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In German with English Captions

About the Composer

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner is THE controversial artist. Some believe he was one of the greatest geniuses in the history of mankind; others assert he was one of the worst human beings who ever lived. Many people find Wagner’s music at the core of their social and spiritual lives; and in at least one of the world’s countries his music is, in effect, banned. For over a hundred years he has been debated, championed, critiqued, worshipped, decried, and mocked. His work still has an unshakeable hold on the public; its ability to communicate and move remains unmatched.

Wagner was a composer, and a great one, but his artistry did not stop there. He thought of himself first and foremost as a dramatist, a creator of works of art presented in the theater. Not having much use for the spoken theater as it was practiced in his contemporary Germany, his forum became the lyric theater, the opera house; but he so disapproved of traditional opera, he made it his life’s work to create a new art form. Like opera, it would employ music and theater, but would be more serious, more meaningful, and more powerful. Wagner’s idea was to combine the various art formsæstory, poetry, drama, music, dance, painting, sculpture, visual spectacleæinto one unified whole. This gesamtkuntswerk or “collected work of art,” speaking with the combined power of all these various art forms and founded upon a myth of timeless human significance, would move the individual audience member to a higher state of consciousness and, by helping the community confront its heritage and plan for its future, forge a more powerful nation.

Lofty goals, to be sure, and probably not achieved (yet, say the true believers). But if Wagner’s goal was revolutionizing the way people thought about art, he certainly succeeded. His influence on opera, poetry, drama, fiction, the visual arts, and especially music in the last 120 years can hardly be over-estimated. In fact, the great new art form of the twentieth century, the motion picture, began with the Wagnerian goal of combining story, sound, and picture into one powerful whole. Were he alive today, Wagneræ resenting the commercialism of the film industry the way he resented the popularity of opera in the nineteenth centuryæwould undoubtedly be an independent filmmaker with plenty of axes to grind about contemporary society.

Throughout his own lifetime he ground a lot of axes about nineteenth-century European society. In fact, Wagner first conceived of his life’s masterworkæthe four-opera cycle of The Ring of the Nibelungæas a political allegory embodying his socialist ideas. And as he was inventing it, the composer was running guns in the Dresden uprising of 1848. It was intolerable to Wagner that he should be considered lower on the social ladder than someone born into more money, and out of the question that his livelihood, opera, should be entertainment for the wealthy and bored. The revolution failed, and Wagneræon the cusp of an exciting career as composer and conductoræwas banished for life from all the German states.

Eventually, he was redeemed, pardoned, and welcomed back into his homeland by the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig was an ardent lover of Wagner’s work, and one of the composer’s most important patrons. Wagner relied on the king’s support while he campaigned for and created a summer opera festival held in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus finally opened in 1876 with the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring, most of which the composer had written during his long exile. The Ring may have begun life as a socialist allegory, but by the time Wagner completed it (after taking time off to write two other music dramas, the musically radical Tristan und Isolde and the massive comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) he was a monarchist and the Ring was not to be summed up so easily.

Wagner was to write one more opera, Parsifal, first performed at Bayreuth in 1882. This fascinating, enigmatic quest for transcendence through sex, religion, and art may be his most controversial work. He died in Venice in 1883, leaving the Bayreuth Festival in the hands of his second wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner. (The “Liszt” comes from her father, the great pianist and composer Franz Liszt, also a close friend of Wagner’s; the “von Bülow” refers to her first husband, conductor Hans, one of the greatest champions of Wagner’s music before his wife ran off with the composer.) Cosima and her son Siegfried both died in 1930, when the Bayreuth Festival was becoming a favorite haunt of Hitler and the Nazis. After the Second World War, Siegfried’s sons Wieland and Wolfgang reopened the Festival and attempted to purge it of the Nazi stigma that was associated with it. Today, Wagner’s descendents still mount Wagner operas at Bayreuth every summer.

What Wagner Thought

Richard Wagner knew that Parsifal would be his final opera, and so he made the opera a kind of manifesto, a final summation of his beliefs and thoughts, which were always in flux and never particularly clear. Although his operas are gloriously ambiguous—there is never a “moral” to the story with Wagner—we know what he thought because he was forever writing opinionated letters and essays. And since there’s so much of him in Parsifal, it may help if you’re familiar with his thoughts on the following topics:

Compassion. Wagner (eventually) came to feel that compassion—feeling the pain of others—was the essence of love and the foundation of morality. He included animals in the ‘others’ category, and therefore supported animal rights and preached vegetarianism.

Redemption. Whether it was his culture, his church, or his mother that did it, Wagner grew up and spent most of his life feeling guilty. His romantic life was an endless procession of women who failed to ‘save’ him. And in opera after opera, he gives us characters seeking redemption: sinners hoping to atone for some crime they committed, tormented wanderers fleeing some ancient curse.

Sex. Influenced, as a young man, by sexually adventurous Bohemian artists, Wagner objected to traditional marriage; he felt it sanctified greed and property instead of love. Later, he came to see sex as the ultimate expression of the highest love, the procreative love between man and woman. But in Parsifal, he suggests that sexual desire—the will to live, and to generate new life—is really the source of all suffering.

Religion. Wagner, who suspected his father was Jewish, was raised in a Protestant household. He was viciously anti-Semitic, as were most Germans in his day, and he rejected traditional Christianity partly because of its origins in Judaism. Among his many foolish and offensive objections to Judaism, he complained that the idea of a “Chosen People” was exclusionary, since a good religion should reach out to all humanity. He thought he had found this in Buddhism, which he discovered partly through the writings of his favorite philosopher, Artur Schopenhauer. His secondhand understanding of Buddhism ended up bringing him back to Christianity, since he sensed an analogy between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the Buddha.

Art. During Wagner’s lifetime, scientific advances (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution) made it very hard to take traditional religion at face value. Wagner, however, mistrusted science and technology; he feared the hazards of scientific progress would outweigh the benefits. Religion, he felt, had an important role to play in a healthy community—but to Wagner religion was like myth, true metaphorically but not literally. Therefore he harnessed the power of music to mythic storytelling in an attempt to merge art with religion. His goal was an art that would offer its audience a transcendent experience of the divine—and the pains he took to achieve that goal prove that to Wagner, creating art was the most sacred of human activities.

The Grail Story

The myth Wagner chose as the foundation of his final opera is old, far older than Christianity. Its origins lie in the earliest pagan rituals, in man’s first attempt to make sense of death. Human beings obviously die; in nature, however, there is rebirth. The sun sets every night, but it rises again each dawn; every fall turns into winter, but we trust there will come a spring. What would happen if the sun failed to rise? If winter just kept getting colder and darker? What happens to each of us when we die? The Grail began as a symbol of regeneration, of fertility: a cup which overflowed with nature’s bounty, a Mother Earth which provided nourishment, health, and the promise of life without death.

We find this kind of symbol in the myths of many cultures. Celtic versions of this story often feature the Waste Land—a country ruled by a sick, impotent king, desperately in need of the Grail’s regenerative magic. In the early Middle Ages, an unnamed poet wed this ancient symbol to the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, the promise of eternal life offered by the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus was born at dead of winter and died as spring was starting to blossom. The cup—now the Grail—that caught His blood as he hung upon the cross would overflow forever, in every church throughout the world, bringing us eternal life.

Two great medieval writers took up this story in epic poetry. The French writer Chrétien de Troyes began a romance called Perceval, or the Grail Story, in which the Grail is an ornate serving-dish. Chrétien’s incomplete story was later expanded into Parzival, by the German Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival is one of the great literary accomplishments of the middle ages; a sprawling saga of knights, jousts, tournaments, evil wizards, fair damsels, and a sick king who guards the green rock from outer space known as the Grail. Almost half of Eschenbach’s Parzival follows the adventures of the courteous Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights. The other half, which traces the journey of Parzival from young fool to wise man, may be the first story in European literature in which a character changes.

These Grail stories (and others) gave rise to many more, including the one in Sir Thomas Malory’s famous collection of Arthur stories, Le Morte d’Arthur. Wagner, a voracious reader, was familiar with the many different versions of the story. For his libretto he took some elements of the story from these sources and invented others. While he acknowleged Wolfram’s important role in German poetry, Wagner basically disliked Wolfram’s poem; he found it too earthy, too complicated, and morally bizarre. (In Wolfram’s version, the end comes when Parzival and his fierce Islamic enemy, the Prince of Baghdad, discover they are half-brothers. They stop trying to kill each other and become friends and allies!) Wagner made the Grail both cup and spear, and invented the ending where the return of the spear heals the sick king and brings new life to the Waste Land.

How to Listen to Wagnerian opera

An operagoer whose ears are accustomed to Italian opera often grows perplexed the first time he hears a Wagner opera. Where are the arias, the duets, the big choral finales? Italian operas were traditionally divided into “talky” music carrying the plot (known as recitative) and more tuneful music conveying the emotional development of the characters in arias and ensembles. A common response to first hearing Wagner is “Where are the tunes?”

They’re with the orchestra, not the voices. Wagner greatly expanded the size and role of the orchestra in opera. Whereas in earlier Italian opera the orchestra was often a sort of musical backdrop, harmonic wallpaper behind the voice of the singer, in Wagner the orchestra is paramount. Having inherited the great German tradition of symphonic development from Beethoven, Wagner put it to work in the opera house pit. Beethoven loves to take a short musical idea and vary it a thousand different ways: playing it slow, playing it fast, playing it upside down, playing it in different harmonies or giving it to different instruments. Wagner adds to this technique drama; he associates the short musical ideasæknown as leitmotifsæwith ideas, characters, props, or events in the drama, and uses symphonic development of these motifs to tell the story.

For instance, Wagner wrote a leitmotif for Parsifal himself. It’s a short, impetuous, memorable little tune that we first hear as Parsifal bounds onstage, a witless boy. His melody at this point is full of energy but wild and out of control, just like Parsifal himself. Later on it will sound flirtatious, when he’s dallying with Klingsor’s Flower Maidens; weary and despondent, when he can’t find his way back to the Grail Castle; and finally, mature and glorious when he becomes the new Grail King. The same musical shape, each time, only changes in the tempo, in the orchestration, and in the harmony follow the changing fortunes of the character. And there are many other leitmotifs as well, ones for Klingsor and Kundry and the spear and the Grail and on and on.

Does this mean audiences have to memorize each tune before attending the operas? Not at all. Certainly, many find the study of Wagnerian leitmotifs and their transformations an immensely rewarding kind of amateur musicology. But Wagner expected his audiences to be following the story rather than analyzing the music, and so crafted a musical style in which the leitmotifs register, through prominent dramatic placement and frequent repetition, without the listener thinking about it.

With the orchestra providing musical interest as they weave their ever-changing web of leitmotifs, the singers are freed up to concentrate on the words they are singing and the drama. Wagnerian vocal lines are sometimes pretty melodies, but more typically the notes follow the natural speech patterns of the German language and interact harmonically with whatever happens to be going on in the orchestra. Thus, the greatest moments in a Wagner opera, like the greatest moments in a play, are the soliloquies in which the singers share their character’s experience and troubles with the audience. Parsifal in particular features a number of long narratives, in which characters onstage tell stories about events that happened long ago and offstage. The orchestra illustrates the narratives musically, with the relevant leitmotifs, while the singers must communicate the information and reveal their character at the same time. When Gurnemanz tells stories, he’s like a popular older professor more interested in his students than his subject; with Amfortas, it’s like listening to the fascinating ravings of a self-flagellating addict; and Kundry’s monologues range from tenderly soothing to incomprehensible and terrifying.

Although these narratives and monologues are the greatest moments in Wagner, the building blocks of Wagnerian drama, the best-known passages are invariably the orchestral excerpts. The ravishing prelude to Parsifal’s first act contains most of the leitmotifs dealing with the religious content of the opera—the ones named for love and sacrifice, faith, grace, etc.—and can often be heard in concert. The “Good Friday Spell,” music for the baptismal scene in the third act, is another popular Parsifal excerpt. The opera’s most vigorous music comes in the second act and deals with Klingsor’s strenuous and doomed exertions to make himself Lord of the Grail.

Recommended Recordings

Deutsche Gramophon / Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Parsifal: Peter Hofmann
Gurnemanz: Kurt Moll

Philips / Conductor: Hans Knappertsbusch
Parsifal: Jess Thomas
Gurnemanz: Hans Hotter

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