Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, By Sir Roger Scruton, Allen Lane publisher, May 2020, 146 pages.
The late Sir Roger Scruton’s death in January left a yawning gap in the Anglosphere’s intellectual life, but he posthumously helped fill it with his final book, Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, which appeared a few months later.
Its apposite subject is our shared favorite composer Richard Wagner’s final opera, a searching meditation on salvation and redemption refracted through Wagner’s peculiar sensibilities and masterful psychological insights, which influenced generations of philosophers and social scientists as well as students and admirers of music and drama. In addition to a massive oeuvre of some fifty other books on topics ranging from sex to wine to architecture, Sir Roger’s look at Parsifal follows his generally well received earlier studies of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and The Ring of the Nibelung.
Parsifal’s title character, a “pure fool made wise through compassion,” is the prophesied savior of the Knights of the Holy Grail, an austere order that guards the cup that caught Christ’s blood at the crucifixion, and the Holy Spear, which pierced his side. The Knights’ King, Amfortas, has managed to lose the Holy Spear to Klingsor, a would-be knight who was cast out for being insufficiently pure and used his slave Kundry, a woman condemned to a miserable eternal existence after mocking Christ on the Cross, to seduce him into debility. Parsifal, who does not initially understand Amfortas’s plight or its higher meaning, resists Kundry’s wiles, defeats Klingsor, and, learning wisdom through compassion on the way, returns to the Knights to restore order to their realm.
Despite its relatively slim 146 pages of text, Wagner’s Parsifal is a dense and detailed read. The opera, which Wagner distinguished as a “sacred stage festival play,” holds a special place in Wagnerian lore and in theatrical history generally. Wagner composed it specifically for performance at his self-designed theater in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, still home to an annual festival of his works, where it premiered in 1882—only a few months before his death—and desired that it never be performed anywhere else. The prohibition went out with Parsifal’s copyright expiration in 1913 (i.e. the end of the 30th calendar year after the creator’s death), and was violated before, but his widow Cosima, who outlived him by nearly half a century, tried her best to honor his wish.
Suffused with religious symbolism and nearly forty years in conception, the opera drew heavily on Wagner’s impressions of Catholic Italy, more specifically, Siena Cathedral, which made him cry; the Amalfi coast gardens of Ravello, which suggested enchantment; and Sicily, historically a Christian/Muslim borderland like the opera’s Spanish setting, where he composed much of the score, and where he is remembered by a room named after him in Palermo’s faded but elegant Grand Hotel des Palmes. It also owes tremendous debts to Schopenhauer’s philosophy of renunciation of ego and, through it, to the Buddhism that influenced Schopenhauer in turn.
By a unique convention that Wagner himself does not appear to have intended, the opera’s first act, which solemnly ends with a simulacrum of the eucharist, is not to be greeted with applause. Uninformed modern audiences often disregard this practice to the frustrated hushes of those in the know, but I witnessed it in all its eeriness at a performance in Vienna as recently as 2017.
Even seasoned Wagnerians can have an aversion to Parsifal. Its Christian themes of compassion and redemption depart from the heroic paganism of his earlier works, which offered a colorful distraction from the dull bourgeois society we still inhabit. Nietzsche denounced the opera for its religiosity as “a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presuppositions of life.” Despite all of Hitler’s Wagnerism, Nazi Germany largely gave it a miss because of its Christian symbolism. So did Russia, initially a Wagner-obsessed country, where it was not performed between 1914 and 1997 because much of its unfortunate twentieth-century experience had little time for either religion or Germans.
Fusing medieval tales of the Holy Grail legend, Parsifal opens like many epics, in medias res, with a long backstory related through monologues that can become soporific if placed in the wrong musical and directorial hands. And, in our relentlessly secular world, watching a quasi-mass on stage, however beautifully scored, is not nearly as transporting as it was for audiences in the decades after the opera’s premiere, who reacted by passing out, bursting into tears, or feeling like they were initiates of a new faith.
Sir Roger’s many gifts included an enviable mastery of literature, philosophy, and music. Wielded here to impressive effect, they reveal the fractured sensibilities and circumstances that brought Parsifal into being. Having had an ambivalent relationship with Christianity himself, his principal goal in the book was to offer an assessment of just how “Christian” the opera is and reflections on why and how this is important.
While Christian themes and symbols dominate Parsifal’s ethos, he points out, the opera does not mention either God nor Heaven. The sacraments of confession and penance are replaced by compassion and wisdom as the motive force in spiritual healing, while self-awareness and community realized on earth are the main manifestations of salvation from sin. Redemption, the opera tells us, is fundamentally of this world, which Jesus left with relics and memories, but from which He is absent and to which He will not return. The eucharistic blood rite exists not for communion with divinity or contemplation of an afterlife, but to prolong the knights’ corporeal existence and nourish their sense of earthly community.
Sir Roger argued well for his interpretation, which, among other insights, explains the opera’s cryptic final line, “Redemption to the redeemer.” But he unfortunately did not much communicate what this can tell us about Wagner, who did not believe in God yet had great faith in an abstract “godliness,” which he believed people could experience in art if it were taken as a spiritual revelation. Nor did Sir Roger descend from the scholarly heights to explore what meanings people could draw from the work, which is jam-packed with all sorts of delightful pathologies and dilemmas, both human and divine.
This last point led to particular disappointment since audiences still flock to Parsifal all over the world, at least in non-pandemic times more often than at any other time in history, and sometimes still attach to it the solemnity that I observed in Vienna not so long ago. For all his erudition, Sir Roger left the “why” as mysterious as the Grail’s symbolism.
Paul du Quenoy is president and publisher of Academica Press.