Score for Parsifal by Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Score for Parsifal by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) © Getty  /  De Agostini

Wagner: (Almost) everything you need to know about Wagner's Parsifal

In his final masterpiece, Wagner was influenced yet again by the Middle Ages and its stories of knights and chivalry. Here is a closer look at one of the Bayreuth Festival's most successful projects.

Parsifal sits somewhere between Paganism and Christianity, opera and oratorio. Its story is that of the journey of Parsifal (the father of Lohengrin), a young and naïve man who eventually becomes no less than the saviour of the Holy Grail. A kind of Christ-like figure, it is he who redeems humanity from its mistakes.

In addition to the Christian influences, this "Bühnenweihfestspiel" (festival of sacred music) contains countless varied influences. References to medieval legends abound, it also evokes the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as Buddhism. 

From chromatic tensions to the use of leitmotifs, musical motifs associated with a specific character or idea: all the characteristics of the German maestro's music are here combined in one single work. 

Another medieval legend!

Tristan, Lohengrin, Siegfried… With Parsifal, Wagner forged yet again his hero using medieval legends. Three main tales peaked his interest. The most ancient of these is none other than The Legend of the Holy Grail by Chrétien de Troyes, an unfinished work of literature written near the end of the 12th century. Parsifal has therefore French origins! Though naturally the work's protagonist, nicknamed "Sir Perceval of Galles" was taken directly from Arthurian legends and has therefore British origins.

This is of no surprise when considering at the time, French was spoken on both sides of the Channel and the conquest of England by the Normans was still a recent event. As noted by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the court poets moved frequently from one country to the other, as they followed their Lords.

Wagner was also influenced by German literature, notably by the character Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach, written in 1204, and by a 14th-century manuscript, Mabinogion

Perceval et le Saint Graal (1286)
Perceval et le Saint Graal (1286) © Getty  /  Bettmann

Forty years later…

Though Wagner first discovered the legend of the Holy Grail in around 1840, the premiere of his inspired work Parsifal only took place over forty years later, in 1882. Like many of the German composer's projects, the birth of his operatic work was spread out of several decades. 

Wagner began truly work on his opera in 1857, on Good Friday. Distracted by the shimmers of light on the surface of Lake Zurich, Wagner suddenly felt "the decisive shock", as musicologist Jacques Chailley puts it. "Surrounded by this atmosphere, I suddenly realised that it was Good Friday and remembered the importance of this exhortation in Wolfram's Parzival...". 

But a break from the work's composition was yet again required, for Parsifal was not the only work in progress. Wagner was also working on Siegfried and Tristan. It was not until 1877 that work truly intensified. The libretto was written in just three months and the orchestration followed shortly after in 1880. The work's premiere took place on 26 July 1882 for the second Bayreuth Festival. Six months later, Wagner unfortunately died of a heart attack in Venice.

A Christian symbolism

Is Parsifal a sacred drama or not? The subject is a strongly contested one amongst musicologists. Whatever the answer, religious symbols abound in this final opera, particularly through the various objects present throughout. Firstly, and obviously, the Holy Grail is the cup that held the blood of Christ, whilst the Holy Lance was the weapon with which a solider pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross. 

More than the objects, the opera's different roles borrow their principal characteristics from Christian figures. Parsifal appears as the Redeemer, he who experiences both compassion and suffering following a series of initiatory trials. Realising the pain of the savagess Kundry, and then that of King Amfortas, Parsifal achieves through his own redemption to bring salvation to the whole of humanity. So pure-hearted was he that he could thus become king of the knights of the Holy Grail, as shown in the final scene, the "miracle of Good Friday".

Both savagess and seductress, witch and messenger of the Grail, Kundry is presented as an ambivalent character. In turn a sinner and a repentant, she brings to mind the biblical characters Herodias and Mary Magdalene. Condemned to a life of eternal wandering for having laughed in the face of Christ as he walked to the Cross, Kundry is finally forgiven.

Scène finale de Parsifal de Wagner (Acte III) - Opéra en plein air à Sopot, Pologne (1928)
Scène finale de Parsifal de Wagner (Acte III) - Opéra en plein air à Sopot, Pologne (1928) © Getty  /  Ullstein bild Dtl.

Wieland Wagner in control

Undoubtedly one of the opera's most famous stage designs was by Wieland Wagner, Richard Wagner's grandson. 

Wagner gave the Bayreuth Festival exclusive rights for the performance of Parsifal. It should be noted that the work was composed specifically with the Bayreuth Festival Theatre and its acoustic in mind. Following the death of the composer, his wife Cosima took control of the work. Keen to respect traditions, she kept the original stage design unchanged for 52 years! Despite the fact that this particular stage design was never entirely to the liking of her husband... 

"Bayreuth has remained for a very long time fixed upon an outdated and stereotypical imagery: animal skins and winged helmets, neo-medieval paperboard, and cliched gestures", notes French musicologist Christian Merlin.

Cosima possibly never imagined that her own grandson would later break radically with these traditional stage designs. A sober and refined circular stage with two statues at its centre. Here, everything is suggested. The dematerialisation of the space through the use of lighting seems to illustrate perfectly the words of old Gurnemanz in Act 1: "You see, my son, here time becomes space". Symbolism, abstraction ... Enough to shock the most conservative of spectators in 1951!

Portrait de Wieland Wagner (vers 1961)
Portrait de Wieland Wagner (vers 1961) © Getty  /  Heinz Köster / ullstein bild

The war of the tempo

Another contentious subject, that of tempo. The difference is considerable between the slowest and fastest recordings. In 1931 Arturo Toscanini's performance lasted 4 hours and 48 minutes, whilst in 1975 Hans Zender reached the work's end after only 3 hours and 42 minutes!

The schools of thought have their arguments, the slow tempo usually favoured by conductors. This difference in tempo can be found in all of Wagner's operas, but it is in Parsifal that its impact is most felt. 

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