Opera: Parsifal – Richard Wagner

“Parsifal,” a sacred festival drama with words and music by Richard Wagner, was produced at Bayreuth, July 26, 1882, all but the instrumentation having been completed three years previously. It is the last of the great composer’s works and was first witnessed by him only seven months before his death. Partly in deference to a promise made to Wagner, the presentation of “Parsifal ” took place for twenty-one years only in Bayreuth. It was for America to have the first complete performance outside of the original theatre, and Dec. 24, 1903, after many passages-at-arms between the promoters and the Bayreuth authorities representing Frau Cosima Wagner, it was produced at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, by the company under the management of Heinrich Conried. Later Henry W. Savage prepared a splendid production and presented ” Parsifal ” in English in forty-seven different cities and towns of the United States.

CHARACTERS

Amfortas. Titurel. Gurnemanz. Parsifal. Klingsor. Kundry. The brotherhood of the Grail Knights, esquires, youths and boys, Klingsor’s flower maidens.

The Castle of Monsalvat (Salvation), which is the temple of the Holy Grail and the dwelling of the knights who guard it, is placed by Wagner, as by those who have spoken of it before him, in northern Spain. The Holy Grail is the chalice from which Christ drank at the last supper, and in which afterward Joseph of Arimathea, according to one legend, caught the blood which flowed from the Savior’s pierced side when He hung upon the cross. To Titurel first was entrusted the care of the cup and spear and it was he who built the temple, instructed the knights chosen to guard it in the duty of leading blameless lives and impressed upon them the invincibility of the spear as long as he who wielded it resisted temptation and kept himself pure. He also taught them to be in readiness to fight for the right and to rescue the weak and the oppressed. When Titurel became old, he resigned the sacred captaincy to his son Amfortas and for many years this trust was faithfully kept. Far and wide went the holy knights, fighting for the good and always winning the victory, for the food which renewed their strength was of sacred origin and they recovered as if by magic from the wounds received in warfare. Many were the knights who desired to enter the ranks as keepers of the Holy Grail and to share in its marvelous benefits and adventures. Those whose lives could stand the test were admitted but many were turned away. One of the latter was Klingsor, a magician, whose life could not bear the scrutiny to which it was subjected. His repulse filled his sinful soul with thoughts of revenge and he established himself in the valley beneath Monsalvat and erected there an enchanted castle. He changed the surrounding desert to a magic garden, peopled with sirens of transcendent beauty. Many of the knights of the Grail were beguiled thither and many fell from their high estate. Finally, his wicked triumph was crowned with the fall of the very head of the order itself, for Amfortas, resolved upon ending his enemy’s sway, sallied forth armed with the sacred spear and all-confident in his own impregnability. But Klingsor sent Kundry, fairest of all the hosts of temptresses, and Amfortas, forgetful, yielded to her seductions. To complete the Knight’s dishonor, the spear was snatched from him by Klingsor and with it the magician inflicted a wound which would be eased by no remedy. After Amfortas had suffered long, the Grail oracle decreed that help could come only through a guileless fool made wise through fellow-suffering.

All these things have happened when the curtain rises on the quiet woodland glade near the castle of the Grail. It is daybreak and Gurnemanz, one of the aged knights, rouses two young sleeping squires. Across the peaceful fields comes the fierce, wild Kundry dressed in coarse garb and with flying hair. She offers, for the help of Arnfortas, a rare balsam from Arabia. Kundry, when in the heavy sleep Klingsor’s magic puts upon her, is the beautiful enchantress of the charmed garden but when free from the spell, she is a half-savage silent creature, who, seemingly oppressed by a consciousness of some great sin, seeks to find relief and redemption through performing menial services for the knights of the Grail. She laughs when she fain would weep, she does evil when she longs to accomplish good, and she fears to sleep, for then it is that she falls under Klingsor’s baleful influence.

As Amfortas, coming from his bath in the sacred lake, is borne past upon his litter, Gurnemanz and the squires discuss his sad plight and hope for the coming of the blame-less fool. Their conversation is interrupted by a sound and a moment later a wild swan hit by an arrow flies unsteadily across the lake and falls dead at their feet. Indignant that a deed of violence should thus desecrate the peaceful vicinity of the Grail, some of the younger knights drag forward the culprit, who is only a forest lad of innocent mien and wholly unconscious of having done anything wrong. When it dawns upon him that he has hurt and killed a harmless creature, he breaks his bow and flings away the arrows. The knights, softened by this act, question him. He discloses a strange ignorance, which extends even to his origin; but upon this subject Kundry is able to enlighten both him and them.

‘Twas fatherless that his mother bore him, For in battle slain was Gamuret; And from a like untimely death Her son to shelter, peacefully, In a desert, the foolish woman reared him. A fool too!

As the youth watches her with wide eyes she concludes thus

As I rode by I saw her dying And fool, she bade me greet thee.

In a passion of sorrow and indignant at her laughter, he flies at her throat, but is restrained by the knights, and falls fainting on the ground. Kundry now is filled with pity, and revives him with water from the spring. Then suddenly she is overcome by drowsiness, and, struggling against it, she staggers toward the thicket and sinks down on a grassy knoll.

In the heart of Gurnemanz has been growing the hope that this boy may be the ” pure fool.” Led by this hope, he conducts him to the temple where the holy rites of the love-feast are to be performed. Amfortas, the one sinner in that pure brotherhood, pleads not to be asked to perform his duty of uncovering the Holy Grail, which act, since his sin, entails for him untold agony. But his father, Titurel, lying in the ‘tomb between life and death, bids him not shirk, for only the sight of the Grail can restore the waning strength of the old monarch. Amfortas then makes passionate inquiry as to how long this torment must last and is answered by voices which bid him await the coming of the “blameless fool, wise through pity.” Parsifal, at one side, watching as the shrine is uncovered, feels a pang of sorrow at Amfortas’ suffering, but not being as yet ” wise through pity ” he does not understand and the vexed Gurnemanz thrusts him forth from the temple exclaiming ” Thou art then nothing but a fool ! ”

The second act takes place in Klingsor’s enchanted palace. The magician, gazing into his magic mirror, perceives that a struggle is at hand, that Parsifal, the pure, is coming and that Kundry must be the means of his ensnarement. He summons her and she appears in a bluish mist, as if just awakening from sleep. When she knows the use which is to be made of her, she breaks forth into a tempest of remonstrance and grief but Klingsor forces her to do his bidding and mocks her for seeking the knights, who reckon her not even ” as a dog.”

The scene changes to the enchanted garden abloom with tropical flowers and bathed in a strange light. Already Parsifal has gained the ramparts and stands gazing with astonishment upon the scene below. For his further bewilderment there now appear the sirens, who, as flower maidens, flit about in gauzy garments and dance and sing before him. When he draws nearer they surround him, laughing, caressing him and gently reproaching him for his indifference, which indifference they attempt to dissipate by decking them-selves like veritable flowers, and by hovering in fragrant crowds about him, uttering soft cries of

Come, gentle lover! Let me be thy flower.

At first he enjoys the novel sight, looking upon them as children and offering to be their playmate. But finally as they press about him quarreling for his favor; and becoming freer and bolder with their kisses, he repulses them half angrily and is about to escape, when a beautiful voice, issuing from a thicket of flowers, stops him.

” Parsifal, tarry! ” It is the name his mother once called him and she who knows it shall have his attention. There comes to his dazzled view, Kundry the enchantress, beautiful as a dream and lying on a couch of roses.

” Didst thou call me, the nameless? ” he inquires, wonderingly. Subtly she wins his interest by telling him of his own life and of his dead mother ” Heart’s sorrow,” who loved him so dearly. He is overcome with distress and emotion at this memory and falls at her feet. Kundry attempts to exercise her spell in the guise of pity. She gently draws him to her, puts her arm about his neck and kisses him. With a cry he starts to his feet, his hand pressed to his side, for in this kiss he feels the wound that Amfortas received from the sacred spear when it was yielded by Klingsor. Within him has been born the wisdom which shall enable him to heal Amfortas. He speaks the name of the sufferer with pitying lips, his sympathy springing from the depths of a marvelous new comprehension. He is the fool no longer. He now is ” wise through pity.” He realizes in himself how Amfortas was tempted, he understands the frailty of the human heart he is overwhelmed with compassion for the whole world of sin.

As Kundry attempts to renew her endearments, he pushes her away with loathing but a moment later the new compassion extends even to her and he promises to give her deliverance, if she will show him the way to Amfortas. She is Klingsor’s agent, however, and she cannot but cry aloud in this crisis for aid. The magician appears on the steps of the castle, bearing the sacred lance, which he hurls at Parsifal but the holy weapon hangs suspended over the pure youth’s head. He seizes it and makes with it the sign of the cross. The castle falls as if overthrown by an earth-quake, the garden withers to a desert and the ground is scattered with faded flowers, while Kundry lies prostrate amid the ruins.

Many years pass before the beginning of the third act but evil years they have been, for misfortune has fallen upon the knights of the Holy Grail. The wound of Amfortas never has healed. The light of the Grail has not been allowed to cast its benignant glow upon the knights, for its guardian has not had the courage to incur the agony attendant upon uncovering it. The sacred food has been withheld and the aged Titurel, whom the holy light had kept alive, has perished in despair.

These years Parsifal has spent wandering through the world in search of Amfortas. Many have tried to wrest from him the sacred lance, but have failed. As the curtain rises we see again the precincts of the Grail. It is spring and early morning, the morning of Good Friday. Gurnemanz, grown very old, comes from his hermit’s hut. He hears a noise in the thicket near by and pressing aside the branches discovers Kundry, lying there in a half-stupor. He arouses her and she, responding to his inquiry as to what she would have, utters but the words ” Serve ! Serve !.” She enters the hut but coming forth again fetches water from the sacred spring. Suddenly a stranger is seen approaching clad in black armor, his visor down and in his hand a spear. He plants the spear in the earth, removes his helmet and kneels in prayer. Both Gurnemanz and Kundry recognize him as the ” pure fool ” now grown to man’s estate. To his marveling auditors Parsifal imparts the tidings that he has brought back the sacred weapon undefiled. The old man tells him that once again on that day are the knights to assemble in the temple as they did of yore and that once more they hope to see the holy light, for Amfortas has promised to perform for the funeral rite of Titurel the long-neglected office, whatever may be the cost to himself.

The humble Kundry bathes the feet of Parsifal with water from the sacred spring and dries them with her hair. He, knowing her heart, baptizes her, and as she falls to the ground weeping in gratitude, he kisses her gently on the forehead. Habited like the guardians of the Grail and bearing the sacred spear in his hand, he proceeds to the temple, whither is borne Amfortas on his litter and whither the knights bring in solemn procession the dead body of Titurel. When the coffin is opened and the knights realize how their aged King longed for the light and died because it was withheld, they break forth into lamentations and press upon Amfortas renewing their importunities for the revelation of the Grail. In anguish their suffering leader refuses and, tearing open his garment, he bids them plunge their swords into his bleeding wound and kill him, so that they then may unveil the Grail themselves. But Parsifal enters and touching the wound with the sacred spear that made it, bids Amfortas ” be whole, absolved and atoned.” He also bids him to consider his suffering blessed, for through it divine pity and the might of knowledge have been given to a fool. Then Parsifal, destined henceforth to be the guardian of the Grail, shows the knights the sacred spear which he brings back to them and now places on the temple’s altar. While he uncovers the chalice and kneels before it, a white dove descends from heaven and hovers above his head. Kundry, gazing at the holy sight, sinks lifeless to the ground, her redemption complete, while the voices of knights and angels mingle in praise of the Redeemer.

The idea of ” Parsifal,” called by one writer an ” inspired dramatic Te Deum,” first was suggested to Wagner by the epic poem of Wolfram von Eschenbach, while searching for material for ” Tannhäuser.” Evidently, the theme lay but partly dormant in his mind, for fifteen years later, while at Zurich, he drew up the first sketch of the opera. But not until another interval of twenty years had elapsed, was it finished at Bayreuth. Thus it may be regarded as the result of thirty-five years of reflection and as the embodiment of a mellow and deliberately developed philosophy. It is considered by many to be Wagner’s masterpiece, while others go a step farther and call it the most marvelous and impressive achievement in the history of music.

The basis of the drama is derived from the cycle of the Holy Grail myths, made familiar by the stories of King Arthur and his knights, which have come down to us in manifold guises. These Grail romances were written at the time of the earlier crusades, when the supposed discovery of the sacred cup and spear still was fresh in the minds of the Christians. In Tennyson’s ” Idyls of the King,” the chalice is carried to Great Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, to whom, when cast into prison after pre-paring the body of Christ for burial, Christ appeared, bringing the sacrament in it.

Wagner has bestowed his own individuality upon the legend and he has changed the name of the hero to indicate this hero’s character. In the Arabian, ” fal ” signifies foolish and ” parsi ” pure one. “Parsifal,” freely translated, means ” blameless fool.” Amfortas, in all the legends, is the visible symbol of suffering whose healing depends upon the asking of a question. Gurnemanz is always present in the original Parsifal legends. Klingsor also appears though never so malignant as here, but Kundry, with her many-sided soul, is the creation of Wagner and his greatest contribution to the myth.

Musically, ” Parsifal” contains the fullest and most complete exposition of all Wagner’s theories concerning the music drama and its construction. While the most zealous admirers of the work declare it the Bayreuth master’s greatest achievement, more careful students find it not the equal of ” The Mastersingers,” ” Tristan and Isolde ” or certain portions of ” The Ring of the Nibelungs ” so far as vitality, power and originality of the thematic material is concerned. It is a master work but not the highest reach of Wagner.

Portions of the score which are familiar through more or less frequent performance in concert, are the prelude built up upon three motives from the work itself ; the “Good Friday Spell,” which is heard in the scene of Parsifal’s return and the preparation for his progress to the temple to assume the kingship of the Grail; the so-called ” Transformation,” which is the music played by the orchestra during the march of Gurnemanz and Parsifal to the temple, the scenery moving slowly from side to side and changing the setting gradually from the woodland and fields to rocky recesses and finally to the interior of the temple itself; and the finale of the music-drama, the tonal illustration of Parsifal’s unveiling of the chalice and its glowing from delicate pink to blood-red as the dove descends and hovers above him. The ” Flower Girl ” music is of exceptional grace and beauty. The “Lament” of Amfortas and the scene of Kundry’s attempted ensnarement of Parsifal have also been heard in concert performance. They, together with the foregoing, constitute the “big” moments in the truly remarkable score.