One hundred and thirty-three years ago today, on July 26, 1882, the great opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner premiered at the Bayreuth Festival in Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany. The opera and its premiere represented the crowning achievement of Wagner’s creative life, and also its closing one: barely six months later the great composer was dead of a heart attack. I love opera, which may not seem strange to those of you who like heavy metal music; Wagner was basically the heavy metal of the 19th century, and Parsifal is by far my favorite work of his. On the anniversary of its premiere I thought I’d do an article on this great opera and why I love it, going a bit into its history, cultural impact and meaning, but this is also intended to be a personal essay, because the greatest experience of good music is on a personal and emotional level. There are many controversies and even mysteries surrounding Wagner and his works, some of which strike uncomfortable contradictions–I am a Jew and a liberal, in marked contrast to Wagner’s outlook–but none of that obscures the cultural masterpiece that is this, perhaps the greatest opera ever written.
Parsifal, the story, is a version of one of the most sacred and persistent legends of the European Middle Ages, that being the Holy Grail. Wagner based the libretto on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 14th century romantic poem about Parsifal (Percival), an Arthurian knight who went questing for the legendary Christian artifact, which is usually (but not always) said to be the cup that caught Christ’s blood at the Crucifixion. The legend of the Grail is also intertwined with that of the Holy Lance (the Spear of Longinus), around which there is also a medieval and modern mystique. Believe it or not the actual plot of the opera is pretty inconsequential. I’ve read the libretto but frankly it bores me to tears, and it’s utterly useless in English anyway, as one of the reasons Wagner wrote the opera was to showcase the power and beauty of the German language. Suffice it to say it’s a 19th century operatic retelling of a classic medieval legend with roots in both Christian and pagan tradition, and connections to the Arthur legends of Britain and a whole part-historical, part-mythological shadow realm through which many European societies see their medieval past.
Parsifal was first performed here, at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in July 1882. Until 1914 it could only be legally performed here.
Wagner spent a long time creating Parsifal. Supposedly the idea came to him in a sunlit garden on Good Friday in April 1857, though this has been disputed. He had read von Eschenbach’s poem, of course, as well as a steady diet of German philosophy such as Schopenhauer. Parsifal remained mostly an idea until 1865 when Wagner began serious work on it. Working on it off and on for many years, his big push to complete it began in 1879, three years after the Bayreuth Festival had been initiated mainly to showcase Wagner’s creative work. It was completed in January 1882 and efforts began to put it on the stage for that summer’s festival. Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, controlled the production. The musicians were drawn from the Munich Opera, and Hermann Levi, the court conductor, was naturally tapped to conduct. However, to this Wagner objected: Levi was Jewish, and Wagner, notably anti-Semitic, felt it was an affront to his work and the Christian spirit of the opera.
Here lies one of the controversies and personal contradictions of Parsifal for me. Is it racist and anti-Semitic? Wagner was certainly a strong romantic German nationalist, and even before Hitler and the rise of the Nazis German nationalism tended strongly toward anti-Semitism–the defining of the German people in part by excluding the “other,” those being principally Jews. The idea of white (literally, racially white) knights recovering the all-powerful transformative artifacts of the Grail and the Holy Spear have certainly resonated with racial overtones into our own time, as pseudohistorical hack writers continue to flog the ridiculous myth that the Nazis and World War II were motivated significantly by occultism. However fulsome Wagner’s beliefs were, though, I personally do not find an anti-Semitic message in Parsifal, or at least I lack the understanding of the cultural context of German 19th century nationalist thought necessary to pick up this message, which frankly is just as good. Incidentally Wagner did ultimately withdraw his objection and Levi conducted the opera without further controversy. In one of the final original performances Wagner took the stand and conducted the fourth act himself.
My favorite part of Parsifal is this, “Geleiten wir im Bergenden Schrein” from Act 3. This is from the Herbert von Karajan production, also my favorite recording.
The cultural baggage of Parsifal and Wagner illustrate something else I think is true of art: once it passes out of the “custody” of its creator, we, the audience, have the power to remake and reinterpret their work in any way we see fit–even if it’s diametrically at odds with the creator’s philosophy. Thus, as a Jew, a liberal humanist and a music lover, Parsifal is just as much mine as anyone else’s, especially since Wagner has been dead for 132 years. I find its strains thrilling and uplifting, especially the powerful “Geleiten Wir in Bergenden Schrein den Gral zum Heiligen Amte,” the part where the knights are being redeemed by the power of the Grail. I love it all, though, and can play the multi-hour opera over and over again on my stereo. I enjoy it wherever the needle happens to drop.
I’d heard bits of the opera for years before, but in the year 2000 I bought the box set of the well-regarded Deutsche Grammophon edition, which is a recording of a Berlin Philharmonic production of Parsifal recorded in 1981 and conducted by Herbert Von Karajan–generally regarded as one of the finest recordings of an opera ever. I remember a cloudy Saturday afternoon in early October 2000 where I listened to this opera, Down by the Finnish metal band Sentenced, and A Momentary Lapse of Reason by Pink Floyd all in succession, while drinking a particularly good pinot noir and watching the first autumn rains begin outside my window. I will never forget that day. It occurred to me what a rich and wonderful cultural world we live in where an 1880s opera by a German classical composer, a Finnish heavy metal band and a British classic rock act can all meld together into a kind of musical and philosophical whole, with implications stretching across a person’s whole life. That afternoon while listening to Parsifal I thought about Wacken Open Air (to which I had been for the first time just two months before), religion, history, politics, the environment and family. This is part of the great personal meaning Parsifal has for me.
Here is another wonderful track from Parsifal, this one from Act I, again from the von Karajan production.
Parsifal is part of the indelible soundtrack of my life, and always will be. The enjoyment of great music is one of the things that makes us human, and the experience of listening to this opera never loses its power.