Major Operas | Parsifal by Richard Wagner | High Romantic

Wagner had first encountered the early thirteenth-century romance Parzivâl by Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170–c. 1220) in 1845 and frequently returned to the subject in the course of the decades that followed, completing the libretto in 1877 and the music in 1882. By now his views had changed, and the text and its imagery are permeated by the Aryan Christianity that typified his old age.

The work was part of a programme of national and racial regeneration that prompted him to place an embargo on its ‘sacred mysteries’ and to ban all performances outside Bayreuth for a period of thirty years. Described as a Bühnenweihfestspiel (a ‘festival play to consecrate the stage’), it was written with the Bayreuth theatre and its sunken orchestra pit in mind, producing a mellow, homogenized sound that no other theatre can match. Stepping back from the chromatic intensity of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner created a diaphanous but no less voluptuous score which sounds, in Debussy’s apt phrase, to be ‘lit from behind’ and whose play of light and shade anticipates many of the qualities associated with Impressionism in music. As such, the work had a seminal impact on the Symbolist and Decadent artists of the 1880s and 1890s.

Composed: 1877–82
Premiered: 1882, Bayreuth
Libretto by the composer

Act I

Gurnemanz, an elderly knight of the Holy Grail, awakens in a forest near the castle of Monsalvat. He arouses two other knights and bids them prepare a bath for the king, Amfortas, who suffers from an incurable wound. Kundry, a wild woman, enters with balsam for the king, who is then carried in by his courtiers. Gurnemanz relates the tale of how the sorcerer Klingsor wished to gain entry to the brotherhood of the Grail, but was denied due to his sinful lust. Even after castrating himself he was not admitted. In revenge, he created a magic garden inhabited by sirens to seduce wandering knights; Amfortas fell under the garden’s spell and was seduced by Kundry. Klingsor stole from him the holy spear that pierced Christ’s side on the cross and proceeded to wound Amfortas with the relic. The wound can only be healed by a fool who grows wise through compassion. Suddenly, a swan is shot down by an arrow. A youth, Parsifal, is brought in; he appears to know nothing. Kundry fills in the little she knows concerning his name and his dead parents. As Amfortas is borne back to the castle, Gurnemanz wonders if Parsifal may be the fool they require; he takes the boy with him.

In the Hall of the Grail, the knights prepare to celebrate the Last Supper. The Grail is brought before Amfortas and the voice of his father, Titurel, can be heard encouraging him to uncover it. However, while the power of the chalice sustains the elderly Titurel, it prolongs Amfortas’ suffering; the king hesitates. The Grail is eventually uncovered and the bread and wine distributed. Parsifal pities Amfortas’ obvious pain, but...

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