Posted on:Thursday 9th April, 2020
A sickness lies over the land, the leader is incapacitated, and no-one seems able to find a remedy. That is the situation at the opening of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal, first presented in 1882. The opera is set at Easter, too. Act 1 takes place on Good Friday and Act 3 on the morning of Easter Sunday, albeit some years later. The story also echoes Christian themes of innocence, fall and redemption, and includes two eucharistic rituals. But this being Wagner it is all a bit more complicated than that…
For a number of years I marked every Easter by listening to the opera on vinyl, in a recording made by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the late Herbert Von Karajan. The music of Parsifal is magnificent and intoxicating. With its recurring themes and its dying falls, its swelling walls of sound and its mighty bursts of emotion, it represents an astonishing achievement. If he had lived in a later age Wagner would surely have been a movie Moghul, such is his desire to control all aspects of his work of art. Parsifal is a carefully wrought combination of music, words and staging designed to transport and overwhelm the audience. It is perhaps partly this manipulation of our emotions and control-freakery which makes some people react very negatively to Wagner’s work. It is as if he wants us to check in our rational and critical faculties in advance and merely submit to his artistic genius. And his aesthetic also feels dangerous. Wagner’s vile anti-Semitic views are well-known, as is the way his work was later co-opted by Hitler and the Nazis as an expression of their own toxic ideology. Nor does it help that Von Karajan, the conductor of my recording, was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party from as early as 1933, long before it became necessary for reasons of self-preservation.
The question really seems to come down to the honesty or otherwise of Wagner’s intentions. Listening to Parsifal has always brought me pleasure, but it has also left me feeling uncomfortable and slightly tricked. The opera intentionally incorporates Christian iconography and themes and invites us to treat it with a sort of religious reverence. With its solemn processions, ritual baths and gothic chivalry it takes itself very seriously indeed, and purports to be a mighty engine of artistic truth. But as the opera enters its fifth hour one can be forgiven for thinking that it is all rather po-faced and pompous. Not to mention being almost ridiculously male, white and Eurocentric. For me it is this self-importance and false religiosity which renders the work most problematic. In fact, the opera reflects a thought-world that is far from Medieval. As the hours pass by there is an unmistakable whiff of the late Victorian drawing room about it, and of the toxic ideas of blood and purity that informed much of the racist thinking of that age. And a hint of opéra bouffon too, albeit that Wagner’s armour-clad paladins, wrapped in Nordic magic and mysticism, are incapable of self-parody…
The young Friedrich Nietzsche was famously captivated by his older friend Richard Wagner and lived for a while in the great man’s shadow. Unable to remain long as the acolyte of another, Nietzsche then angrily rejected all contact with Wagner and denounced his music as false and bourgeois, as a mere music of effects. It is nevertheless said that, when Nietzsche later overheard a snatch of music from Wagner’s new opera Parsifal, he wept. For me, when I listen to Parsifal, it is the thought-world of Nietzsche that most comes to mind. The work is stimulating, enervating even, and undoubtedly brilliant, but also somehow preposterous and dangerously out of touch with common sense. In the name of technical prowess, intellectual iconoclasm and heightened aestheticism, the doors are opened to dangerous irrationalism and to the easily exploited philosophy of the superman. Wagner’s operas also feature characters who go beyond ‘good and evil’, throw themselves into acts of ‘self-overcoming’ and unlock ‘spiritual truths’ unavailable to the common herd of humanity. When seen in the context of late 19th century German romanticism and nationalist ideology, the solemn knights of the Grail in Wagner’s Parsifal look increasingly like the murderous thugs of right-wing ideology which they undoubtedly prefigure.
And yet, and yet… like any great work of art, Parsifal also continues to survive the slings and arrows of its critics. By presenting the primal forces of German romanticism and by encapsulating its dangerous appeal, perhaps the opera also allows us to explore and understand the risks of relying for our meanings on such mythic narratives, in this case a mash-up of Christian imagery and Arthurian legend. In the performance of Parsifal which I attended at English National Opera a few years’ ago the massed ranks of the Grail knights in Act 3 gave a powerful sense of this. They were an angry group of violent males baying for blood, as ominous as Brownshirts. Suddenly the modernity of the work shone through, along with the sheer incongruity of using this world of knights, quests and wizards as mood music for bourgeois nationalism and a rapidly industrialising imperial German empire. Nietzsche correctly diagnosed its inauthenticity, whilst still reeling at its power and beauty.
For me the opera redeems itself, both literally and metaphorically, by its repurposing of the myth of the Fisher King, as related in the medieval poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach (c1160-1220). The King, Amfortas, defender of the Grail, seduced into sin, has been wounded by the same spear used to kill Christ, and is condemned to an unending life of pain and suffering. His is an unhealing wound which, despite its escalating agonies, never kills him. He must continue to perform the painful ritual of the Eucharist, with no hope of escape. As the American critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) noted, an unhealing wound is also a metaphor for the arts, which use carefully crafted artifice to explore and understand the very real pain of being human.
It is the ‘innocent fool’ Parsifal, Christ-like in his simplicity, who brings resolution, destroys the magic kingdom of the wizard Klingsor, and returns after lengthy wanderings to perform the great act of redemption, using the holy spear to finally heal the wound of Amfortas, and release him into death. Wagner’s music also rises to a transcendent finale, reflecting the ever-renewing promise of Easter Day. The opera ends with this celebration of faith, hope, and solidarity.
Happy Easter to you all!