It being Karfreitag, I’m about to settle in to a sweet four hours or so of Parsifal. This time I’m going audio-only, dipping back into the recording from which I learned the piece in 1968, the Knappertsbusch 1951 Bayreuth.
Listening to Parsifal on Good Friday is a tradition upon which many — including Wagner, I suspect — would frown. But it has given me deep delight for many years. And like all of Wagner’s mature works Parsifal continues to change in its meaning and import for me. Playing the Third Act on the piano has also become a bit of a tradition, feeding me in ways known only to ardent musical amateurs.
This time, to prepare for the afternoon, I leafed through Bryan Magee’s The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (rev. 1997) to advance my to-date stuttering and elusive progress in understanding the ethical world of Parsifal. In the course of this pleasant chore I came across a passage that is perhaps the best synopsis of the action of the play. Wrenched from the midway point of a longer passage:
[Amfortas] has a terrible wound of which he does not die, yet which never heals, with the result that he lives suspended in a permanent state of mortal agony. Despite this, as King of the order he is still required to carry out the religious ritual — the continued use of the grail to celebrate the Holy Feast — which is the order’s raison d’etre. This duty pushes him each time to the limits of humiliation, mortification and suffering. Over the years, knight after knight seeks to retrieve the situation by venturing forth to recover the spear, and with it Amfortas’ release and the order’s honour, but without exception they succumb to Klingsor’s temptresses and never return. A prophecy emanating from the grail tells Amfortas that redemption will come only at the hands of an innocent whom compassion, not pre-existing knowledge (still less cleverness), has rendered understanding. This is Parsifal. When he comes on the scene he is as ignorant and as lacking in compassion as a human being can well be: he has no idea who he is or where he comes from; he has allowed his mother to die by his sheer disregard for her loving concern for him; and he kills merely for something to do. Religious enactments have no meaning for him. When faced with the torture of Amfortas this does stir something in him, but he has no idea what it is. Then Kundry attempts to seduce him. Her subtle arousal of his sexual awareness by associating herself with his mother brings home to him for the first time his responsibility for his mother’s death. Then he experiences the full onslaught of sexual desire — and it is this, the rack of passion, that makes him realize what it is that has happened to Amfortas, and thus the nature of the wound. Further, it leads him to apprehend for the first time the condition of the whole of suffering mankind, the rack of unsatisfied willing on which it is endlessly stretched out — and hence to understand the compassion of a Christ for humanity at large — and hence to understand the significance of the religious ceremony he has witnessed. Armed with these insights, he is enabled to withstand Kundry’s temptations, and thus to regain the spear from Klingsor. With this he returns to Montsalvat and touches the wound of Amfortas — which at once heals, thereby releasing Amfortas from any further compulsion to live with his disgrace. The return of the spear to Montsalvat opens up a new era for the depleted, dishonoured and decaying order. Parsifal, succeeding Amfortas as its king, takes up with full consciousness the task of restoring it, and leading the religious ceremonies that express the purpose of its being.
Once, a long while ago, I walked up the aisle of the Met Opera after a performance of Parsifal and asked my older, more astute, companion, “Is this just a show about not kissing somebody?” And for years I have been spiritually thrilled by Parsifal’s Act III invocation: “Sie heil, entsündigt und entsühnt!” (Be whole, forgiven, and absolved!) (Who alive would not yearn for those words to be spoken?) Six years ago, on Good Friday, I learned of my brother’s death only minutes after listening to Amfortas beg his father to intercede with God to “mir endlich spende den Tod” (“finally bring me death”).
Each of these hitherto unconnected, but deeply felt, intuitions is beginning to meld into a coherent understanding of this most misunderstood work. Wagner knew it was his last work for the stage, and indeed Parsifal was the only occasion for Wagner himself to conduct at Bayreuth, when he took up the baton in the Bayreuth pit for the last 20 minutes of the final performance in 1882. The work is infused with mitleid — compassion — and the only motif that is not first introduced by the orchestra is the one sung by Amfortas: “Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Thor” (Through pity, knowing — the pure fool”).
I begin to both feel and follow this inspiring work, charting as it does a moral progress culminating in the restoration of an ethical order in which even (especially?) those who are agents of redemption, themselves need to be redeemed.