Parsifal (WWV 111) is an opera in three acts by German composer
Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on
Parzival by Wolfram von
Eschenbach, a 13th-century epic poem of the
Arthurian knight Parzival
(Percival) and his quest for the
Holy Grail (12th century).
Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but did not finish it
until twenty-five years later. It was Wagner's last completed opera
and in composing it he took advantage of the particular acoustics of
Parsifal was first produced at the second
Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The
Bayreuth Festival maintained a monopoly
Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at
Opera in New York.
Parsifal not as an opera, but as Ein
Bühnenweihfestspiel ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the
Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there be 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 Persian origin, Fal Parsi meaning "pure
2 Performance history
2.1 The premiere
2.2 Ban outside Bayreuth
2.4 Post-war performances
4.1 Act 1
4.2 Act 2
4.3 Act 3
6 Criticism and influence
7.3 Notable excerpts
7.6 Filmed versions
8 See also
9 Further reading
11 External links
Wagner first read von Eschenbach's poem
Parzival while taking the
waters at Marienbad in 1845. After encountering Arthur
Schopenhauer's writings in 1854, Wagner became interested in
oriental philosophies, especially Buddhism. 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. 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
According to his own account, recorded in his autobiography Mein
Leben, Wagner conceived
Good Friday morning, April 1857,
in the Asyl (German: "Asylum"), the small cottage on Otto 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, through the good offices of his wife Mathilde
Wesendonck. The composer and his wife Minna had moved into the
cottage on 28 April:
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.
However, as his second wife
Cosima Wagner later reported on 22 April
1879, this account had been colored by a certain amount of poetic
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'".
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. 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
Wagner did not resume work on
Parsifal for eight years, during which
time he completed
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan und Isolde and began Die Meistersinger von
Nürnberg. 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. 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
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).
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.
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 3 was completed on 16 April 1879 and the Orchesterskizze on the
26th of the same month.
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
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 1 was scored in August 1878. The rest of the opera was
scored between August 1879 and 13 January 1882.
Poster for the premiere production of
Parsifal – 1882
On 12 November 1880 Wagner conducted a private performance of the
prelude for his patron
Ludwig II of Bavaria
Ludwig II of Bavaria at the Court Theatre in
Munich. The premiere of the entire work was given in the
Bayreuth on 26 July 1882 under the baton of the
Jewish-born German 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
which Wagner had visited in 1880, while Klingsor's magic garden was
modelled on those at the Palazzo Rufolo in Ravello. 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). 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.
At the first performances of
Parsifal problems with the moving scenery
during the transition from scene 1 to scene 2 in act 1 meant that
Wagner's existing orchestral interlude finished before
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. In subsequent years this problem was solved and
Humperdinck's additions were not used.
Ban outside Bayreuth
For the first twenty years of its existence, the only staged
Parsifal took place in the
Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the
venue for which Wagner conceived the work (except eight private
performances for Ludwig II at
Munich in 1884 and 1885). 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.
Bayreuth authorities allowed unstaged performances to take place
in various countries after Wagner's death (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 United States could
not be prevented by Bayreuth, the New York Metropolitan
the complete opera, using many Bayreuth-trained singers. Cosima barred
anyone involved in the New York production from working at
future performances. Unauthorized stage performances were also
undertaken in Amsterdam in 1905, 1906 and 1908. There was a
performance in Buenos Aires, in Teatro Coliseo, on June 20, 1913 under
Bayreuth lifted its monopoly on
Parsifal on 1 January 1914 in the
Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Bologna with Giuseppe Borgatti. Some
opera houses began their performances at midnight between 31 December
1913 and 1 January. The first authorized performance was staged at
Gran Teatre del Liceu
Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona: it began at 10:30pm Barcelona
time, which was an hour behind Bayreuth. Such was the demand for
Parsifal that it was presented in more than 50 European opera houses
between 1 January and 1 August 1914.
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?" At subsequent 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, but this was certainly not Wagner's idea. In fact during the
Bayreuth performances Wagner himself cried "Bravo!" as the
Flowermaidens made their exit in the second act, only to be hissed by
other members of the audience. At some theatres other than
Bayreuth, applause and curtain calls are normal practice after every
act. Program notes until 2013 at the Metropolitan
Opera in New York
asked the audience not to applaud after act 1.
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 Flowermaiden'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, Richard 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". 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. 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 long enough for the conductor to see the dove, but not for
the audience. Wieland continued to modify and refine his Bayreuth
Parsifal until his death in 1966.
Martha Mödl created a
"complex, tortured Kundry in Wieland Wagner's revolutionary production
Parsifal during the festival's first postwar season," and would
remain the company's exclusive Kundry for the remainder of the
26 July 1882
(Conductor: Hermann Levi)
The Met premiere cast
24 December 1903
(Conductor: Alfred Hertz)
Gurnemanz, a veteran Knight of the Grail
Amfortas, ruler of the Grail kingdom
Theodor Reichmann (de)
Anton van Rooy
Klingsor, a magician
Titurel, Amfortas' father
Two Grail Knights
Adolf von Hübbenet
or six sopranos
Marcia Van Dresser
Voice from Above, Eine Stimme
Knights of the Grail, boys, Flowermaidens
Parsifal and Kundry,
by Rogelio de Egusquiza
Place: Near the seat of the Grail
In a forest near the 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.
About 14 minutes.
Gurnemanz asks the lead Knight for news of the King's health. The
Knight says the
King has suffered during the night and is going early
to bathe 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
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
Gawain 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 abruptly 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. The 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, father
of Amfortas. 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
Flowermaidens to seduce and enthrall wayward Grail Knights. It was
here that Amfortas lost the Holy Spear, kept by Klingsor as he schemes
to get hold of the Grail as well. 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 will
finally heal the wound.
At 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 tells him that the swan is a
holy animal, and asks what harm the swan had done him, and shows the
youth its lifeless body. Now remorseful, the young man breaks his bow
and casts it aside. Gurnemanz asks him why he is here, who his father
is, 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 (Heart's Sorrow) and
that he made the bow himself. Kundry has been listening and now 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. The youth now
recalls that upon seeing knights pass through his forest, he had 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 lunges 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 might never again waken. She disappears into
Gurnemanz knows that the Grail draws only the pious to Monsalvat and
invites the boy to observe the Grail rite. The youth does not know
what the Grail is, but remarks that as they walk he seems to scarcely
move, yet feels as if he is traveling far. Gurnemanz says that in this
realm time becomes space ("Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit").
An orchestral interlude of about 4 minutes.
They arrive at the Hall of the Grail, where the Knights are assembling
Holy Communion ("Zum letzten Liebesmahle"). The voice of
Titurel is heard, telling his son, Amfortas, to uncover the Grail.
Amfortas is wracked 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 that he will one day be redeemed 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"), and 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. Amfortas does not share in taking communion 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".
Parsifal postcard around 1900 – unknown artist
Klingsor's magic castle. Klingsor conjures up Kundry, waking her from
her sleep. He calls her by many names: First Sorceress (Urteufelin),
Hell's Rose (Höllenrose), Herodias, Gundryggia and, lastly, Kundry.
She is now transformed into an incredibly alluring woman, as when she
once seduced Amfortas. She mocks Klingsor's mutilated condition by
sarcastically inquiring if he is chaste ("Ha ha! Bist du keusch?"),
but she cannot resist his power. Klingsor observes that
approaching and summons his enchanted knights to fight the boy.
Klingsor watches as
Parsifal overcomes his knights, and they flee.
Klingsor wishes destruction on their whole race.
Klingsor sees this young man stray into his Flowermaiden garden and
calls to Kundry to seek the boy out and seduce him, but when he turns,
he sees that Kundry has already left on her mission.
The triumphant youth finds himself in a wondrous garden, surrounded by
beautiful and seductive Flowermaidens. 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 among
themselves to win his devotion, to the point that he is about to flee,
but then a voice calls out, "Parsifal!" He now recalls this name is
what his mother called him when she appeared in his dreams. The
Flowermaidens back away from him and call him a fool as they leave him
and Kundry alone.
Parsifal wonders if the 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
Parsifal rejects Kundry's advances.
Furious that her ploy has failed, Kundry tells
Parsifal that if he can
feel compassion for Amfortas, then he should be able to feel it for
her as well. She has been cursed for centuries, unable to rest,
because she saw Christ on the cross and laughed at His pains. Now she
can never weep, only jeer, 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
take him to Amfortas. When he still refuses, she curses him to wander
without ever finding the Kingdom of the Grail, and finally calls on
her master Klingsor 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 with it. The castle crumbles and the enchanted garden withers.
Parsifal leaves, he tells Kundry that she knows where she can find
About 5 minutes.
The scene is the same as that of the opening of the opera, in the
domain of the Grail, but many years later. Gurnemanz is now aged and
bent. It is Good Friday. 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 in
full armour. The stranger wears a helmet and the hermit cannot see who
it is. Gurnemanz queries him and chides him for being armed on
sanctified ground and on a holy day, but gets no response. Finally,
the apparition removes the helmet and Gurnemanz recognizes the lad who
shot the swan, and joyfully sees that he bears the Holy Spear.
Parsifal tells of his desire to return to Amfortas ("Zu ihm, des tiefe
Klagen"). He relates his long journey, how he wandered 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 unveiled the Grail,
and lack of its sustaining properties has caused the death of Titurel.
Parsifal is overcome with remorse, blaming himself for this state of
affairs. Gurnemanz tells him that today is the day of Titurel's
funeral, 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.
End of act 3 in the original 1882 production, design by Paul von
Parsifal looks about and comments on the beauty of the meadow.
Gurnemanz explains that today is Good Friday, when all the world is
Parsifal baptizes the weeping Kundry. Tolling bells are heard
in the distance. Gurnemanz says "Midday: the hour has come. My lord,
permit your servant to guide you!" ("Mittag: – Die Stund ist da:
gestatte Herr, dass dich dein Knecht geleite") – and all three set
off for the castle of the Grail. A dark orchestral interlude
("Mittag") leads into the solemn gathering of the knights.
Within the castle of the Grail, Amfortas is brought before the Grail
shrine and Titurel's coffin. He cries out, asking his dead father to
grant him rest from his sufferings and expresses the desire to join
him in death ("Mein Vater! Hochgesegneter der Helden!"). The Knights
of the Grail passionately urge Amfortas to uncover the Grail again but
Amfortas, in a frenzy, says he will never again show the Grail. He
commands the Knights, instead, to kill him and end 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"). He touches Amfortas' side with the Spear and both
heals and absolves him.
Parsifal commands the unveiling of the Grail.
As all present kneel, Kundry, released from her curse, sinks lifeless
to the ground as a white dove descends and hovers above Parsifal.
Parsifal could initially only be seen at the
the first presentation in 1882 was attended by many notable figures.
Reaction was varied. Some thought that
Parsifal marked a weakening of
Wagner's abilities. The critic
Eduard Hanslick gave his opinion that
"The Third act may be counted the most unified and the most
atmospheric. It is not the richest musically," going on to note "And
Wagner's creative powers? For a man of his age and his method they are
astounding ... [but] It would be foolishness to declare that Wagner's
fantasy, and specifically his musical invention, has retained the
freshness and facility of yore. One cannot help but discern sterility
and prosaicism, together with increasing longwindedness."
Felix Weingartner found that: "The Flowermaidens'
costumes showed extraordinary lack of taste, but the singing was
incomparable... When the curtain had been rung down on the final scene
and we were walking down the hill, I seemed to hear the words of
Goethe 'and you can say you were present.' The 'Parsifal' performances
of 1882 were artistic events of supreme interest and it is my pride
and joy that I participated in them."
Hugo Wolf was a student at the time of the 1882 Festival, yet still
managed to find money for tickets to see
Parsifal twice. He emerged
overwhelmed: "Colossal – Wagner's most inspired, sublimest
creation." He reiterated this view in a postcard from
Parsifal is without doubt by far the most beautiful and sublime
work in the whole field of Art."
Gustav Mahler was also present in
1883 and he wrote to a friend; "I can hardly describe my present state
to you. When I came out of the Festspielhaus, completely spellbound, I
understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been
made to me, and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my
Max Reger simply noted that "When I first heard
Bayreuth I was fifteen. I cried for two weeks and then became a
Alban Berg described
Parsifal in 1909 as "magnificent,
overwhelming," and Jean Sibelius, visiting the Festival in 1894
said: "Nothing in the world has made so overwhelming an impression on
me. All my innermost heart-strings throbbed... I cannot begin to tell
Parsifal has transported me. Everything I do seems so cold and
feeble by its side. That is really something." Claude Debussy
thought the characters and plot ludicrous, but nevertheless in 1903
wrote that musically it was: "Incomparable and bewildering, splendid
Parsifal is one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever
raised to the serene glory of music." He was later to write to
Ernest Chausson that he had deleted a scene he had just written for
his own opera Pelléas et Melisande because he had discovered in the
music for it 'the ghost of old Klingsor, alias R. Wagner'.
Some took a more acerbic view of the experience.
Mark Twain visited
the Festival in 1891: "I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of
Parsifal anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune
or melody... Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it... In
Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in
one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another
of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die."
Performance standards may have contributed to such reactions; George
Bernard Shaw commented in 1894 that: "The opening performance of
Parsifal this season was, from the purely musical point of view, as
far as the principal singers were concerned, simply an abomination.
The bass howled, the tenor bawled, the baritone sang flat and the
soprano, when she condescended to sing at all and did not merely shout
her words, screamed..."
During a break from composing The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky
traveled to the
Bayreuth Festival (at the invitation of Sergei
Diaghilev) to see the work. Stravinsky was repulsed by the
"quasi-religious atmosphere" of the festival. Stravinsky's repulsion
is speculated to be due to his agnosticism.
Nazi propaganda minister
Joseph Goebbels was a strong advocate of the
work. After hearing it for the first time in 1928, he described it as
"my greatest experience at the opera [...] by the end, I was
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) together with its restriction
Bayreuth for almost 30 years sometimes led to performances 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,
only 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.
Eduard Hanslick objected to the religious air surrounding
Parsifal even at the premiere: "The question of whether Parsifal
should really be withheld from all theatres and limited to... Bayreuth
was naturally on all tongues... I must state here that the church
Parsifal did not make the offensive impression on me that
others and I had been led to expect from reading the libretto. They
are religious situations – but for all their earnest dignity they
are not in the style of the church, but completely in the style of the
Parsifal is an opera, call it a 'stage festival' or
'consecrational stage festival' if you will."
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
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
Despite this attack on the subject matter, he also admitted that the
music was sublime: "Moreover, apart from all irrelevant questions (as
to what the use of this music can or ought to be) and on purely
aesthetic grounds; has Wagner ever done anything better?" (Letter to
Peter Gast, 1887).
Further information: Wagner controversies
Some writers see in the opera the promotion of racism or
Act 3: "Nur eine Waffe taugt" (by Arnaldo dell'Ira, c. 1930)
One line of argument suggests that
Parsifal was written in support of
the ideas of
Arthur de Gobineau
Arthur de Gobineau who advocated Aryanism.
proposed as the "pure-blooded" (i.e. 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, 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. Wagner first met
Gobineau very briefly in 1876, but it was only in 1880 that he read
Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. 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.
The related question of whether the opera contains a specifically
anti-Semitic message is also debated. Some of Wagner's
contemporaries and commentators (e.g.
Hans von Wolzogen and Ernest
Newman) who analysed
Parsifal at length, make no mention of any
anti-Semitic interpretations. 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. More recent commentators continue to highlight the
perceived anti-Semitic nature of the opera, 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
Munich Opera. Since
King Ludwig was sponsoring the production,
much of the orchestra was drawn from the ranks of the
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. 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 everything noble about it".
It has been claimed that
Parsifal was denounced as being
"ideologically unacceptable" in the Third Reich, and that the
Nazis placed a de facto ban on Parsifal. In fact there were 26
performances at the
Bayreuth Festival between 1934 and 1939 as
well as 23 performances at the
Deutsche Oper in Berlin between 1939
and 1942. However
Parsifal was not performed at the Bayreuth
Festival during World War II.
Wagner had been greatly impressed with his reading of Arthur
Schopenhauer in 1854, and this deeply affected his thoughts and
practice on music and art. Some writers (e.g. Bryan Magee) see
Parsifal as Wagner's last great espousal of Schopenhauerian
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.
A leitmotif is a recurring musical theme within a particular piece of
music, associated with a particular person, place or idea. Wagner is
the composer most often associated with leitmotifs, and
liberal use of them. Wagner did not specifically identify or name
leitmotifs in the score of
Parsifal (any more than he did in any other
of his scores), although his wife Cosima mentions statements he made
about some of them in her diary. However, Wagner's followers
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. 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
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 repeated 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.
Many music theorists have used
Parsifal to explore difficulties in
analyzing the chromaticism of late 19th century music. Theorists such
David Lewin and
Richard Cohn have explored the importance of
certain pitches and harmonic progressions both in structuring and
symbolizing the work. The unusual harmonic progressions in the
leitmotifs which structure the piece, as well as the heavy
chromaticism of act 2, make it a difficult work to parse musically.
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
The score for
Parsifal calls for three flutes, three oboes, one
English horn, three clarinets in B-flat and A, one bass clarinet in
B-flat and A, three bassoons, one contrabassoon; four horns in F,
three trumpets in F, three trombones, one tuba, 6 onstage trumpets in
F, 6 onstage trombones; a percussion section that includes four
timpani (requiring two players), tenor drums, 4 onstage church bells,
one onstage thunder machine; two harps and strings.
Parsifal is one of
only two works by Wagner in which he used the contrabassoon. (The
other is the Symphony in C.)
The bells that draw the knights to the Grail ceremony at Monsalvat in
acts 1 and 3 have often proved problematic to stage. For the earlier
Parsifal in Bayreuth, Wagner had the
Parsifal bell, a
piano frame with four strings, constructed as a substitute for church
bells. For the first performances, the bells were combined with
tam-tam and gongs. However, the bell was used with the tuba, four
tam-tams tuned to the pitch of the four chime notes and another
tam-tam on which a roll is executed by using a drumstick. In
modern-day performances, the
Parsifal bell has been replaced with
tubular bells or synthesizers to produce the desired notes. The
thunder machine is used in the moment of the destruction of Klingsor's
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. These 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
melted down for scrap during World War II.
Hans Knappertsbusch was the conductor most closely associated with
Bayreuth in the post-war years, and the performances under
his baton in 1951 marked the re-opening of the
Bayreuth Festival after
World War II. 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. There are
also many "unofficial" live recordings from Bayreuth, capturing
Parsifal cast ever conducted by Knappertsbusch. Pierre
Boulez (1971) and
James Levine (1985) have also made recordings of the
Bayreuth that were released on Deutsche Grammophon and
Philips. The Boulez recording is one of the fastest on record, and the
Levine one of the slowest.
Amongst other recordings, those conducted by Georg Solti, James Levine
(with the Metropolitan
Opera Orchestra), Herbert von Karajan, and
Daniel Barenboim (the latter two both conducting the Berlin
Philharmonic) have been widely praised. The 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 &
On the 14 December 2013 broadcast of BBC Radio 3's CD Review –
Building a Library, music critic David Nice surveyed recordings of
Parsifal and recommended the recording by the Symphonieorchester des
Bayerischen Rundfunks, Rafael Kubelik (conductor), as the best
In addition to a number of staged performances available on DVD,
Parsifal was adapted for the screen by film director Hans-Jürgen
Syberberg. There is also a 1998 documentary directed by Tony Palmer
Parsifal – The Search for the Grail. It was recorded in
various European theaters, including the Mariinsky Theatre, the
Ravello Festival in Siena, and the
Bayreuth Festival. It contains
extracts from Palmer's stage production of
Parsifal starring Plácido
Domingo, Violeta Urmana, Matti Salminen, Nikolai Putilin, and Anna
Netrebko. In also includes interviews with Domingo, Wolfgang Wagner,
Robert Gutman, and Karen Armstrong. The film exists in two versions:
(1) a complete version running 116 minutes and officially approved by
Domingo, and (2) an 88-minute version, with cuts of passages regarded
by the German distributor as being too "political", "uncomfortable",
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Monsalvat, Derrick Everett's extensive website on all aspects of
Essay by Rolf May A Theosophical view of Parsifal
Programme notes for
Parsifal by Luke Berryman
Complete German and English Libretti and Wagner's own stage
descriptions. Includes excerpts of the score and soundtrack
Parsifal: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
Complete vocal score of Parsifal
Wagner Operas. A comprehensive website featuring photographs of
productions, recordings, librettos, and sound files.
Summary of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival
Parsifal on Stage: a PDF by Katherine R. Syer
Richard Wagner – Parsifal, gallery of historic postcards with visual
motives from Richard Wagner's operas
Parsifal on record, by Geoffrey Riggs
List of all
Parsifal conductors at Bayreuth
Richard Wagner's Parsifal
The Evil Forest (1951)
Perceval, the Story of the Grail
Der fliegende Holländer
Tristan und Isolde
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Die Laune des Verliebten
Männerlist größer als Frauenlist
"Ride of the Valkyries"
Der fliegende Holländer
Tristan und Isolde
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Parsifal (1904 film)
Parsifal (1982 film)
Symphony in C major (1832)
Polonia Overture (1836)
Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (1843)
Faust Overture (1844, rev. 1855)
Wesendonck Lieder (1858)
Siegfried Idyll (1870)
Art and Revolution
The Artwork of the Future
A Communication to My Friends
Das Judenthum in der Musik
Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music)
Music of the Future
Opera and Drama
Wieland der Schmied
Richard Wagner Foundation
Houston Stewart Chamberlain
Hans von Bülow
Ludwig II of Bavaria
Ca' Vendramin Calergi
Named for Wagner
Richard Wagner Monument
Wagner Ice Piedmont
Wagner Dream (opera)
Wagner's Dream (film)
The Case of Wagner
International Association of Wagner Societies
List of films using the music of Richard Wagner
Nietzsche contra Wagner
The Perfect Wagnerite