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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Parsifal (Bayreuth / Knappertsbusch) (1951)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Parsifal
The stirring Celtic myths of King Arthur and his knights and the quest for the Grail have fascinated European writers from the Middle Ages onward. The publication of Cervantess novel Don Quixote in the early seventeenth century served to keep the idea of an age of chivalry alive, even though he poked gentle fun at it. In the nineteenth century two great artists were obsessed with these myths: the poet Alfred Tennyson naturally concentrated on them from an English angle, while the composer Richard Wagner came to them from the Teutonic viewpoint. Wagners primary source was the thirteenth-century poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose writings he encountered in 1845. Having toyed with the idea of creating an opera round the holy fool Parsifal (also known as Parzival or Perceval), he ended up writing one about Parsifals son Lohengrin; and it was not until 1857 that he again started thinking seriously about the project, although he did consider introducing the character of Parsifal briefly into Tristan und Isolde. He wrote out a sketch (which is lost) for a three-act drama, and in 1865 he was able to give his patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria a fairly good impression of what the opera would be about. All this time, as he occupied himself with The Ring and Die Meistersinger, his concept of Parsifal was evolving, acquiring more and more layers of symbolism. For instance, Wolfram and other early writers were not too sure what the Grail actually was; but Wagners further reading drew him to the conviction held by later authors that it was the chalice used at the Last Supper and then employed by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood that flowed from the spear wound in the side of Christ on the Cross. The concept that the spear which plays a large part in the drama would be the very weapon with which the centurion Longinus inflicted that wound, was an even later discovery for him.
Wagner wrote his libretto in the spring of 1877, in the knowledge that this would be his farewell to the stage, and began composing the music that August. Interestingly, the noble Prelude to Act I was sketched first, which shows that Wagner already had a complete vision of the interlocking motifs which would resound through the work, and it was performed under his direction in a concert at his Bayreuth house, Wahnfried, in 1878. By Christmas 1881, when he had promised to have the score of the opera ready for his wife Cosima to see, only a few pages remained to be orchestrated. Wagner conceived the work from the start in terms of his theatre at Bayreuth, where it was given its first sixteen performances under Hermann Levis baton in the summer festival of 1882. Only under his own close supervision, Wagner felt, could the deeply religious element of Parsifal be realised. Performance anywhere else was forbidden and even after Wagners death, his heirs banned any stage presentation until the copyright ran out in 1914. A production at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1903 was seen by them and other Wagnerians as a betrayal. The Prelude and Good Friday Music, however, were quickly established in the concert hall. Parsifal has had no successors, although it clearly influenced Pfitzners Palestrina, and it remains, with its rapt religiosity, the most difficult of the Wagnerian music dramas to stage, especially in an increasingly sceptical and secular society. The preponderance of slow music and bass voices also makes it hard to bring off in the theatre. It is the ultimate challenge for a Wagnerian conductor, but it is full of beautiful music, especially in the harmonically rich third act, and it contains strikingly individual characters. Klingsor may be the archetypal villain and Parsifal the usual Wagnerian tenor, but Gurnemanz represents the epitome of operatic nobility, the tortured Amfortas is never forgotten, once seen, and in Kundry, with her intriguing dual nature, Wagner created his most exceptional female protagonist.
The production enshrined in this live recording was one of the epoch-making theatrical events of the twentieth century. The new broom at Bayreuth in this first post-war season, the composers grandson Wieland Wagner, chose Parsifal, with its themes of purification and redemption, as the ideal vehicle for cleansing the Festspielhaus after the disgrace of the Third Reich, when Wagners music had been adopted by the Nazis and Hitler himself had been an honoured guest at Bayreuth. In keeping with this ethos of newness, Wieland swept away all the old-fashioned ideas of production and presented a stark, almost empty stage picture, sombrely lit. In such a simple setting, acting and characterisation assumed primary importance, so the singers were meticulously rehearsed in the psychological implications of their rôles. The production was revived countless times and its impact is still being felt today; but it was also momentous on the musical side, bringing forward such new men as Windgassen, van Mill and London alongside established stars such as Mödl, Uhde and Weber. In charge of these wonderful singers and the handpicked chorus and orchestra was the craggy figure of Hans Knappertsbusch, who never did anything finer than this set, the first complete recording of Parsifal. Bayreuth that year was also a magnet for the record companies. EMI was there to record the Ninth Symphony under Furtwängler and Die Meistersinger under Karajan, while Decca was doing the first Ring cycle (of which only the last part was actually taped) and Parsifal. The engineer Kenneth Wilkinson made various experiments and finally slung a single microphone high up in the auditorium, blending the sound from that vantage point with the output from closer microphones. The result was a sound of immense atmosphere, helped by the famous cowl which at Bayreuth veiled the orchestra. The Festspielhaus, in which the singers could advance over the orchestra and therefore always be heard, played its part. The recording, with an almost ideal blend of warmth and clarity for its time, still sounds amazingly good; and the interpretation, edited by the producer John Culshaw from the general rehearsal and two performances, has stood the test of time.
 The Prelude to Act I establishes the sacred nature of what is to follow, making use of motifs associated with the Last Supper, including shorter elements connoting Salvation, the Wound and the Spear, heard at the opening. This leads to motifs of the Holy Grail, introduced by the trumpet, and of Faith, heard first from horns and trumpets.
Act I  Gurnemanz, an older knight, and two young squires are asleep in the woods in the realm of the Holy Grail. They wake, pray and prepare for the bath of King Amfortas, to whose wounds the remedy brought by Gawan has given no comfort. There is only one who can bring any relief.  The wild-haired Kundry rides galloping in, dismounting to give Gurnemanz a salve for the King, before casting herself down on the ground in exhaustion.  Amfortas is carried in. He knows that only a pure fool, made wise by suffering, can cure him, accepts the salve that Kundry has brought and is carried towards the lake.  The young men wonder about Kundry, but Gurnemanz explains that she may be bewitched, but, at all events, her absence seems to bring misfortune.  He recalls how Amfortas had been attracted by the vision of a beautiful woman to the castle of Klingsor and how he had been wounded by the Spear that Klingsor had seized.  In a fuller account, he tells how Titurel had been given the task of guarding the Holy Grail, the chalice of the Last Supper, and the Spear that had pierced the side of Christ on the Cross and how Klingsor had tried to lure away the Knights of the Grail. Titurel had sent his son Amfortas to attack Klingsor, the cause of his present suffering.
 At this point a swan flutters down to the ground, shot by the young Parsifal, who is sorry for what he has done.  Questioned by Gurnemanz, he can only tell him that his mother was Herzeleide (Hearts Sorrow) and that he had left her, following brightly dressed men he had seen. Kundry now tells him that this caused his mothers death, and Parsifal has to be held back from harming her, in his anger.
 Amfortas is seen being carried back to his castle, where Gurnemanz will lead Parsifal. Transformation Music allows for a change of scene from the wood to the castle and the temple of the Holy Grail. The bells of Monsalvat motif is heard, as the scene changes, while Gurnemanz and Parsifal walk towards the temple, with motifs of Sinners Torment and of the Spear.
 Parsifal stands by the door of the shrine, watching what is happening, while the Knights of the Grail enter in procession and range themselves at tables on each side. They sing of this love-feast, a sacred rite performed each day, as Amfortas is carried in, preceded by squires bearing the covered Grail, which they set on a stone altar.
 The voice of Titurel is heard, calling on Amfortas to unveil the Holy Grail, but he is in torment, suffering for his sin and for the wound that will never heal. He hopes for healing and for death.
 Boys and young men recall the promise of an innocent fool, enlightened through suffering. Amfortas rises, with difficulty, and unveils the sacred chalice, which is lit with a light from Heaven.  He raises the chalice in blessing, and voices of boys are heard bidding them take the Body and Blood of Christ, as bread and wine is distributed to the company.
 The boys now recall the Last Supper and the changing of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and the whole company joins in the Feast of Love and of Brotherhood. In solemn procession they leave the hall, as Amfortas is carried out once more.
 Parsifal, in spite of Gurnemanzs summons, has taken no part in the ceremony, watching always and suffering finally with Amfortas. Gurnemanz shakes him and tells him to be gone, but a voice is heard declaring him to be the innocent fool made wise through suffering.
Act II  The scene is set in the castle of Klingsor, who sees in his magic glass the approach of the fool and tells Kundry, who is in his power, to deal with Parsifal as she did with Amfortas.  Kundry is unwilling, but is reminded that whoever resists her will break the spell that binds her.  In his glass Klingsor sees Parsifal enter the magic garden, using his sword to quell the opposition of Klingsors knights. Kundry, meanwhile, has made off, to do as she must.
 In the garden Flower Maidens are heard lamenting the departure of their lovers. Parsifal gazes down at them in astonishment.  The Flower Maidens invite Parsifal to join them, playing around him and vying with one another for his attention. Parsifal rejects their blandishments, while admiring their beauty.  Kundry appears, now transformed into a beautiful woman, and calls Parsifal by his name.  She tells him of his father, the meaning of his name and of his mothers sorrow and death.  He is drawn towards her and,  as she kisses him, feels the pain that had afflicted Amfortas and recoils in horror.  He resists all she can do to lure him and she curses him, calling out.  She seeks, through him, her own redemption. Klingsor appears and hurls at him the Spear, which remains suspended over Parsifals head. He seizes it, making with it the sign of the cross, at which the castle sinks and the garden withers, while Kundry sinks to the ground.
Act III  The Prelude to Act III evokes the spirit of desolation that has fallen upon the realm of the Holy Grail in an opening motif from the first violins. A second motif represents the wandering of Parsifal in the time that has now elapsed between the second and third act. Finally he returns, to the sound of the Innocent Fool motif and the motif of the Spear.
 The scene is open country, in the realm of the Grail. It is early morning and Gurnemanz, now an old man, comes out of his hermits hut, hearing the sound of Kundrys groans from the undergrowth.  She is now dressed as a penitent and he tries to revive her. Now she would only wish to serve him, but he tells her that now the Knights have to look to themselves, in their desolation and poverty. She sees someone approaching. It is Parsifal, dressed in black armour and appearing uncertain of himself.  Gurnemanz welcomes his guest, but tells him to lay down the spear he carries, for the place is holy and the day is Good Friday. Parsifal lays down his sword and shield, putting his spear in the ground. He takes off his helmet and kneels in prayer.
 They recognise each other and Parsifal explains how, after all his wandering and suffering, he is seeking out the one whose suffering he once saw, bringing with him, unsullied, the Holy Spear.
 Gurnemanz is astonished, but tells Parsifal that it was a curse that drove him to wander, while Amfortas, in his pain and despair, no longer performed his holy office, denying the Knights the comfort and sustenance that the Grail would bring and thus causing the death of Titurel.  Now finally Parsifal, who blames himself for all this, will be brought to Amfortas, purified by the holy spring water with which Kundry bathes his feet.
 Gurnemanz anoints him with the holy water, greeting him as one who has reached enlightenment through suffering and now preparing him for the last revelation of the Grail that Amfortas has now promised. Parsifal performs his first duty by baptizing Kundry and looks around at the beauty of the countryside. Gurnemanz tells him that it is Good Friday, the fields and meadows now moist with holy dew and with the tears of penitents. He sings of the joy of creation and Parsifal, turning to Kundry, gently kisses her.
 Bells announce midday and Gurnemanz dresses Parsifal in the mantle of a Knight of the Grail. Taking the Spear, Parsifal follows Gurnemanz, accompanied by Kundry, as the scene gradually changes from open country to rocks that open to reveal the temple of the Grail.
 A procession of Knights bears in the Grail, with Amfortas, while another group carries in the body of Titurel, whose death is blamed on Amfortas and his sin. They bid him perform his office for the last time.
 The coffin of Titurel, placed before the stone altar, is opened and Amfortas prays for his fathers help in bringing death to him and comfort to his Knights. They urge him to reveal the Grail, but he is unwilling, for the sight of the Grail will prevent his death and mean further unendurable pain.
 Parsifal comes forward, holding aloft the Spear and then lightly touching Amfortas with it, for this alone can bring the relief that Amfortas craves. Approaching the altar, Parsifal takes the Grail, now shining with an unearthly light, and blesses those gathered there. A white dove descends on his head, Kundry sinks to the ground and Amfortas and Gurnemanz now kneel before him.
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WAGNER, R.: Parsifal (Bayreuth / Knappertsbusch) (...