A LAD, hotfoot in pursuit of a wild swan which one of his arrows has pierced, finds himself in a forest glade on the side of a mountain. There he meets a body of knights and esquires in attendance on a king who is suffering from a wound. The knights are a body of men whose mission it is to succor suffering innocence wherever they may find it. They dwell in a magnificent castle on the summit of the mountain, within whose walls they assemble every day to contemplate and adore a miraculous vessel from which they obtain both physical and spiritual sustenance. In order to enjoy the benefits which flow from this talisman, they are required to preserve their bodies in ascetic purity. Their king has fallen from this estate and been grievously wounded in an encounter with a magician, who, having failed in his ambition to enter the order of knighthood, had built a castle over against that of the king, where, by practice of the black art and with the help of sirens and a sorceress, he seeks the ruin of the pure and celestial soldiery. In his hands is a lance which once belonged to the knights, but which he had wrested from their king and with which he had given the dolorous stroke from which the king is suffering.
The healing of the king can be wrought only by a touch of the lance which struck the wound; and this lance can be regained only by one able to with-stand the sensual temptations with which the evil-minded sorcerer has surrounded himself in his magical castle. An oracle, that had spoken from a vision, which one day shone about the talisman, had said that this deliverer should be a guileless fool, an innocent simpleton, whom compassionate pity had made knowing.
For this hero king and knights are waiting and longing, since neither lotions nor baths nor ointments can bring relief, though they be of the rarest potency and brought from all the ends of the earth. The lad who thus finds himself in this worshipful but woful company is himself of noble and knightly lineage. This we learn from the recital of his history, but also from the bright, incisive, militant, chivalresque music associated with him.
But he has been reared in a wilderness, far from courts and the institutions of chivalry and in ignorance of the world lying beyond his forest boundaries. His father died before he was born, and his mother withheld from him all knowledge of knight-hood, hoping thus to keep him for herself. One day, however, he saw a cavalcade of horsemen in brilliant trappings. The spectacle stirred the chivalric spirit slumbering within him ; he deserted his mother, followed after the knights, and set out in quest of adventure. The mother died.
In the domain whither his quarry had led the lad, all animals were held sacred. A knight (Gurnemanz) rebukes him for his misdeed in shooting the swan, and rue leads him to break his bow and arrows. From a strange creature (Kundry),in the service of the knights, he learns of the death of his mother, who had perished for love of him and grief over his desertion. He is questioned about himself, but is singularly ignorant of everything, even of his own name. Hoping that the lad may prove to be the guileless fool to whom knowledge was to come through pity, the knight escorts him to the temple, which is the sanctuary of the talisman whose adoration is the daily occupation of the brotherhood. They walk out of the forest and find themselves in a rocky defile of the mountain. A natural gateway opens in the face of a cliff, through which they pass, and are lost to sight for a space. Then they are seen ascending a sloping passage, and little by little the rocks lose their ruggedness and begin to take on rude architectural contours. They are walking to music which, while merely suggesting their progress and the changing natural scene in the main, ever and anon breaks into an expression of the most poignant and lacerating suffering and lamentation.
At last they arrive in a mighty Byzantine hall, which loses itself upward in a lofty, vaulted dome,from which light streams downward and illumines the interior. Under the dome, within a colonnade, are two tables, each a segment of a circle. Into the hall there come in procession knights wearing red mantles on which the image of a white dove is embroidered. They chant a pious hymn as they take their places at the refectory tables.
The king, whom the lad had seen in the glade, is borne in on a litter, before him a veiled shrine containing the mystical cup which is the object of the ceremonious worship. It is the duty of the king to unveil the talisman and hold it up to the adoration of the knights. He is conveyed to a raised couch and the shrine is placed before him. His sufferings of mind and body are so poignant that he would liever die than perform his office ; but the voice of his father (Titurel), who had built the sanctuary, established the order of knighthood, and now lives on in his grave sustained by the sight of the talisman, admonishes the king of his duty. At length he consents to perform the function imposed upon him by his office. He raises himself painfully upon his couch. The attendants remove the covering from the shrine and disclose an antique crystal vessel which they reverently place before the lamen-table king. Boys’ voices come wafted down from the highest height of the dome, singing a formula of consecration : “Take ye my body, take my blood in token of our love”.
A dazzling ray of light flashes down from above and falls into the cup, which now glows with a reddish purple lustre and sheds a soft radiance around. The knights have sunk upon their knees. The king lifts the luminous chalice, moves it gently from side to side, and thus blesses the bread and wine provided for the refection of the knights. Meanwhile, celestial voices proclaim the words of the oracle to musical strains that are pregnant with mysterious suggestion.
Another choir sturdily, firmly, ecstatically hymns the power of faith and, at the end, an impressive antiphon, starting with the knights, ascends higher and higher, and, calling in gradually the voices of invisible singers in the middle height, becomes metamorphosed into an angelic canticle as it takes its flight to the summit. It is the voice of aspiration, the musical symbol of the talisman which directs the thoughts and desires of its worshippers ever upward.
The lad disappoints his guide. He understands nothing of the solemn happenings which he has witnessed, nor does he ask their meaning, though his own heart had been lacerated with pain at sight of the king’s sufferings. He is driven from the sanctuary with contumely.
He wanders forth in quest of further adventures and enters the magical garden surrounding the castle of the sorcerer. A number of knights who are sent against him he puts to rout. Now the magician summons lovely women, clad in the habiliments of flowers, to seduce him with their charms.
They sing and play about him with winsome wheedlings and cajoleries, with insinuating blandishments and dainty flatteries, with pretty petulancies and delectable quarrellings.
But they fail of their purpose, as does also an unwilling siren whom the magician invokes with powerful conjurations. It is Kundry, who is half Magdalen, half wicked sorceress, a messenger in the service of the pious knights, and as such hideous of aspect; a tool in the hands of the magician, and as such supernaturally beautiful. It was to her charms that the suffering king had yielded. To win the youth she tells him the story of his mother’s death and gives to him her last message and a kiss ! At the touch of her impure lips a flood of passion, hitherto unfelt, pours through the veins of the lad, and in its surge comes understanding of the suffering and woe which he had witnessed in the castle on the mountain. Also a sense of his own remissness. Compassionate pity brings enlightenment ; and he thrusts back the woman who is seeking to destroy him. Finding that the wiles of his tool have availed him naught, the wicked magician himself appears to give battle, for he, too, knows the oracle and fears the coming of the king’s deliverer and the loss of the weapon which he hopes will yet enable him to achieve the mystical talisman. He hurls the lance at the youth, but it remains suspended in midair. The lad seizes it, makes the sign of the cross, speaks some words of exorcism, and garden, castle, damsels all the works of enchantment disappear.
Now the young hero is conscious of a mission. He must find again the abode of the knights and their ailing king, and bring to them surcease of suffering. After long and grievous wanderings he is again directed to the castle. Grief and despair have overwhelmed the knights, whose king, unable longer to endure the torture in which he has lived, has definitively refused to perform his holy office. In consequence, his father, no longer the recipient of supernatural sustenance, has died, and the king longs to follow him. The hero touches the wound in the side of the king with the sacred spear, ends his dolors, and is hailed as king in his place. The temptress, who has followed him as a penitent, freed from a curse which had rested upon her for ages, goes to a blissful and eternal rest.
Such is the story of Wagner’s “Parsifal.”It is the purpose of this book to help the musical layman who loves lyric drama to enjoyment. Criticism might do this, but a purpose of simple exposition has already been proclaimed, and shall be adhered to lest some reader think that he is being led too far afield. In this case the exposition shall take the form of a marshalling of the elements of the story in two aspects religious and legendary. Careful readers of English literature will have had no difficulty in recognizing in it a story of the quest of the Holy Grail. Tennyson will have taught them that the hero is that Sir Percivale Whom Arthur and his knighthood called the Pure; that the talismanic vessel is the cup itself from which our Lord Drank at the last sad supper with His own; that the lance which struck and healed the grievous wound in the side of the king is the spear with which the side of the Christ was pierced on Calvary. It is also obvious that the king, whose name is Amfortas, that is, “the powerless one,” is a symbol of humanity suffering from the wounds of slavery to desire; that the heroic act of Parsifal, as Wagner calls him, which brings release to the king and his knights, is renunciation of desire, prompted by pity, compassion, fellow-suffering; and that this gentle emotion it was that had inspired knowledge simultaneously of a great need and a means of deliverance. The ethical idea of the drama, as I set forth in a book entitled “Studies in the Wagnerian Drama” many years ago, is that it is the enlightenment which comes through pity which brings salvation. The allusion is to the redemption of mankind by the sufferings and compassionate death of Christ; and that stupendous tragedy is the prefiguration of the mimic drama which Wagner has constructed. The spectacle to which he invites us, and with which he hoped to impress us and move us to an acceptance of the lesson underlying his play, is the adoration of the Holy Grail, cast in the form of a mimicry of the Last Supper, bedizened with some of the glittering pageantry of mediaeval knighthood and romance.
In the minds of many persons it is a profanation to make a stage spectacle out of religious things ; and it has been urged that “Parsifal” is not only religious but specifically Christian; not only Christian but filled with parodies of elements which are partly liturgical, partly Biblical. In narrating the incidents of the play I have purposely avoided all allusions to the things which have been matters of controversy. It is possible to look upon “Parsifal” as a sort of glorified fairy tale, and to this end I purpose to subject its elements to inquiry, and shall therefore go a bit more into detail. Throughout the play Parsifal is referred to as a redeemer, and in the third act scenes in which he plays as the central figure are borrowed from the life of Christ. Kundry, the sorceress, who attempts his destruction at one time and is in the service of the knights of the Grail at another, anoints his feet and dries them with her hair, as the Magdalen did the feet of Christ in the house of Simon the Pharisee. Parsifal baptizes Kundry and admonishes her to believe in the Redeemer:
Die Taufe nimm Und glaub’ an den Erloser !
Kundry weeps. Unto the woman who was a sinner and wept at His feet Christ said: “Thy sins are forgiven. . . . Thy faith hath saved thee. Go in peace.” At the elevation of the grail by Parsifal after the healing of Amfortas a dove descends from the dome and hovers over the new king’s head. What saith the Scripture? “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water; and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him.” (St. Matthew iii. 16.) It would be idle to argue that these things are not Biblical, though the reported allusions to Parsifal as a redeemer do not of necessity belong in the category. We shall see presently that the drama is permeated with Buddhism, and there were a multitude of redeemers and saviours in India besides the Buddha.
Let us look at the liturgical elements. The Holy Grail is a chalice. It is brought into the temple in solemn procession in a veiled shrine and deposited on a table. Thus, also, the chalice, within its pall, is brought in at the sacrament of the mass and placed on the altar before the celebrant. In the drama boys’ voices sing in the invisible heights.
Nehmet hin mein Blut Um unserer Liebe willen ! Nehmet hin meinem Leib Auf dass ihr mein gedenkt !
Is there a purposed resemblance here to the words of consecration in the mass? Accipite, et manducate ex hoc omnes. Hoc est enim Corpus meum. Accipite, et bibite ex eo omnes. Hic est enim Calix sanguinis mei ! In a moment made wonderfully impressive by Wagner’s music, while Amfortas bends over the grail and the knights are on their knees, a ray of light illumines the cup and it glows red. Amfortas lifts it high, gently sways it from side to side, and blesses the bread and wine which youthful servitors have placed beside each knight on the table. In the book of the play, as the hall gradually grows light the cups before the knights appear filled with red wine, and beside each lies a small loaf of bread. Now the celestial choristers sing : “The wine and bread of the Last Supper, once the Lord of the Grail, through pity’s love-power, changed into the blood which he shed, into the body which he offered. To-day the Redeemer whom ye laud changes the blood and body of the sacrificial offering into the wine poured out for you, and the bread that you eat !” And the knights respond antiphonally : “Take of the bread ; bravely change it anew into strength and power. Faithful unto death, staunch in effort to do the works of the Lord. Take of the blood ; change it anew to life’s fiery flood. Gladly in communion, faithful as brothers, to fight with blessed courage.” Are these words, or are they not, a paraphrase of those which in the canon of the mass follow the first and second ablutions of the celebrant : Quod ore sumpsimus Domine, etc., and : Corpus tuum, Domine, etc.? He would be but little critical who would deny it.
Nevertheless, it does not necessarily follow that Wagner wished only to parody the eucharistic rite. He wanted to create a ceremonial which should be beautiful, solemn, and moving; which should be an appropriate accompaniment to the adoration of a mystical relic; which should, in a large sense, be neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Buddhistic ; which should symbolize a conception of atonement older than Christianity, older than Buddhism, older than all records of the human imagination. Of this more anon. As was his custom, Wagner drew from whatever source seemed to him good and fruitful; and though he doubtless thought himself at liberty to receive suggestions from the Roman Catholic ritual, as well as the German Lutheran, it is even possible that he had also before his mind scenes from Christian Masonry. This possibility was once suggested by Mr. F. C. Burnand, who took the idea from the last scene of the first act only, and does not seem to have known how many connections the Grail legend had with mediaeval Freemasonry or Templarism. There are more elements associated with the old Knights Templars and their rites in Wagner’s drama than I am able to discuss. To do so I should have to be an initiate and have more space at my disposal than I have here. I can only make a few suggestions : In the old Welsh tale of Peredur, which is a tale of the quest of a magical talisman, the substitute for the grail is a dish containing a bloody head. That head in time, as the legend passed through the imaginations of poets and romances, became the head of John the Baptist, and there was a belief in the Middle Ages that the Knights Templars worshipped a bloody head. The head of John the Baptist enters dimly into Wagner’s drama in the conceit that Kundry is a reincarnation of Herodias, who is doomed to make atonement, not for having danced the head off the prophet’s shoulders, but for having reviled Christ as he was staggering up Calvary under the load of the cross. But this is pursuing speculations into regions that are shadowy and vague. Let it suffice for this branch of our study that Mr. Burnand has given expression to the theory that the scene of the adoration of the grail and the Love Feast may also have a relationship with the ceremony of installation in the Masonic orders of chivalry, in which a cup of brotherly love is presented to the Grand Commander, who drinks and asks the Sir Knights to pledge him in the cup “in commemoration of the Last Supper of our Grand Heavenly Captain, with his twelve disciples, whom he commanded thus to remember him.” Here, says Mr. Burnand, there is no pretence to sacrifice. Participation in the wine is a symbol of a particular and peculiarly close intercommunion of brotherhood.
To get the least offence from “Parsifal” it ought to be accepted in the spirit of the time in which Christian symbolism was grafted on the old tales of the quest of a talisman which lie at the bottom of it. The time was the last quarter of the twelfth century and the first quarter of the thirteenth. It is the period of the third and fourth crusades. Relic worship was at its height. Less than a hundred years before (in 1101) the Genoese crusaders had brought back from the Holy Land as a part of the spoils of Caesarea, which they were helpful in capturing under Baldwin, a three-cornered dish, which was said to be the veritable dish used at the Last Supper of Christ and his Apostles. The belief that it was cut out of a solid emerald drew Bonaparte’s attention to it, and he carried it away to Paris in 1806 and had it examined. It proved to be nothing but glass, and he graciously gave it back to Genoa in 1814. There it still reposes in the Church of St. John, but it is no longer an object of worship, though it might fairly excite a feeling of veneration.
For 372 years Nuremberg possessed what the devout believed to be the lance of Longinus, with which the side of Christ was opened. The relic, like most objects of its kind (the holy coat, for in-stance), had a rival which, after inspiring victory at the siege of Antioch, found its way to Paris with the most sacred relics, for which Louis IX built the lovely Sainte Chapelle; now it is in the basilica of the Vatican, at Rome. The Nuremberg relic, however, enjoyed the advantage of historical priority. It is doubly interesting, or rather was so, because it was one of Wagner’s historical characters who added it to the imperial treasure of the Holy Roman Empire. This was none other than Henry the Fowler, the king who is righteous in judgment and tuneful of speech in the opera “Lohengrin.” Henry, so runs the story, wrested the lance from the Burgundian king, Rudolph III, some time about A.D. 929. After many vicissitudes the relic was given for safe keeping to the imperial city of Nuremberg, in 1424, by the Emperor Sigismund. It was placed in a casket, which was fastened with heavy chains to the walls of the Spitalkirche. There it remained until 1796. One may read about the ceremonies attending its annual exposition, along with other relics, in the old history of Nuremberg, by Wagenseil, which was the source of Wagner’s knowledge of the mastersingers. The disruption of the Holy Roman Empire caused a scattering of the jewels and relics in the imperial treasury, and the present whereabouts of this sacred lance is unknown. The casket and chains, however, are preserved in the Germanic Museum at Nuremberg to this day, and there have been seen, doubtless, by many who are reading these lines.
There is nothing in “Parsifal,” neither personage nor incident nor thing, no principle of conduct, which did not live in legendary tales and philosophical systems long before Christianity existed as a universal religion. The hero in his first estate was born, bred, went out in search of adventure, rescued the suffering, and righted wrong, just as Krishna, Perseus, Theseus, OEdipus, Romulus, Remus, Siegfried, and Wolf-Dietrich did before him. He is an Aryan legendary and mythical hero-type that has existed for ages. The talismanic cup and spear are equally ancient; they have figured in legend from time immemorial. The incidents of their quest, the agonies wrought by their sight, their mission as inviters of sympathetic interest, and the failure of a hero to achieve a work of succor because of failure to show pity, are all elements in Keltic Quester and Quest stories, which antedate Christianity. Kundry, the loathly damsel and siren, has her prototypes in classic fable and romantic tale. Read the old English ballad of “The Marriage of Sir Gawain.” So has the magic castle of Klingsor, surrounded by its beautiful garden. It is all the things which I enumerated in the chapter devoted to “Tannhäuser.” It is also the Underworld, where prevails the law of taboo “Thou must,” or “Thou shalt not;” whither Psyche went on her errand for Venus and came back scot-free; where Peritheus and Theseus remained grown to a rocky seat till Hercules came to release them with mighty wrench and a loss of their bodily integrity. The sacred lance which shines red with blood after it has by its touch healed the wound of Amfortas is the bleeding spear which was a symbol of righteous vengeance unperformed in the old Bardic day of Britain ; it became the lance of Longinus which pierced the side of Christ when Christian symbolism was applied to the ancient Arthurian legends ; and you may read in Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” how a dolorous stroke dealt with it by Balin opened a wound in the side of King Pellam from which he suffered many years, till Galahad healed him in the quest of the Sangreal by touching the wound with the blood which flowed from the spear.
These are the folklore elements in Wagner’s “Parsifal.” It is plain that they might have been wrought into a drama substantially like that which was the poet-composer’s last gift to art without loss of either dignity or beauty. Then his drama would have been like a glorified fairy play, imposing and of gracious loveliness, and there would have been nothing to quarrel about. But Wagner was a philosopher of a sort, and a sincere believer in the idea that the theatre might be made to occupy the same place in the modern world that it did in the classic. It was to replace the Church and teach by direct preachments as well as allegory the philosophical notions which he thought essential to the salvation of humanity. For the chief of these he went to that system of philosophy which rests on the idea that the world is to be redeemed by negation of the will to live, the conquering of all desire that the highest happiness is the achievement of nirvana, nothingness. This conception finds its highest expression in the quietism and indifferentism of the old Brahmanic religion (if such it can be called), in which holiness was to be obtained by speculative contemplation, which seems to me the quintessence of selfishness. In the reformed Brahmanism called Buddhism, there appeared along with the old principle of self-erasure a compassionate sympathy for others. Asceticism was not put aside, but regulated and ordered, wrought into a communal system. It was purged of some of its selfishness by appreciation of the loveliness of compassionate love as exemplified in the life of Cakya-Muni and those labors which made him one of the many redeemers and saviours of which Hindu literature is full. Something of this was evidently in the mind of Wagner as long ago as 1857, when, working on “Tristan und Isolde,” he for a while harbored the idea of bringing Parzival (as he would have called him then) into the presence of the dying Tristan to comfort him with a sermon on the happiness of renunciation. Long before Wagner had sketched a tragedy entitled “Jesus of Nazareth,” the hero of which was to be a human philosopher who preached the saving grace of love and sought to redeem his time and people from the domination of conventional law, the off-spring of selfishness. His philosophy was socialism imbued by love. Before Wagner finished “Tristan und Isolde” he had outlined a Hindu play in which hero and heroine were to accept the doctrines of the Buddha, take the vow of chastity, renounce the union toward which love impelled them, and enter into the holy community. Blending these two schemes, Wagner created “Parsifal.” For this drama he could draw the principle of compassionate pity and fellow-suffering from the stories of both Cakya-Muni and Jesus of Nazareth. But for the sake of a spectacle, I think, he accepted the Christian doctrine of the Atonement with all its mystical elements ; for they alone put the necessary symbolical significance into the principal apparatus of the play the Holy Grail and the Sacred Lance.