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Two visions of the end in Wagner’s Parsifal

By William Kinderman


Two centuries after Richard Wagner’s birth in 1813, his final music drama Parsifal continues to exert uncanny fascination, as Francois Girard’s new production at the Metropolitan Opera shows. For much of his life, Wagner was captivated by the legends of the Holy Grail; this “stage consecration festival play” is his culminating work. Dark episodes in Parsifal’s performance history display clearly the risks of its aesthetic treatment of redemption, which can project a hypnotic portrayal of collective identity. It was not without justification that Friedrich Nietzsche likened the exquisite music of Parsifal to the treacherous temptress Circe, claiming that “one must be a cynic in order not be seduced… and able to bite, in order not to adore.”

Who is redeemed at the stirring conclusion of Wagner’s mythic drama? In this scene, Parsifal at last finds his way back to the Grail Temple, heals the anguished King Amfortas with the Holy Spear and reunites Spear and Grail as unseen choruses sing “Redemption to the Redeemer!” from the heights of the dome. Although Wagner assimilates many Christian elements in Parsifal, Christ is never mentioned by name, while some aspects of the work draw on Buddhist and pagan elements. Parsifal is not a Christ substitute, and the nature of the undisclosed redeemer in the Grail remains open to interpretation. The death at the conclusion of Kundry, the only important female figure, has provoked divergent responses. Many recent productions keep Kundry alive, and in that regard Girard offers a fresh perspective.

The Bayreuth Circle regarded themselves as Knights of the Grail committed to promote a racist nationalist vision of Germanic self-realization. Decades after the composer’s death in 1883, the Wagner clan grouped itself around the propagandist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who had married Wagner’s daughter Eva. Chamberlain espoused a religiously oriented anti-Semitism, hailing Adolf Hitler in 1924 as a “god-sent benediction”. At the renewal of the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth that year, Wagner’s son Siegfried hoisted not the banner of the Weimar republic, whose black-red-gold tricolor his father had honored in 1849, but instead the imperial flag, a choice signaling his reactionary disdain for democracy and internationalism. By 1924, the Green Hill with its Wagner festival theater at Bayreuth had turned brown.

An artist member of the Bayreuth Circle, Franz Stassen, created scenes based on Parsifal, including the illustrations shown here, of Parsifal holding the Holy Spear (end of Act 2) and the Grail (end of Act 3). In the first picture, the young Parsifal grasps the spear in his right hand while light streams down, and Kundry lies at his feet beside wilted flowers (Plate 1). The second depiction shows an older, Christ-like Parsifal holding the glowing Grail touched by light from above while Kundry gazes upward and the assembled knights stare transfixed; the scene is framed by an angelic host rising up from the musical excerpt at the foot of the image (Plate 2). The musical notation shows the passage leading to Kundry’s death at the ensuing A-minor chord, whereas the framing design of angelic figures corresponds in the musical realization to the unseen choral voices from the dome singing “Redemption to the Redeemer!”. Stassen has illustrated precisely Wagner’s stage directions at this juncture, with white dove hovering over glowing Grail while Kundry’s gaze is uplifted to Parsifal.

Plate 1
Plate 2

At the outset of the Third Reich, Hitler was depicted as a Parsifal-like figure in a manner that absorbs the imagery from Wagner’s work (Plate 3). The Führer appears here bearing a Nazi flag while an eagle hovers. The eagle in the poster is highly stylized, with a mechanized appearance, suggesting a military plane almost as much as a regal bird. The slogan “Es lebe Deutschland!” can be translated as “Long live Germany!” Light streaming from above identifies the leader as a “Lichtgestalt,” an expression used by Chamberlain to describe Hitler. This Hitler propaganda poster combines the imagery of the two depictions of Parsifal by Stassen. In place of the Holy Spear as the focus of light streaming from above, Hitler carries a Nazi flag in his upraised right hand; instead of the dove and assembled knights, the Führer stands beneath the hovering eagle with shining light from above in front of a host of his brown-shirted followers.

Plate 3

In 1933, the year Hitler rose to power, a book on Parsifal was published by Alfred Lorenz, who identified German’s new leader with Parsifal. For Lorenz, the closing affirmative music of Wagner’s drama discloses Wagner’s “prophetic thoughts” about a “new Parsifal religion,” enabling the listener to experience through the music the following insight, which he highlights in spaced-out print:

“W e  s h o u l d  o v e r c o m e  d e c a y  a n d  a s  a  r a c i a l l y
h i g h – b r e d  p e o p l e  a d v a n c e  t o  v i c t o r y.”

This is a chilling example of an ideological reduction of an artwork to serve a murderous totalitarian regime. For those who accepted this interpretation, Werktreue or “faithfulness to the work” became inseparable from commitment to Hitler’s “New Germany”.

Seen against this troubling ideological background, and the more recent tendency of Parsifal productions to alter Wagner’s directions (for instance by rehabilitating Kundry), several aspects of Girard’s production merit comment. The narrow cultic Grail community in Act 1 is segregated on the right side of the stage, while excluded female figures lurk in the shadows on the left side. The dividing line on the stage becomes a gigantic wound from which blood flows down into the sinister setting of Act 2, Klingsor’s treacherous magic castle of deceptive illusions. As Kundry delivers her poisoned kiss to Parsifal on a bloodied bed, they are observed voyeuristically by Klingsor in Girard’s staging, which makes sense, since he functions here like the director of the action, using the enchanted castle as his stage set. The tragic dualistic split starts to be overcome in the Good Friday Scene in Act 3, as Parsifal moves across to stage left, foreshadowing the integration of women into the closing integrative synthesis, in which the male and female symbols—Spear and Grail—are joined. Kundry’s involvement here is crucial, since she acts as the Grail bearer, carrying the shrine to the front of the stage, and her active role (departing from Wagner’s instructions) allows her death to be felt as a positive release from her curse and countless reincarnations.

This Parsifal dispenses with a Grail Temple, while broadening the sphere of action as something cosmic. A constricted cultic focus—the orientation so discredited by National Socialism—is replaced here by an open inclusive perspective. Musically as well, features associated with the temple—the bells and unseen choruses—are pallid aspects of an otherwise vivid production. The planetary images in this staging are suggestive of Wagner’s principal medieval source, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, in which the Grail is not the cup that caught the Savior’s blood but a miraculous extra-terrestrial stone. Superb performances of Gurnemanz by René Pape and Parsifal by Jonas Kaufmann contribute to the power of this production, whose closing aesthetic depiction of redemption transcends the closeted world of white-shirted male believers from Act 1, thereby critiquing narrow sectarian religion while affirming the need for a more encompassing spiritual vision.

William Kinderman is Professor of Musicology at the University of Illinois – Champaign-Urbana. His books include the forthcoming Wagner’s Parsifal, Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, ed., Beethoven’s Compositional Process, Beethoven, ed., The Second Practice of Nineteenth-Century Tonality, Artaria 195: Beethoven’s Sketchbook for the ‘Missa solemnis’ and the Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109, ed. (with Katherine Syer), A Companion to Wagner’s “Parsifal”, ed., The String Quartets of Beethoven, and Mozart’s Piano Music. He is also an accomplished pianist whose recordings have been met with global acclaim; his CDs of Beethoven’s last sonatas and Diabelli Variations have appeared with Arietta Records.

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Image credits:
Plate 1: Franz Stassen, illustration of Parsifal holding the Holy Spear, from his 15 Illustrations for Wagner’s Sacred Stage Festival (Bühnenweihfestspiel).
Plate 2: Franz Stassen, illustration of Parsifal holding the Grail, from his 15 Illustrations for Wagner’s Sacred Stage Festival (Bühnenweihfestspiel).
Plate 3: Poster showing Hitler as Parsifal-like “Lichtgestalt” figure.
All images used with permission via William Kinderman.

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