Parsifal: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Parsifal is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the 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 finished until twenty-five years later. It was to be Wagner's last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular sonority of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Parsifal was first produced at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The Bayreuth Festival maintained an exclusive monopoly on Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Wagner preferred to describe Parsifal not as an opera, but as "ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" - "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage". At Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there is no applause after the first act of the opera.

Wagner's spelling of Parsifal instead of the Parzival he had used up to 1877 is informed by an erroneous etymology of the name Percival deriving it from a supposedly Arabic origin, Fal Parsi meaning "pure fool".[1]



Wagner first read Wolfram von Eschenbach's poem Parzival while taking the waters at Marienbad in 1845.[2] After encountering Arthur Schopenhauer's work in 1854,[3] Wagner became interested in oriental philosophies, especially Buddhism. He was particularly inspired by reading Eugène Burnouf's "Introduction à l'histoire du buddhisme indien" in 1855/56. Out of this interest came "Die Sieger" ("The Victors", 1856) a sketch Wagner wrote for an opera based on a story from the life of Buddha.[4] 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".[5]

According to his own account, recorded in his autobiography Mein Leben, Wagner conceived Parsifal on Good Friday morning, April 1857, in the Asyl (German: "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.[6] The composer and his wife Minna had moved into the cottage 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."[7]

However, 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’”.[8]

The work may indeed have been conceived at Wesendonck's cottage 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.[9] 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 27 and 30 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.[10] 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).[11]

In September 1877 he began 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

Parsifal was the only work Wagner ever wrote in which he employed the contrabassoon.[15]

Parsifal in performance

Amalie Materna, Emil Scaria and Hermann Winkelmann in the 1882 premiere production of Parsifal
Poster for the premiere production of Parsifal - 1882

The premiere

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.[16] 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. Stage designs were by Max Brückner and Paul von Joukowsky who took their lead from Wagner himself. The Grail hall was based on the interior of Siena Cathedral which Wagner had visited in 1880, while Klingsor's magic garden was modelled on those at the Palazzo Rufolo in Ravello.[17] In July and August 1882 sixteen performances of the work were given in Bayreuth conducted by Levi and Franz Fischer. The production boasted an orchestra of 107, a chorus of 135 and 23 soloists (with the main parts being double cast).[18] At the last of these performances, Wagner took the baton from Levi and conducted the final scene of Act 3 from the orchestral interlude to the end.[19]

At the first performances of Parsifal problems with the moving scenery during the transition from Scene one to Scene two in Act 1 meant that Wagner's existing orchestral interlude finished before Parsifal and Gurnemanz arrived at the Hall of the Grail. Engelbert Humperdinck, who was assisting the production, provided a few extra bars of music to cover this gap.[20] In subsequent years this problem was solved and Humperdinck's additions were not used.

The ban on Parsifal outside Bayreuth

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. Wagner had two reasons for wanting to keep Parsifal exclusively for the Bayreuth stage. Firstly, he wanted to prevent it from degenerating into 'mere amusement' for an opera-going public. Only at Bayreuth could his last work be presented in the way envisaged by him - a tradition maintained by his wife, Cosima, long after his death. Secondly he thought that the opera would provide an income for his family after his death if Bayreuth had the monopoly on its performance.

The Bayreuth authorities allowed unstaged performances to take place in various countries after Wagner's death (e.g. London in 1884, New York City 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, using many Bayreuth-trained singers, much to the chagrin of Wagner's family. Cosima had some revenge, she refused to allow anyone involved in the New York production to work at Bayreuth in the future. Unauthorized stage performances were also undertaken in Amsterdam in 1905, 1906 and 1908. Bayreuth's monopoly on the work ended on 1 January 1914 and some theatres began their performances at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 1913.[21] The first authorized performance was mounted in Barcelona: it began at 22.30, an hour and a half before midnight on December 31, 1913, taking advantage of the one hour time difference which existed at that time between Barcelona and Bayreuth. Such was the demand for Parsifal that it was presented in more than 50 European opera houses between 1 January and August 1, 1914.[22]

Applause during Parsifal

At Bayreuth performances audiences do not applaud at the end of the first act. This tradition is the result of a misunderstanding arising from Wagner's desire at the premiere to maintain the serious mood of the opera. After much applause following the first and second acts, Wagner spoke to the audience and said that the cast would take no curtain calls until the end of the performance. This confused the audience, who remained silent at the end of the opera until Wagner addressed them again, saying that he did not mean that they could not applaud. After the performance Wagner complained "Now I don't know. Did the audience like it or not?"[23] At following performances some believed that Wagner had wanted no applause until the very end, and there was silence after the first two acts. Eventually it became a Bayreuth tradition that no applause would be heard after the first act, however this was certainly not Wagner's idea. In fact during the first Bayreuth performances Wagner himself cried "Bravo!" as the Flower-maidens made their exit in the Second Act, only to be hissed by other members of the audience.[23] At some theatres other than Bayreuth, applause and curtain-calls is normal practice after every act; other major theatres, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, follow the Bayreuth custom.

Post-War performances

Parsifal is one of the Wagner operas regularly presented at the Bayreuth Festival to this day. Among the more significant post-war productions was that directed in 1951 by Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson. At the first Bayreuth Festival after World War II he presented a radical move away from literal representation of the Hall of the Grail or the Flower-Maiden's bower. Instead, lighting effects and the bare minimum of scenery were used to complement Wagner's music. This production was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Swiss stage designer, Adolphe Appia. The reaction to this production was extreme: Ernest Newman, Wagner's biographer described it as "not only the best Parsifal I have ever seen and heard, but one of the three or four most moving spiritual experiences of my life".[24] Others were appalled that Wagner's stage directions were being flouted. The conductor of the 1951 production, Hans Knappertsbusch, on being asked how he could conduct such a disgraceful travesty, declared that right up until the dress rehearsal he imagined that the stage decorations were still to come.[25] Knappertsbusch was particularly upset by the omission of the dove which appears over Parsifal's head at the end of the opera, which he claimed inspired him to give better performances. To placate his conductor Wieland arranged to reinstate the dove, which descended on a string. What Knappertsbusch did not realise was that Wieland had made the length of the string sufficient so that the conductor could see the dove, but the audience could not.[26] Wieland continued to modify and refine his Bayreuth production of Parsifal until his death in 1966.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast
26 July 1882
(Conductor: Hermann Levi)
The Met Premiere Cast
24 December 1903
(Conductor: Alfred Hertz)
Parsifal tenor Hermann Winkelmann Alois Burgstaller
Kundry mezzo-soprano
or soprano
Amalie Materna Milka Ternina
Gurnemanz, a veteran Knight of the Grail bass Emil Scaria Robert Blass
Amfortas, ruler of the Grail kingdom baritone Theodor Reichmann Anton van Rooy
Klingsor, a magician bass-baritone Karl Hill Otto Goritz
Titurel, Amfortas' father bass August Kindermann Marcel Journet
Two Grail Knights tenor,
Anton Fuchs
Eugen Stumpf
Julius Bayer
Adolph Mühlmann
Four Esquires sopranos,
Hermine Galfy
Mathilde Keil
Max Mikorey
Adolf von Hübbenet
Katherine Moran
Paula Braendle
Albert Reiss
Willy Harden
Six Flowermaidens 3 sopranos,
3 contraltos
or 6 sopranos
Pauline Horson
Johanna Meta
Carrie Pringle
Johanna André
Hermine Galfy
Luise Belce
Isabelle Bouton
Ernesta Delsarta
Miss Förnsen
Elsa Harris
Lillian Heidelbach
Marcia Van Dresser
Voice from Above, Eine Stimme contralto Sophie Dompierre Louise Homer
Knights of the Grail, boys, flowermaidens


Place: the castle of Monsalvat in the mountains in the north of Spain, and Klingsor's magic palace in the south of Spain.

Act 1

Scene 1

In a forest near the castle of Monsalvat, home of the Grail and its Knights, Gurnemanz, eldest Knight of the Grail, wakes his young squires and leads them in prayer. He sees Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, and his entourage approaching. Amfortas has been injured by his own holy spear, and the wound will not heal.

Gurnemanz asks its lead knight for news of the king’s health. The knight says the king has suffered during the night and is going early for a bath in the holy lake. The squires ask Gurnemanz to explain how the king’s injury can be healed, but he evades their question and a wild woman—Kundry—bursts in. She gives Gurnemanz a vial of balsam, brought from Arabia, to ease the King’s pain and then collapses, exhausted.

Parsifal by Hermann Hendrich

Amfortas arrives, borne on a stretcher by Knights of the Grail. He calls out for Gawain, whose attempt at relieving the king's pain had failed. He is told that this knight has left again, seeking a better remedy. Raising himself somewhat, the king says going off without leave ("Ohn' Urlaub?") is the sort of impulsiveness which led himself into Klingsor’s realm, and to his downfall. He accepts the potion from Gurnemanz and tries to thank Kundry, but she answers hastily that thanks will not help and urges him onward, to his bath.

The procession leaves. The squires eye Kundry with mistrust and question her. After a brief retort, she falls silent. Gurnemanz tells them Kundry has often helped the Grail Knights but that she comes and goes unpredictably. When he asks directly why she does not stay to help, she answers, "I never help!" ("Ich helfe nie!"). The squires think she is a witch and sneer that if she does so much, why will she not find the Holy Spear for them? Gurnemanz reveals that this deed is destined for someone else. He says Amfortas was given guardianship of the Spear, but lost it as he was seduced by an irresistibly attractive woman in Klingsor’s domain. Klingsor grabbed the Spear and stabbed Amfortas: this wound causes Amfortas both suffering and shame, and will never heal on its own.

Squires returning from the king’s bath tell Gurnemanz that the balsam has eased the King’s suffering. Gurnemanz's own squires ask how it is that he knew Klingsor. He solemnly tells them how both the Holy Spear, which pierced the side of the Redeemer on the Cross, and the Holy Grail, which caught the flowing 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, unable to keep impure thoughts from his mind, resorted to self-castration, causing him to be expelled from the order. Klingsor then set himself up in opposition to the realm of the Grail, learning dark arts, claiming the valley domain below and filling it with beautiful flower-maidens to seduce and enthrall wayward Grail Knights. It was here that Amfortas lost the Holy Spear, kept by Klingsor as he schemes to get the Grail, too. Gurnemanz tells how Amfortas later had a holy vision which told him to wait for a “pure fool, enlightened by compassion” (“Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor”) who would finally heal the wound.

At just this moment, cries are heard from the Knights (" Weh! Weh!"): a flying swan has been shot, and a young man is brought forth, a bow in his hand and a quiver of matching arrows. Gurnemanz speaks sternly to the lad saying this is a holy place. He asks him outright if he shot the swan, and the lad boasts that if it flies, he can hit it ("Im Fluge treff' ich was fliegt!") Gurnemanz asks what harm the swan had done, and shows the youth its lifeless body. Now remorseful, the young man breaks his bow, casting it aside. Gurnemanz asks him why he is here, who is his father, how he found this place and, lastly, his name. To each question the lad replies, "I don't know." The elder Knight sends his squires away to help the king and now asks the boy to tell what he does know. The young man says he has a mother, Herzeleide, and that he made the bow himself. Kundry has been listening and now she tells them that this boy’s father was Gamuret, a knight killed in battle, and also how the lad’s mother had forbidden her son to use a sword, fearing that he would meet the same fate as his father. Now the youth recalls that upon seeing knights pass through his forest, he left his home and mother to follow them. Kundry laughs and tells the young man that, as she rode by, she saw Herzeleide die of grief. Hearing this, the lad first jumps at Kundry but then collapses in grief. Kundry herself is now weary for sleep, but cries out that she must not sleep and wishes that she would never again waken. She disappears into the undergrowth.

Gurnemanz knows that the Grail leads only the pious to Monsalvat and invites the boy to observe the Grail ritual. The youth does not know what the Grail is, but he remarks that as they walk, he seems scarcely to move, yet seems to travel far. Gurnemanz says that in this realm, time becomes space (" Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit"). An orchestral interlude leads into Scene Two.

Scene 2

They arrive at the Hall of the Grail, where the Knights are assembling to receive Holy Communion ("Zum Letzten Liebesmahle"). The voice of Titurel is heard, telling his son, Amfortas, to uncover the Grail. Amfortas is racked with shame and suffering (" Wehvolles Erbe, dem ich verfallen"). He is the guardian of these holy relics yet has succumbed to temptation and lost the Spear: he declares himself unworthy of his office. He cries out for forgiveness (“Erbarmen!”) but hears only the promise of future redemption by the pure fool.

On hearing Amfortas' cry, the youth appears to suffer with him, clutching at his heart. The knights and Titurel urge Amfortas to reveal the Grail ("Enthüllet den Gral"), which he finally does. The dark Hall is now bathed in the light of the Grail as the Knights eat. Gurnemanz motions to the youth to participate, but he seems entranced and does not heed. Amfortas does not commune and, as the ceremony ends, collapses in pain and is carried away. Slowly the Hall empties leaving only the young man and Gurnemanz, who asks him if he has understood what he has seen. When the lad cannot answer, Gurnemanz dismisses him as just a fool and sends him out with a warning to hunt geese, if he must, but to leave the swans alone. A voice from high above repeats the promise, “The pure fool, enlightened by compassion."

Act 2

Scene 1

The second act opens at Klingsor’s magic castle. Klingsor conjures up Kundry, waking her from her sleep. He calls her by many names: First Sorceress, Hell's Rose, Herodias, Gundryggia and, lastly, Kundry. She is now transformed into an incredibly alluring woman, as when she seduced Amfortas. She mocks Klingsor's chasteness but she cannot resist his power. Klingsor observes that Parsifal is approaching, and summons his enchanted knights to fight the boy. Klingsor watches as Parsifal overcomes the knights, and they flee. Klingsor wishes destruction on the whole race of knights.

Klingsor sees this young man stray into his Flower-maiden garden and calls to Kundry to seek the boy out and seduce him, but when he turns, he sees that Kundry has already gone.

Parsifal postcard around 1900 - unknown artist

Scene 2

The triumphant youth finds himself in a wondrous garden, surrounded by beautiful and seductive Flower-maidens. They call to him and entwine themselves about him while chiding him for wounding their lovers ("Komm, komm, holder Knabe!"). They soon fight and bicker amongst themselves to win his singular devotion, to the point that he is about flee, but then a voice calls out, "Parsifal!" He now recalls this name is what his mother used when appearing in his dreams. The Flower-maidens back away from him and call him a fool as they leave Parsifal and Kundry alone.

He wonders if this Garden is a dream and asks how it is that Kundry knows his name. Kundry tells him she learned it from his mother ("Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust."), who had loved him and tried to shield him from his father’s fate; the mother he had abandoned and who had finally died of grief. She reveals many parts of Parsifal's history to him and he is stricken with remorse, blaming himself for his mother’s death. He thinks himself very stupid to have forgotten her. Kundry says this realization is a first sign of understanding and that, with a kiss, she can help him understand his mother’s love. As they kiss Parsifal suddenly recoils in pain and cries out Amfortas' name: he feels the wounded king's pain burning in his own side, and now understands Amfortas’ passion during the Grail Ceremony ("Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde!") Filled with this compassion, Parsifal rejects Kundry.

Furious that her ploy has failed, Kundry tells Parsifal that if he can feel compassion for Amfortas, then he can feel compassion for her as well. She has been cursed for centuries, unable to rest, because she saw the Savior on the cross and laughed. Now she can never weep, only laugh, and she is enslaved to Klingsor as well. Parsifal rejects her again but then asks her to lead him to Amfortas. She begs him to stay with her for just one hour, and then she will lead him to Amfortas. When he still refuses, she curses him to wander without ever finding the Kingdom of the Grail, and finally she calls on her master to help her.

Klingsor appears and throws the Spear at Parsifal but it stops in midair, above his head. Parsifal takes it and makes the sign of the Cross. The castle crumbles and as he leaves the scene, he tells Kundry that she knows where she can find him again.

Act 3

Scene 1

"Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail" by Franz Stassen (1869-1949) from Parsifal: A Drama by Wagner Retold by Oliver Huckel (Crowell, New York, 1903)

The Third act opens as it did in the First, in the domain of the Grail, but many years later. Gurnemanz is now aged and bent. He hears moaning near his hermit's hut and discovers Kundry unconscious in the brush, as he had many years before ("Sie! Wieder da!"). 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 to her reappearance on this special day. Looking into the forest, he sees a figure approaching, armed and girt in full armour. The stranger wears a helmet and the hermit cannot see who it is. Gurnemanz queries him, but gets no response. Finally, the apparition removes its helmet and Gurnemanz recognizes the lad who shot the swan, and then joyfully recognizes that the Holy Spear is now returned.

Parsifal tells of his desire to return to Amfortas ("Zu ihm, des tiefe Klagen.") He relates his long journey hence, wandering for years, unable to find a path back to the Grail: he had often been forced to fight, but 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 never revealed 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, recognizing him as the pure fool, now enlightened by compassion, and as the new King of the Knights of the Grail.

Parsifal looks about and comments on the beauty of the meadow. Gurnemanz explains that today is Good Friday, when all the world is renewed. Parsifal now baptizes the weeping Kundry. Tolling bells are heard afar off; Gurnemanz says Midday: the hour has come. My lord, permit your servant to guide you! and all three set off for the castle of the Grail. A dark orchestral interlude (Mittag) leads into the solemn gathering of the knights in Scene Two.

Scene 2

Within the castle of the Grail, Amfortas is brought before the Grail shrine itself, and Titurel’s coffin. He cries out to his dead father to offer him rest from his sufferings, and wishes to join him in death ("Mein vater! Hochgesegneter der Helden!") The Knights of Grail passionately urge Amfortas to uncover the Grail to them again but Amfortas, in a frenzy, says he will never again show the Grail, commanding the Knights, instead, to slay him thus ending his suffering and the shame he has brought on the Knighthood. At this moment, Parsifal steps forth and says that only one weapon can heal the wound ("Nur eine Waffe taugt"): with the Spear he touches Amfortas’ side, and both heals and absolves him. He commands the revealing of the Grail. As all present kneel, Kundry, released from her curse, sinks lifeless to the ground as a white dove descends to hover over the head of Parsifal.

Criticism and influence

As Wagner's last opera, Parsifal has been both influential and controversial. The use of Christian symbols in Parsifal (the Grail, the Spear, references to the Redeemer) have sometimes led to it being regarded almost as a religious rite. It should be noted, however, that Wagner never actually refers to Jesus Christ by name in the opera, preferring instead to refer to "The Redeemer". In his essay "Religion and Art" Wagner himself described the use of Christian imagery thus:

"When religion becomes artificial, art has a duty to rescue it. Art can show that the symbols which religions would have us believe literally true are actually figurative. Art can idealize those symbols, and so reveal the profound truths they contain."[27]


Friedrich Nietzsche, who was originally one of Wagner's champions, chose to use Parsifal as the grounds for his breach with Wagner; an extended critique of Parsifal opens the third essay ("What Is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?") of On the Genealogy of Morality. In "Nietzsche contra Wagner" he wrote:

"Parsifal is a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presuppositions of life - a bad work. The preaching of chastity remains an incitement to anti-nature: I despise everyone who does not experience Parsifal as an attempted assassination of basic ethics."[28]

Despite this attack on the subject matter, he also 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, who attended the premiere, stated afterwards: "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 unsullied, would stay with me for the rest of my life".

Racism debate

Some writers see in the opera the promotion of racism or anti-semitism.[29]

Parsifal on an stamp of the Third Reich - 1933

One line of argument suggests that Parsifal was written in support of the ideas of Arthur de Gobineau who advocated Aryanism. Parsifal is proposed as the "pure-blooded" (ie Aryan) hero who overcomes Klingsor, who is perceived as a Jewish stereotype, particularly since he opposes the quasi-Christian Knights of the Grail. Such claims remain heavily debated,[30][31][32] since there is nothing explicit in the libretto to support them. Wagner never mentions such ideas in his many writings, and Cosima Wagner's diaries, which relate in great detail Wagner's thoughts over the last 14 years of his life (including the period covering the composition and first performance of Parsifal) never mention any such intention.[33] Wagner first met Gobineau very briefly in 1876, but he only read Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races[34] in 1880. However, Wagner had completed the libretto for Parsifal by 1877, and the original drafts of the story date back to 1857. Despite this chronological evidence, Gobineau is frequently cited as a major inspiration for Parsifal.[35][36]

The related question of whether the opera contains a specifically anti-semitic message is also debated.[37] Some of Wagner's contemporaries (e.g Hans von Wolzogen and Ernest Newman) who analysed Parsifal at length, make no mention of any anti-semitic interpretations.[38] However the critics Paul Lindau and Max Nordbeck, present at Parsifal 's premiere, noted in their reviews how the work accorded with Wagner's anti-Jewish sentiments.[39] More recent commentators continue to highlight the perceived anti-semitic nature of the opera,[40] and find correspondences with anti-semitic passages found in Wagner's writings and articles of the period.

The conductor of the premiere was Hermann Levi, the court conductor at the Munich Opera. Since King Ludwig was sponsoring the production, much of the orchestra was drawn from the ranks of the Munich Opera, including the conductor. Wagner objected to Parsifal being conducted by a Jew (Levi's father was in fact a rabbi). Wagner first suggested that Levi should convert to Christianity, which Levi declined to do.[41] Wagner then wrote to King Ludwig that he had decided to accept Levi despite the fact that (he alleged) he had received complaints that "of all pieces, this most Christian of works" should be conducted by a Jew. When the King expressed his satisfaction at this, replying that "human beings are basically all brothers", Wagner wrote to the King that he "regard[ed] the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and eveything noble about it".[42]

During the Nazi regime, Parsifal was denounced as being "ideologically unacceptable"[43] and the opera was not performed at Bayreuth during the war years. It has been suggested that a de facto ban had been placed on Parsifal by the Nazis.[44] However there were 23 performances at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, between 1939 and 1942, which suggests that no formal ban was in place.[45]

Schopenhauerian philosophy

Some writers (e.g. Bryan Magee) see Parsifal as Wagner's last great espousal of Schopenhauerian philosophy.[46] Parsifal can heal Amfortas and redeem Kundry because he shows compassion, which Schopenhauer saw as the highest form of human morality. Moreover, he displays compassion in the face of sexual temptation (Act 2 scene 3). Schopenhaurian philosophy also 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 perhaps more obvious, with its focus on "Sehnen" (yearning). Indeed, Wagner originally considered including Parsifal as a character in Act 3 of Tristan, but later rejected the idea.[47]

Leitmotifs in Parsifal

A leitmotif is a recurring musical theme associated within a particular piece of music with a particular person, place or idea. Wagner is the composer most often associated with leitmotifs, and Parsifal makes liberal use of them.[48] It should be noted that Wagner did not specifically identify or name leitmotifs in the score of Parsifal (any more than he did in any other of his scores),[49] although his wife Cosima mentions statements he made about some of them in her diary. However, Wagner's followers (notably Hans von Wolzogen whose guide to Parsifal was published in 1882) named, wrote about and made references to these motifs, and they were highlighted in piano arrangements of the score.[50][51] (Wagner's own reaction to such naming of motifs in the score was one of disgust: 'In the end people believe that such nonsense happens by my suggestion.') [52] The opening prelude introduces two important leitmotifs, generally referred to as the Communion theme and the theme of the Grail. These two, and Parsifal's own motif, are repeatedly referenced during the course of the opera. Other characters, especially Klingsor, Amfortas, and "The Voice", which sings the so-called Tormotif (Fool's motive), have their own particular leitmotifs. Wagner uses the Dresden amen to represent the Grail, this motif being a sequence of notes he would have known since his childhood in Dresden.

Chromaticism in Parsifal

Many music theorists have used Parsifal to explore difficulties in analyzing the chromaticism of late 19th century music. Theorists such as David Lewin and Richard Cohn have explored the importance of certain pitches and harmonic progressions both in structuring and symbolizing the work.[53][54] The unusual harmonic progressions in the leitmotifs which structure the piece, as well as the heavy chromaticism of Act II, make it a difficult work to parse musically.

Notable excerpts

As is common in mature Wagner operas, Parsifal was composed such that each act was a continuous flow of music; hence there are no free-standing arias in the work. However a number of orchestral excerpts from the opera were arranged by Wagner himself and remain in the concert repertory. The Prelude to Act 1 is frequently performed either alone or in conjunction with an arrangement of the "Good Friday" music which accompanies the second half of Act 3 scene 1. Kundry's long solo in Act 2 ("Ich sah das Kind") is occasionally performed in concert, as is Amfortas' lament from Act 1 ("Wehvolles Erbe").


See Parsifal discography

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.[55] There are also many "unofficial" live recordings from Bayreuth, capturing virtually every Parsifal cast ever conducted by Knappertsbusch.

Amongst the studio recordings, those conducted by Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim (the latter two both conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) have been widely praised.[56] The von Karajan recording was voted "Record of the Year" in the 1981 Gramophone Awards. Also highly regarded is a recording of Parsifal under the baton of Rafael Kubelík originally made for Deutsche Grammophon, now reissued on Arts Archives.

In addition to a number of performances available on DVD, Parsifal was also adapted for the screen by film director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.


  • Beckett, Lucy (1981) Richard Wagner: Parsifal, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29662-5
  • Burbidge, Peter & Sutton, Richard (Eds.) (1979). The Wagner Companion. Faber and Faber Ltd., London. ISBN 0-571-11450-4. 
  • Deathridge, John (2008), Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, Berkeley. ISBN 9780520254534
  • Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983) Richard Wagner: his life, his work, his Century. William Collins, ISBN 0-00-216669-0
  • Magee, Bryan (2002). The Tristan Chord. Owl Books, NY. ISBN 0-8050-7189-X.  (UK Title: Wagner and Philosophy, Publisher Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN 0-14-029519-4)
  • Melitz, Leo (2001). The Opera Goer's Complete Guide. Best Books Ltd., London. ISBN 0-7222-6262-0. 
  • Newman, Ernest (1976) The Life of Richard Wagner (4 vols)., Cambridge. ISBN 0521291496
  • Rose, Paul Lawrence. Wagner:Race and Revolution, London, 1996
  • Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1. 
  • Thorau, Christian, Guides for Wagnerites: Leitmotifs and Wagnerian Listening,: in Thomas S. Grey (ed.), Wagner and His World, (pp. 133-150). Princeton and Oxford (2009) ISBN 9780691143668
  • Weiner, Marc A. (1997), Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, Lincoln ISBN 0803297920
  • Zelinsky, Hartmut, Rettung ins Ungenaue, in Richard Wagner:Parsifal ed. Metzger and Riehn, Munich, 1982.


  1. ^ following Josef Görres (1813). See Richard Wagner, Das braune Buch. Tagebuchaufzeichnungen 1865 bis 1882 ed. Joachim Bergfeld, Zürich, Freiburg i.Br. 1975, p. 52; Danielle Buschinger, Renate Ullrich, Das Mittelalter Richard Wagners, Königshausen & Neumann, 2007, ISBN 9783826030789, p. 140.
  2. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983) "Richard Wagner: his life, his work, his Century." William Collins, ISBN 0-00-216669-0 p141
  3. ^ On the Will in Nature, "Sinology," Footnote listing books on Buddhism s:On the Will in Nature#SINOLOGY
  4. ^ Hollinrake, Roger (1992) in "The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music". Ed. Millington. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1 page 147
  5. ^ Everett, Derrick. "Prose Sketch for Die Sieger". Retrieved February 18, 2010. 
  6. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983) ibid p270
  7. ^ Wagner, Richard. "Mein Leben vol II". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved February 18, 2010. 
  8. ^ Wagner, Cosima (1980) "Cosima Wagner's Diaries" tr. Skelton, Geoffrey. Collins. ISBN 0-00-216189-3
  9. ^ Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1 pages 135-136.
  10. ^ Beckett, Lucy (1981) "Richard Wagner: Parsifal", Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29662-5, page 13.
  11. ^ Beckett, Lucy (1981) ibid page 22.
  12. ^ Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992)ibid pages 247-148.
  13. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)ibid pages 477-479
  14. ^ Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992)ibid page 307.
  15. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed, 1954, Eric Blom, ed.
  16. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)ibid page 485.
  17. ^ Beckett, Lucy (1981)ibid pages 90 - 91.
  18. ^ Carnegy, Patrick (2006) "Wagner and the Art of the Theatre". Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-10695-5. Pages 107 - 118.
  19. ^ Spencer, Stewart (2000) Wagner Remembered. Faber and Faber, London. ISBN 0-571-19653-5. Page 270.
  20. ^ Spencer, Stewart (2000) ibid Pages 268 - 270.
  21. ^ Beckett, Lucy (1981)ibid pages 93 - 95.
  22. ^ Beckett, Lucy (1981)ibid page 94.
  23. ^ a b Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)ibid p506
  24. ^ Spotts, Frederic (1994). Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival. New Haven and London: Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-05777-6. page 212.
  25. ^ Carnegy, Patrick (2006) ibid pages 288-290.
  26. ^ Kluge, Andreas (1992). "Parsifal 1951". Album notes for Wagner: Parsifal. Teldec (9031-76047-2).
  27. ^ Wagner, Richard. "Religion and Art". The Wagner Library. Retrieved October 8, 2007. 
  28. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Nietzsche contra Wagner". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 18 February 2010. 
  29. ^ Gutman, Robert (1968, revised 1990). "Richard Wagner : The Man, His Mind and His Music". Harcourt Brace Jovanovich ISBN 0-14-021168-3 pbk (1971), 015677615 4 pbk (1990); Weiner (1997)
  30. ^ Borchmeyer, Dieter (2003). "Drama and the World of Richard Wagner", Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11497-8
  31. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)Ibid p 477 ff.
  32. ^ Everett, Derrick. "Parsifal and race". Retrieved February 18, 2010. 
  33. ^ Magee, Bryan (2002). The Tristan Chord. Owl Books, NY. ISBN 0-8050-7189-X. pages 371-380.
  34. ^ Gutman (1990), ibid, page 406
  35. ^ Adorno, Theodor (2005). "In Search of Wagner". Verso ISBN 1-84-467500-9 pbk
  36. ^ John Deathridge, 'Strange love' in Western music and race. Cambridge UP, 2007 0-521-83887-0
  37. ^ Deathridge (2008) 166-169.
  38. ^ Ernest Newman, 'A study of Wagner', Dobell, 1899. p352-365. Hans von Wolzogen, 'Thematic guide through the music of Parsifal: with a preface upon the legendary material of the Wagnerian drama', Schirmer, 1904
  39. ^ Rose (1996), 168-9
  40. ^ e.g. Weiner (1997), passim, Zelinksy (1982) passim, Rose (1996), 135 and 158-69
  41. ^ Newman (1976), IV 635
  42. ^ Deathridge (2008), 163
  43. ^ Magee, Bryan (2002). The Tristan Chord. Owl Books, NY. ISBN 0-8050-7189-X. page 366.
  44. ^ Everett, Derrick. "The 1939 Ban on Parsifal". Retrieved February 18, 2010. 
  45. ^ Deathridge (2008), 173-174.
  46. ^ Magee, Bryan (2002). The Tristan Chord. Owl Books, NY. ISBN 0-8050-7189-X. (UK Title: Wagner and Philosophy, Publisher Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN 0-14-029519-4)
  47. ^ Dokumente zur Entstehung und ersten Auffuhrung des Buhnenweihfestspiels Parsifal by Richard Wagner, Martin Geck, Egon Voss. Reviewed by Richard Evidon in Notes, 2nd Ser., Vol. 28, No. 4 (Jun., 1972), pp. 685-687.
  48. ^ Everett, Derrick. "Introduction to the Music of Parsifal". Retrieved February 18, 2010. 
  49. ^ Thorau (2009)136-9
  50. ^ Cosima Wagner's diary, 11 August, 5 December 1877. ('Cosima Wagner's diaries', tr. Geoffrey Skelton. Collins, 1980)
  51. ^ Wagner, Richard. "Parsifal". Schirmer Inc, New York. Retrieved February 18, 2010. 
  52. ^ Cosima Wagner's diary, 1 August, 1881. ('Cosima Wagner's diaries', tr. Geoffrey Skelton. Collins, 1980)
  53. ^ David Lewin, "Amfortas' Prayer to Titurel and the Role of D in Parsifal: The Tonal Spaces of the Drama and the Enharmonic Cb/B," in Studies in Music with Text (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 183-200.
  54. ^ Richard Cohn, "Maximally Smooth Cycles, Hexatonic Systems, and the Analysis of Late-Romantic Triadic Progressions," Music Analysis 15:1 (1996), 9-40.
  55. ^ Holloway, Robin (1982) in "Opera on Record", Harper and Row ISBN 0-06-090910-2
  56. ^ Blyth, Alan (1992), "Opera on CD" Kyle Cathie Ltd, ISBN 1-85626-056-9

External links

Simple English

Parsifal is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. Wagner took most of the story from a medieval poem Parzival by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. It was the last opera that Wagner completed. He started thinking about it in 1857 but did not do much work to it until after he had finished the cycle of four operas known as the Ring Cycle which was produced complete in 1876 in the special theatre (Festspielhaus) he had built in Bayreuth. Wagner composed his opera Parsifal so that it would suit the sound of this new theatre. It was first produced in 1882. The story is related to the Arthurian legends.


The Musical background to the opera

Wagner did more than any other composer in the 19th century to change the way that people listened to opera. In the 18th century people went to the opera house and sat in their boxes to chat to other people and be seen. Composers wrote operas with big arias which allowed the singers to show off their skills and make the audience applaud.

Wagner changed all this. He soon developed operas in which there is no difference between recitative (where the story is told) and arias (big songs for the soloists). The music of his later operas, especially Parsifal, is like a long, continuous line with rich, Romantic harmony. The music develops logically, with leitmotifs (musical ideas which represent particular people or ideas) which help the music and the story to develop.

The story of Parsifal

The story of Parsifal and the Holy Grail has survived in several forms that date from between 1170 and 1220. Wagner, who always wrote the words of his operas himself, used a mixture of several of these versions of the story to fit his ideas for the opera. Parsifal is a young man who is a “pure fool”, which means that he is an innocent, good man who slowly starts to understand the world. The Holy Grail is the cup from which our Saviour Jesus Christ is supposed to have drunk at the Last Supper. The Holy Spear is the spear which is supposed to have been the one with which the Roman soldier pierced Jesus’ side when he was put on the cross. The Holy Grail and the Holy Spear are sacred relics (things from the past) which have been given to Titurel and his band of Christian knights to look after. Titurel has built a castle, Montsalvat, high up on the forest rocks, to guard them. In particular, he has to watch out for Klingsor who lives nearby. Klingsor is a magician who has a garden full of beautiful flower-maidens. These maidens are in his power. One of them is Kundry. She has already been made to lure several young knights to Klingsor’s power. Even Titurel’s son, Amfortas, could not resist the lure of Kundry. His spear was taken from him and he was badly wounded before being rescued. At the beginning of the opera he is lying in pain. The only thing that could heal the wound would be the touch of the Holy Spear which Klingsor now has, and the only person who could get that spear back again is a “pure fool”, a young man who knows nothing about the evil of the world and who can resist the beauty of the flower-maidens.

The story of Parsifal is an allegory. A lot of books have been written about the true meaning of the opera, but the general meaning is that the best way to live is to do good things ("compassion"), not evil things.

The story of the opera

Act I

The opera starts with an orchestral prelude (Wagner does not call it an “overture”). When the curtain rises Gurnemanz, one of the senior knights, wakes up two sleeping servants. They kneel and pray as King Amfortas is brought down on his bed to the forest lake to bathe his wound. Kundry arrives, dashing in on her horse, looking for something to heal the wound (when Kundry is away from Klingsor she is not in his power. She feels that it was her fault that Amfortas was wounded. When Kundry is not in Klingsor’s power she is actually a faithful messenger of the Grail).

Suddenly a wounded swan (a bird that is sacred to the knights of the Grail) falls dead at Gurnemanz’s feet. The swan had been killed by Parsifal. He did not know that it was a wrong thing to do, but when the knights capture him he realizes his guilt and he breaks the arrow. The knights ask him his name, but Parsifal says he does not know his name or where he comes from. Suddenly the knights realize that Parsifal is the pure fool they need who can capture the Holy Spear.

The scene changes. The knights take communion. Amfortas is in terrible pain but has to do his duty in the ceremony. When the Holy Grail is shown it sparkles brightly in the hall. The knights sink to their knees. Only Parsifal does not seem to understand the meaning of it all.

Act II

The scene is Klingsor’s magic garden by his castle. Klingsor knows that Parsifal is on his way. Kundry is now quite different: she has no power of her own. The flower-maidens see Parsifal and call him by his name. No one has ever called him by his name before. When one of them kisses his lips he suddenly realizes what it is he has to do. He now remembers everything that has happened in Act I and understands its meaning. He throws the maiden to one side. Klingsor appears and throws the spear at Parsifal, but magically it stops over Parsifal’s head. Parsifal grabs it and makes the sign of the cross. The castle is destroyed, the gardens disappear, and he goes off back to the Grail.


After a journey which takes him many years Parsifal comes back to the Grail forest. Gurnemanz is now very old. Kundry works for the knights. Parsifal himself is dressed as a black knight. Kundry recognizes him, but Gurnemanz does not. He is annoyed that an armed stranger should come on this holy day (it is Good Friday). Parsifal throws the spear into the ground, puts down his weapons and takes off his helmet. Gurnemanz realizes who it is. He helps him to dress like a knight of the Grail. Kundry washes his feet and dries them with her long hair. Gurnemanz blesses Parsifal’s head. Parsifal is now a knight of the Grail, and he baptizes Kundry. Titurel has just died, and Amfortas, still in terrible pain, comes out to uncover the Grail. Parsifal enters and touches the wound with the point of the spear. Amfortas’s pain changes to happiness, the shrine is opened, the Grail is surrounded by light. The knights kneel down, Kundry dies peacefully. All is forgiven. The music finishes with a climax based on the leitmotifs of the Holy Grail and the Sacrament.

The performances of Parsifal

Until 1903, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was the only place where Wagner’s opera Parsifal was allowed to be performed. This changed after the death of Wagner’s widow, Cosima. In 1903, the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Soon, it was being performed in other places as well.

Wagner like to describe Parsifal as "ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage"). At Bayreuth, it has become tradition that there is to be no applause after the first act of the opera.

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