Wagner felt the first impulse to write Parsifal at the age of 31.
He was in Marienbad working on the opera Lohengrin when he read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s ‘Parzival’.
This epic poem brings together various mythical traditions; Wagner later added elements from other legends.
Three years later, in 1848, the main features of Parsifal flowed over into the draft of a drama entitled “Jesus of Nazareth,” in which Mary Magdalene takes the place of Kundry.
In May 1856 Wagner wrote the draft for a Buddhist drama with the working tide “Der Sieger” (“The Victor”), in which the features of what later became Parsifal are already clear.
Wagner spent Good Friday 1858 in his Zurich retreat where he states that he had a vision and decided on the main motifs of the opera.
In the years that followed, individual characters began to take shape.
At the same time, however, Wagner experienced the immense difficulties presented by the subject matter.
Time and again he postponed committing anything to paper — he was plagued with such doubts that he felt like giving up the whole idea.
It was not until August 1865 that he wrote a detailed draft at King Ludwig II’s insistence. But a further twelve years elapsed before the work was completed in April 1877, being published in book form the same year.
The composition of the music took five more years, and only on July 26, 1882, did the first performance take place in the “Haus Wahnfried” in Bayreuth.
Thirty-seven years had gone by between the first idea for the work and its completion.
Concerning Wagner’s knowledge of occultism, we know he was acquainted with Freemasons, with whom he entered into fierce debate, and with the Rosicrucians.
In his library, now situated in Bayreuth and open to the public, there are translations of the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, which were just being published in his time.
Richard Wagner undoubtedly had exceptional intuitive abilities, and could see many extremely subtle realms and interrelations directly; also that he suffered deeply because all too often he simply could not find the words to express what took place so clearly before his spiritual eye.
It is therefore understandable that he identified with the figure of Amfortas – (see right): Wagner believed in living life to the full; he also saw things but could not grasp them.
The basic spiritual tendency running through the opera is compassion.
Reincarnation and karma are clearly described in several places — without them the whole drama would be inexplicable.
A number of symbols and mythical elements are important for a general understanding of the work.
First, the symbol of the Grail combines elements of legends from Persia and Asia Minor with those from Celtic mythology.
The Grail, the cup which Jesus used at the Last Supper, was made from the stone which fell from Lucifer’s crown as he plunged to earth (see left).
Lucifer (the Light-bringer) brought the mental principle to evolving humanity.
The stone from Lucifer’s crown can therefore be regarded as ego-consciousness or “I am I”: without the awakening mind principle humanity would not be able to acquire knowledge, and the first step along this path is “I am I.”
That this stone was fashioned into a cup or bowl which was used to catch the blood of Christ elevates its meaning because it then stands for the divine self.
As Wagner remarked, it becomes “Grail consciousness” — purified, redeemed “I am.”
The Grail is entrusted to Titurel.
He gathers a brotherhood of knights around him, called the knights of the Grail, who devote themselves to the service of this Grail consciousness through noble deeds.
A second important symbol is the spear, derived from the spear of Longinus (see left) who, it is said, thrust it into Christ’s side during the crucifixion, shedding the Savior’s blood.
It stands for higher mind, that part of us which must decide whether the mind will aspire to spirit or succumb to material desire.
A third central symbol is the swan (see right), denoting the north.
Wagner uses the swan as a symbol of those beings who, though still devoid of individual consciousness, are located in the divine realms, but have their whole development before them; this symbol is identical with that of the angel.
In the last scene a dove appears, symbol according to Wagner of “divine spirit, which floats down idealistically onto the human soul.” It is the Holy Ghost or Spirit.
This announcement of the foolish innocent (“Fal parsi,” hence Parsifal) refers to the reincarnating ego, which hastens from life to life.
But the Chorus sings again: “Enlightened through compassion, the innocent fool: wait for him, the appointed one.”
The second act of Parsifal takes place in the magic castle (maya) of the black magician Klingsor. Here Satan, personified as the magician, tests Parsifal’s will power.
Wagner regards Klingsor “as the counterweight to the god-seeking impulse, which beclouds the power of discernment, with two sources of illusion: the power of sense impressions and passionate desire.”
Klingsor evokes those forces of passion which compel us into a seemingly endless cycle of reimbodiment, rest, and fulfillment, ever seeking redemption.
Through self-castration Klingsor has forcibly rendered himself unreceptive to desire.
He has obtained magic power over Kundry and possession of the holy spear.
Now he intends with her aid to gain possession of the Grail: Kundry is to seduce Parsifal, as she did Amfortas before him.
Kundry suffers because of herself: she longs for satisfaction and the stilling of her eternal urges.
But a knight must be able to withstand, control, and refine the dark forces of desire — ultimately it is desire which impels us to aspire to higher things.
Kundry resists the entreaties of the magician, but when Parsifal enters the realm of Klingsor, she succumbs to the magician’s power lower mind naturally feels drawn to its divine origin.
The violent love which she feels, however, is the result of desire. Thus tragedy is preordained.
When Parsifal enters the magic castle, Klingsor conceals himself and turns the area into a beautiful tropical garden where young maidens clad in soft-colored veils dance.
When Parsifal approaches, they embrace him, and the game with the flower maidens begins.
The higher self can only play with beauty; as soon as one is entrapped by it, his powers become bound to the physical realm.
The maidens want more than just to play, and they crowd around him.
Firmly driving them off, Parsifal cries: “Have done! You shall not catch me!”
The first attempt at seduction through the power of deceptive beauty has been repulsed. But when Kundry enters and calls his name — Parsifal — he is shocked, because his mother had once addressed him in just the same way in a dream.
The flower maidens fade away and Parsifal recognizes the deceptive nature of the material world. Now the power of the desire world is revealed to him: Kundry becomes visible.
She tells Parsifal of his origin: Parsifal left the world of illusion and went his way, following the laws of spirit. In the world of appearances it is impossible to understand such decisions.
So great is the sorrow of his mother (his biological origin) at his decision that she finally dies.
When Kundry tells of his mother’s grief when he ran away to seek higher things, she awakens the pity of the higher self with regard to the personal self.
Parsifal sinks down at Kundry’s feet and torments himself with severe self-reproaches.
Parsifal experiences here the possibly strongest temptation the aspiring human being can encounter.
Overpowering pity in the face of suffering has proved the undoing of many who betrayed their divine ideals for the sake of alleviating suffering. In his state of weakness, Kundry tells Parsifal of the great love between his parents; nevertheless, he does not give in to Kundry’s fantasies but sees Amfortas before him.
This time he does not merely see the sorrow in the realm of the Grail, as in the first act, but suffers it directly.
Parsifal suddenly starts up with a gesture of the utmost terror, his demeanor expresses some fearful change; he presses his hands hard against his heart as if to master an agonizing pain. He cries: “Amfortas! The wound! The wound! It burns within my heart!”
Parsifal remembers what he saw in the temple of the Grail and “falls into a complete trance.”
The vision of his link with divinity awakens once again within him.
He is filled with deep compassion which no longer relates to the personal self, nor to the suffering of the spiritual self (Amfortas), but to the inmost divine heart of creation calling us to liberation.
It is compassion for his own essential divinity which is enchained by the fetters of desire.
This compassion for the divine activates love of the divine and sets in motion the will to complete the process of attaining divinity.
Kundry tries to hinder Parsifal’s compassion, but he recognizes the demonic nature of her attempt. Kundry tries to kiss Parsifal, but he forcefully repulses her.
This is the turning point of the whole drama.
The deceptive maneuver of the black magician which brought about the downfall of Amfortas and the knights of the Grail, is penetrated by Parsifal, enabling him to achieve clearness of vision.
He sees through the bewildering attacks of his adversary and hears the call of the divine will to redemption “in proving himself through the active pity he feels for the sorrow of humanity” (quotation from Wieland Wagner).
Only now does Klingsor begin his most powerful attack on the initiant.
Through Kundry he attempts to conjoin universal love with the personal. Kundry reveals to Parsifal the tragedy of her existence and her own suffering, saying:
One for whom I yearned in deathly longing, whom I recognized though despised and rejected, let me weep upon his breast, for one hour only be united to you and, though God and the world disown me, in you be cleansed of sin and redeemed!
Parsifal here recognizes Klingsor’s seductive attack on his will to redemption.
He discerns the way in which the human desire nature repeatedly feigns reformation and binds us to things of matter.
He again repulses Kundry, saying: “For evermore would you be damned with me if for one hour, unmindful of my mission, I yielded to your embrace.”
The seducing skills become increasingly spiritual (geistig).
Kundry begs for pity and promises Parsifal the attainment of divinity. But the initiant understands that in no event must he allow himself to be ruled by the desire nature; only if desire is used to liberate the aspiring human ego will it be redeemed.
He says to Kundry: “Love and redemption shall be yours if you will show me the way to Amfortas.”
Kundry tries once again to win Parsifal’s act of redemption for herself: she tries to embrace him and implores him to take pity. But it is too late: Parsifal is already in a higher state of consciousness.
He vigorously pushes her aside. The initiant has withstood the test. Kundry flies into a fury and curses “the fool” in her selfish longing for redemption.
She tries to prevent him from reaching the Grail.
Klingsor then appears in person and hurls the spear at Parsifal, but Parsifal catches the spear and holds it above his head: sensuous lower mind is transformed into aspiring higher mind.
Parsifal says: “With this sign I rout your enchantment. As the spear closes the wound which you dealt him with it, may it crush your lying splendour into mourning and ruin!”
In the light of the higher mind the demonic illusion fades away; Klingsor’s magic realm sinks as if by an earthquake.
The third act, concerning redemption, takes place in the realm of the Grail on the morning of Good Friday: flowers are in bloom all around and desire moves through the whole of nature, awakening it to new life.
Gurnemanz enters from a humble hermit’s hut, when he hears Kundry moaning. He notices a change in her: the wildness has vanished. She allows Gurnemanz to reawaken her from her paralysis. Her only concern seems to be to serve the knights of the Grail, but Gurnemanz informs her of a change in the knightly order: the spring of divine wisdom has failed.
Everyone now looks after himself.
Meanwhile Parsifal enters clad in black armor, which Wagner regarded as a symbol of will power, the fighting strength of the personal self.
He saw the conquest of the powers of illusion as an act requiring personal effort and struggle — the assertion of the higher will in the midst of personal, earthly life: a strong awareness of suffering can raise the intellect of the higher nature to knowledge of the meaning of the world.
Those in whom this sublime process takes place, it being announced to us by a suitable deed, are called heroes. — Collected Writings of R. Wagner, vol. 10
Gurnemanz calls upon the “stranger” to lay down his weapons at this holy spot.
Parsifal then “thrusts the spear into the ground before him, lays shield and sword beneath it, opens his helmet, takes it from his head and lays it with the other arms, then kneels before the spear in silent prayer. . . . Parsifal raises his eyes devoutly to the spearhead.”
In the realm of the Grail the weapons of the personal consciousness are sacrificed to the power of intuition: the helmet of intelligence, the shield of courage, and the sword of the active will, while the point of the spear (mind) represents the moment of maximum concentration which leads to an intuitive understanding of the world.
Gurnemanz now recognizes the spear and also the man who had once slain the swan.
The spear is back in the realm of the Grail: the power of intuition shines again.
When asked where he comes from, Parsifal answers: “Through error and the path of suffering I came; . . . An evil curse drove me about in trackless wandering, never to find the way to healing; numberless dangers, battles, and conflicts forced me from my path even when I thought I knew it.”
Gurnemanz reports that since Titurel’s death the state of the Order has worsened: intuition has been completely lost, and the Grail itself remains enclosed within the shrine.
The knights now feed only on dogmas.
Parsifal springs up in intense grief — he feels responsible for the knights’ suffering since he, the chosen “Redeemer,” had succumbed to illusion.
Amfortas is due to open the shrine in which the Grail is concealed on that very day, when his father is carried to his grave.
Gurnemanz wants to take Parsifal to him. But first, one of the most significant scenes of the opera takes place: as Kundry bathes Parsifal’s feet, the full consciousness of his task awakens in him. Once the purification and cleansing of the personal self (the feet) have been carried out, Gurnemanz proceeds to anoint his head — his spiritual judgment must likewise light up pure and spotless within the personal self — enabling the personal self to be united with the divine self of its own free will.
Parsifal is thereby made King of the Grail.
His first office is to baptize Kundry: the desire nature is incorporated into the community as an element necessary to progress, and becomes the driving force of pure divine love.
That desire no longer serves the lower, but the higher self, brings about a transformation in the whole of nature.
In Gurnemanz’s words: “Thus all creation gives thanks, all that here blooms and soon fades, now the nature, absolved from sin, today gains its day of innocence.”
Parsifal then kisses Kundry gently on the forehead.
In the distance the sound of bells is heard.
As they approach the temple of the Grail, time once more becomes space and the interior of the temple becomes visible.
It is the same scene as at the end of the first act, but more gloomy.
Two processions of knights enter the stage, one carrying Titurel’s coffin, the other with Amfortas on his deathbed.
The knights are aware that without the creative power of intuition of the Grail, they are doomed to die.
They are not strong enough to open the shrine themselves and therefore insistently press Amfortas to do so, but in his immeasurable pain he is no longer able to open the shrine.
He calls upon the knights to kill him, since no one is able to close the wound.
At this moment the divine love of the higher self breaks through: Parsifal enters the hall, accompanied by Gurnemanz and Kundry and, touching the wound with the end of the spear, says: “But one weapon serves: only the spear that smote you can heal your wound.”
The personal mind, gravitating to things of earth, opened up the gulf in human nature; the intuitive mind closes the fissure between the spiritual and earth-bound poles.
Parsifal continues: “Be whole, absolved and atoned! For I now will perform your task. O blessed be your suffering, that gave pity’s mighty power and purest wisdom’s might to the timorous fool!”
Parsifal steps towards center stage, holding the spear aloft before him, saying: “I bring back to you the holy spear !”
All gaze in reverence at the uplifted spear, to whose point Parsifal raises his eyes and intones:
O supreme joy of this miracle! This that could heal your wound I see pouring with holy blood yearning for that kindred fount which flows and wells within the Grail. No more shall it be hidden: uncover the Grail, open the shrine!
Parsifal then mounts the altar steps, takes the Grail from the shrine now opened by the squires, and kneels before it in silent prayer and contemplation.
The Grail begins to glow with a soft light, increasing darkness below and growing illumination far above.
A beam of light: the Grail glows at its brightest.
From the dome a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal’s head.
Kundry slowly sinks lifeless to the ground in front of Parsifal, her eyes uplifted to him.
Amfortas and Gurnemanz kneel in homage to Parsifal, who waves the Grail in blessing over the worshipping brotherhood of knights.
Wagner by these stage directions for the final scene epitomizes the ultimate triumph of the hero-soul.
Through Parsifal’s act the earthbound human mind is directed upwards again towards divinity; the power of creative intuition flows again through all the realms.
As a result, the fossilized spiritual tradition of Titurel is reinvigorated, and he rises from his coffin. The divine spirit, symbolized by the dove, hovers over Parsifal’s head, i.e., the consciousness of the higher ego experiences its innate divinity.
This represents a transformation into something completely new: the attainment of transcendence.
Erlösung dem Erlöser !
Nietzsche & Parsifal
Nietzsche heard the Parsifal Vorspiel for the first time in Monte-Carlo in January 1887 :
‘Putting aside all irrelevant questions (to what end such music can or should serve?), and speaking from a purely aesthetic point of view, has Wagner ever written anything better?
The supreme psychological perception and precision as regards what can be said, expressed, communicated here, the extreme of concision and directness of form, every nuance of feeling conveyed epigrammatically; a clarity of musical description that reminds us of a shield of consummate workmanship; and finally an extraordinary sublimity of feeling, something experienced in the very depths of music, that does Wagner the highest honour; a synthesis of conditions which to many people – even “higher minds” – will seem incompatible, of strict coherence, of “loftiness” in the most startling sense of the word, of a cognisance and a penetration of vision that cuts through the soul as with a knife, of sympathy with what is seen and shown forth. Has anyone ever depicted so sorrowful a look of love as Wagner does in the final accents of his Prelude ?’
‘I cannot think of it without feeling violently shaken, so elevated was I by it, so deeply moved.
It was as if someone were speaking to me again, after many years, about the problems that disturb me.
When listening to this music one lays Protestantism aside as a misunderstanding – and also, I will not deny it, other really good music, which I have at other times heard and loved, seems, as against this, a misunderstanding !’
Adolf Hitler’s interpretation of Parsifal –
“I have built up my religion out of Parsifal. Divine worship in solemn form … without pretenses of humility … One can serve God only in the garb of the hero”
‘What is celebrated in Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ is not the Christian religion of compassion, but pure and noble blood, – blood whose purity the brotherhood of initiates has come together to guard.
The king (Amfortas) then suffers an incurable sickness, caused by his tainted blood.
Then the unknowing but pure human being (Parsifal) is led into temptation, either to submit to the frenzy and to the delights of a corrupt civilisation in Klingsor’s magic garden, or to join the select band of knights who guard the secret of life, which is pure blood itself.
All of us suffer the sickness of miscegenated, corrupted blood.
Note how the compassion that leads to knowledge applies only to the man who is inwardly corrupt, to the man of contradictions.
And Eternal life, as vouchsafed by the Grail, is only granted to those who are truly pure and noble !
Only a new nobility can bring about the new culture.
At this turning- point in the world’s revolution the mass is the sum of declining culture and its moribund representatives.
They should be left to die, together with all kings like Amfortas.’