Homogenizing the elder Wagner’s beliefs with his final art

Parsifal and Wagner’s Theology

After just an unconscionably long time, I have finally got to page 319 of Richard H. Bell’s fine study, Wagner’s Parsifal: An Appreciation in the Light of His Theological Journey.  I am very grateful to Mr. Bell for his discipline and erudition, and for shedding light on both the splendid final work of this master of music-theatre and the serious struggles that Wagner experienced with matters of the divine.

By the end of his life, Wagner had settled into a somewhat sui generis set of beliefs.  He was not a religious man, though he was susceptible to certain of the rituals and practices of the Lutheran Church.  He was an avid and devoted believer in Jesus Christ as redeemer, but had no truck with the concept of God as a Creator.  And the story of his final work was a narrative that embraced this set of beliefs:  That man’s sinful nature was redeemed through the suffering of a redemptive agent whose condition was brought on by the deep compassion he held for the suffering of others.

Wagner did not believe that Christ was divine – he saw him as a historical figure whose experiences rendered him an “Abbild,” a depiction or personification, of the divine.  Christ was not merely a wise and good man.  He possessed a divine gift of sympathy for others and a willingness to assume the consequent responsibilities of that sympathy, and in so doing lived a life of the divine.

And Bell concludes:

In On State and Religion [Wagner] writes of how knowledge of the divine can only come through revelation.  In Religion and Art he argues that “the only art that fully corresponds with the Christian belief is Music” and that “music” and “Christ” both have a key mediatorial role: music is an “abbild” of the world as Christ is an “abbild” of the divine.

Whether one is sympathetic to this theological structure or not, the postulates that Wagner sets forth come into powerful motion in Parsifal and invite rigorous re-examination of the meaning of the action of the work.

In these sections of analysis Bell is exceptionally perceptive and musicologically skillful.  For example, his study of the scene of Kundy’s baptism in Act II is quite inspiring.  He notes that this passage, in Ab major, is sandwiched between two passages in B major.  Yet the flute’s playing the dove theme in Gb major (six flats) is enharmonic with F# major (six sharps), pointing for Hall to a kind of transcendence.  And sure enough, when Kundry bows her head and the Ab is re-introduced, we hear what Cosima records Wagner calling “the annihilating sound of the kettledrum: Obliteration of the whole being, of all earthly desire.”  Wagner himself eventually scored these emphatic fateful beats for lower strings rather than percussion, but he called it “the finest thing I have ever done.”  Continues Bell:

The main point to note is that the rhythm outlined is that of the first half of the grail motif.  Wagner clearly wants to show how Kundry’s baptism is related to death (denial of the will-to-life) and the hints of the grail theme may allude to the blood of Christ that “appears” in it.

Particularly memorable are Bell’s treatments of the Act II kiss and the Act II death/release of Kundry.

Several avenues of inquiry are found in Bell’s book, any one of them well worth pursuing.  One is the theological root of Wagner’s Antisemitism: that Wagner’s aversion to God the Father was linked to his regard of that concept as of Jewish origin.  It was a “Jewish god” of rule and power that he found impossible to accept, while becoming increasingly comfortable with the “Christian god” of compassion and suffering.  Another of Bell’s inquiries is his split from Nietzsche, with whose furious apostasy Wagner simply could not relate.

Bell also is on firm ground in citing Wagner’s repeated insistence that the story of Parsifal is not the story of Christ – that the character of Parsifal is not a substitute for Christ – and that the Redeemer who is redeemed by the action of the play is not Parsifal, but Christ himself.  And this is so despite the absence of resurrection.  “For Wagner, once Jesus had died, all that was necessary for atonement of sin and renewal of creation was achieved: a resurrection was theologically unnecessary.”  Parsifal, through his suffering, is an agent for the redemptive power of Christ.  The community finds renewal (just as do the flowers and fields in the natural world of which Gurnemanz so gloriously sings) through the persistence of Christ’s presence, unlocked and made evident through Parsifal’s own travail.  Thus has the redeemer been redeemed, the truths that Christ embodies having been reaffirmed through the empathetic sufferings of his agent.

Bell’s scholarship with respect to the evolution of Wagner’s theological beliefs forces us to pay attention to this aspect of his imagination and intellect.  And the proposition that Parsifal is about redemption from sin (Amfortas’, Kundry’s, Klingsor’s, Parsifal’s, ours) is so obvious as to be immune to the dissent of even the most skeptical.  These two observations alone make Bell’s book an important contribution to understanding the end of Wagner’s life and expressed in his final work – and, for me, a critically necessary one.


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