortas and redeem Kundry because he shows compassion, which Schopenhauer saw as the highest form of human morality. Moreover, he shows compassion in the face of enormous sexual temptation (Act 2 scene 3). Once again, Schopenhaurian philosophy suggests that the only escape from the ever-present temptations of human life is through negation of the Will, and overcoming sexual temptation is in particular a strong form of negation of the Will. When viewed in this light, Parsifal, with its emphasis on "Mitleid" (compassion) is a natural follow-on to Tristan und Isolde, where Schopenhauer's influence is very clear with the focus on "Sehnen" (yearning). Indeed Wagner originally considered having Parsifal as a character in Act 3 of Tristan, but later rejected the idea.
Recordings of Parsifal
Parsifal was expressly composed for the stage at Bayreuth and many of the most famous recordings of the opera come from live performances on that stage. In the pre-LP era, Karl Muck conducted excerpts from the opera at Bayreuth which are still considered some of the best performances of the opera on disc (they also contain the only sound evidence of the bells constructed for the work's premiere, which were later melted down by the Nazis during World War II). Hans Knappertsbusch was the conductor most closely associated with Parsifal at Bayreuth in the post-war years, and the performances under his baton in 1951 marked the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival after the Second World War. These historic performances were recorded and are available on the Teldec label in mono sound. Knappertsbusch recorded the opera again for Philips in 1962 in stereo, and this release is often considered to be the classic Parsifal recording. There are also many "unofficial" live recordings from Bayreuth, capturing virtually every Parsifal cast ever conducted by Knappertsbusch.
Amongst the studio recordings, those by Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim (both conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) have been widely praised. The von Karajan recording was voted "Record of the Year" in the 1981 Gramophone Awards. Challenging these is a recently reissued Parsifal on Arts Archives with Rafael Kubelik that somehow never saw the light of day as a Deutsche Grammophon recording.
There are many recordings of Parsifal, some of the most popular being listed below:
- Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra with Wolfgang Windgassen, Ludwig Weber, George London and Martha Modl, 1951 (Teldec, mono)
- Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra with Jess Thomas, Hans Hotter, George London and Irene Dalis, 1962 (Philips, stereo)
- Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with James King, Kurt Moll, Bernd Weikl and Yvonne Minton, 1980 (Arts Archives, stereo)
- Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Peter Hofmann, Kurt Moll, Jose van Dam and Dunja Vejzovic, 1981 (Deutsche Grammophon, stereo)
- Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Siegfreid Jerusalem, Jose van Dam, Matthias Holle, Waltraud Meier, 1991 (Teldec, stereo)
Max Von Schillings / State Opera Orchestra, Berlin
- Template:Book reference (UK Title: Wagner and Philosophy, Publisher Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN: 0140295194)
- Monsalvat Everything about Parsifal
- Essay by Rolf May (Note: Titurel never becomes alive again, a little error)
- Complete English and German Libretto and Wagner's own stage descriptions
- Complete vocal score of Parsifal
- Wagner Operas. A comprehensive website featuring photographs of productions, recordings, librettos, and sound files.
- Summary of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival
- Parsifal on Stage: a PDF by Katherine R. Syer
- Richard Wagner - Parsifal. A gallery of historic postcards with motives from Richard Wagner's operas.
- Wikipedia article on the Holy Spear captured by Parsifal.
- Reviews of Parsifal on record.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Parsifal', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 February 2006, 00:14 UTC,