It’s become something of a Good Friday tradition here to meditate on the meaning of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, one of our favorite operas, a work always closely associated with Good Friday. Wagner himself claimed to have been inspired to begin work on Parsifal on Good Friday, 1857, although this is a suspect claim at best. Nevertheless, for the musicologist as well as the theologian, there is much to ponder in Parsifal, starting with Wagner’s own words.
Near the end of his life, Wagner wrote, "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." This is not surprising for a man with as monumental an ego as Wagner, who truly believed in the ability of art to redeem man (not an altogether foolish notion) and therefore saw himself in the role of a redeemer (well, let’s not go that far).
On the other hand, in 1858 Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk: "... if this suffering can have a purpose, it is simply to awaken a sense of fellow-suffering in man, who thereby absorbs the creature's defective existence and becomes the Redeemer of the world by recognizing the error of all existence. (This meaning will one day become clearer to you from the Good Friday morning scene in the third act of [Parsifal])."Parsifal was and remains one of Wagner's most controversial works, and also one of his most moving. (It's also, at an average running time of four-and-a-half hours - not including intermissions - one of the longest operas ever written.) And it's tempting to read too much into Parsifal. Tempting, and also dangerous.
Nietzsche, who started out as a big fan of Wagner, broke with him over Parsifal. He saw it as some kind of pseudo-Christian piece and hated it for that, saying, "Here the cunning in his alliance of beauty and sickness goes so far that, as it were, it casts a shadow over Wagner's earlier art - which now seems too bright, too healthy. ...How he thus wages war against us! us, the free spirits! How he indulges every cowardice of the modern soul with the tones of magic maidens! - Never before has there been such a deadly hatred of the search for knowledge! - One has to be a cynic in order not to be seduced here; one has to be able to bite in order not to worship here. Well, then, you old seducer, the cynic warns you - cave canem." (On the other hand, he did admit that the music was sublime.)
Although Wagner's references seem obviously to refer to Christ, others have said that they could apply to Buddhist doctrine as well. Derrick Everett notes the connection:
As Carl Suneson has suggested, Wagner's spiritual hero Parsifal can be seen as a bodhisattva in the Buddhist Maháyána tradition, as well as a Christ-figure. These alternatives are not mutually exclusive, since some Buddhists have accepted Christ as a bodhisattva and thus integrated Jesus into their own belief-system.
In fact, if you read the libretto of the opera you'll notice that Parsifal himself speaks only of the Redeemer - in the famous Good Friday scene it is only Gurnemanz who mentions the name of God. Michael Tanner, in his essay The Total Work of Art, uses this to suggest that Parsifal is a work about religion, more precisely the psychopathology of religious belief, rather than a religious work.Wagner saw compassion as the defining characteristic, the one which ultimately would redeem mankind. As Wagner biographer Michael Tanner points out:
[Wagner was] still convinced of the pain inherent in being alive, and of the sovereign value of the identification of one's own sufferings with those of others. It is only in terms of this ethic of compassion, founded on a metaphysic of the unity of living things, that Parsifal makes sense. As soon as one has grasped that, the apparently Christian elements in the work, which can be embarrassing or seem merely added for colour, function much more actively as constituents in a profound drama of spiritual awakening and fulfilment. New life is brought to the Grail community, and it will be able to continue, invigorated, not through any injection of supernatural energy-boosters, but through the radiant example of Parsifal, showing the possibility of emerging triumphant from gruelling ordeals, neither complacent in his achievement nor exhausted by it.
In addition, Wagner was, of course, a notorious anti-Semite, which makes Christian use of his words particularly dicey. Pace Wikipedia,
Some suggesting 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, since there is nothing explicit in the libretto to support them, 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 once any such intention. Wagner first met Gobineau very briefly in 1876, but he only read Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races 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 lack of chronology, Gobineau is frequently cited as a major inspiration for Parsifal.
If Parsifal so clearly expressed the concept of Aryan supremacy then it would doubtless have been popular with the Nazi party in 20th Century Germany. In fact, the Nazis placed a de facto ban on performances of Parsifal because of its "pacifist undertones".
(Interestingly enough, the conductor at the initial performance of Parsifal was a Jew, Hermann Levi.)
And Wagner was never particularly accurate in his theology in the first place - he sees the Holy Grail as not only the vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper, but also the receptacle for the Blood that flowed after He was pierced by the Spear. (The sacred Spear is also crucial to the plot of Parsifal.) Read this essay from the 2003 Met Opera broadcast of Parsifal for more on Wagner's confused theology.
Some point to Wagner's use of Good Friday (rather than Easter) as the day of redemption as a further misunderstanding of Christianity. But here I think we may be onto something. As we have stated many times in these pages, Catholics have what is perhaps a unique insight into the nature and necessity of suffering. Wagner recognizes, even if it's only inadvertenty, that without Christ's sacrifice on Good Friday there can be no Easter Sunday. This is the purpose for which He was born: to suffer and die for our sins, so that in His Resurrection we might all be reborn into eternal life.One of our favorite poets, T.S. Eliot, drew on Parsifal in his poem The Waste Land. We see that influence in the following notes on The Waste Land:
Eliot’s reliance on Jesse Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) is recorded in his own notes (which were prepared for the book publication of the poem in 1922). The argument of Weston’s book is that the Arthurian legends of the quest for the Holy Grail are founded on basic fertility myths and rituals, such as those described by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough, a work of Victorian scholarship that argued all myths derive from common concerns of human survival—namely, the fertility and cultivation of the soil, seasonal changes, and other relevant natural phenomena. According to Weston, “In Arthurian legend, a Fisher King (the fish being an ancient symbol of life) has been maimed or killed, and his country has therefore become a dry Waste Land; he can only be regenerated and his land restored to fertility by a knight (Parsifal) who perseveres through various ordeals to the Perilous Chapel and learns the answers to certain ritual questions about the Grail.” And, we should add, the lance. The Grail (or Holy Cup) and the lance are the crucial symbols of Arthurian legend for Weston. They are obvious symbols of fertility—Cup=Mother, and Lance=Father. In the syncretic mythography (the anthropological study of myth designed to discover common sources for different cultural myths) of Weston, the Fisher King is the archetype for Christian (Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection), Greek (the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis), Egyptian (the seasonal dismemberment and reconstruction of Osiris) vegetation and fertility myths linked to seasonal cycles and the regeneration of plant, animal, and human life.
(For more on how Wagner influenced various artists, read the marvelous Fr. Owen Lee’s essay here.)
So what, ultimately, do we make of Parsifal?
As we've seen, it is not particularly accurate to call Parsifal a “Christian” work. However, although it may be impossible for us to ever know exactly what Wagner had it mind when he wrote Parsifal, the fact remains that it has always been associated with Easter. Most classical music radio stations play selections from it on Good Friday (usually an arrangement featuring the Prelude and Transformation Scene in Act I and the Good Friday music from Act III). When the Met stages it, it's done around Eastertime, with the radio broadcast on the Saturday before Palm Sunday and a performance on Good Friday itself. Whatever Wagner might have intended, the popular interpretation (such as it is) is that it is a Christian work.The music, some of Wagner's most stunning and lovely, emphasizes Alan Wagner's comment that "The contradictions melt away, transfigured, in the incredible beauty of his music." For those disposed to view it through a Christian lens, the symbolism and meaning are powerful and moving. For an opera there are unusually long stretches where there is no singing at all, just the "beauty of his music."And the message is there: in the Act I commemoration of the Last Supper, and of Parsifal's sharing in the suffering of Amfortas, ailing leader of the knights who serve as guardians of the Holy Grail (Parsifal feels in his heart the pain from the wound in Amfortas' side, a wound that is the result of past sin, a wound that refuses to heal).
In Act II, where the temptress Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal into sin (as she had Amfortas) - first by an appeal to sensual pleasures with a kiss (the kiss of betrayal?), then by pity for the life she has led (having been cursed to eternal life for having mocked Christ on the Cross). In an echo of the Devil's tempting of Eve in the Garden ("your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."), Kundry tells Parsifal "If you are a redeemer, what evil stops you, from uniting with me for my salvation?" Parsifal resists Kundry's temptations and regains the Spear from the evil Klingsor.
And in Act III, where after a search of many years (reflected in the slow, weary atmosphere of Wagner's music for the act's Prelude; music that you'd never hear at the beginning of a 4 1/2 hour opera), Parsifal relocates the knights of the Holy Grail, baptizes Kundry, and uses the Spear to heal the wound in the side of Amfortas, thus winning redemption both for Kundry (who finally can experience death, and therefore rest), and Amfortas (whose wound is healed by the relic of Christ's sacrifice).
As we said, one must be careful here. Christ is never mentioned by name - the description above is the Christian interpretation. But, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has said, "The Catholic sensibility, however, going back to the patristic era and its happy use of 'the spoils of Egypt,' is inclined to embracing truth wherever it is found." And Parsifal is far from what one would describe as "the spoils of Egypt." If God is present in everything, then it's surely not hard to believe that the truth of His sacrifice is present in Parsifal as well – whether Wagner understood it or not.