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Loosely based on Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a thirteenth century epic poem of the Arthurian knight Percival and his quest for the Holy Grail, Wagner’s last opera was in fact conceived as early as April 1857. However, it would take him twenty-five years until he had finished the entire score. Wagner had read von Eschenbach’s poem while taking the waters at Marienbad in 1845. After encountering Arthur Schopenhauer’s writings in 1854, he had become interested in oriental philosophies, especially Buddhism, which offered such themes as self-renouncing, reincarnation, compassion and even exclusive social groups (castes). According to his autobiography, Wagner first hit upon the idea for Parsifal on Good Friday morning, April 1857, in the small cottage on Otto Wesendonck’s estate in Enge:
“On Good Friday I awoke to find the sun shining brightly for the first time in this house: the little garden was radiant with green, the birds sang, and at last I could sit on the roof and enjoy the long-yearned-for peace with its message of promise. Full of this sentiment, I suddenly remembered that the day was Good Friday, and I called to mind the significance this omen had already once assumed for me when I was reading Wolfram’s Parzival. Since the sojourn in Marienbad where I had conceived Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had never occupied myself again with that poem; now its noble possibilities struck me with overwhelming force, and out of my thoughts about Good Friday I rapidly conceived a whole drama, of which I made a rough sketch with a few dashes of the pen, dividing the whole into three acts.”
It would not be till the passing of eight years that Wagner would work in earnest on Parsifal, however. In August 1865, he took it up again and made a prose draft, containing a fairly brief outline of the plot, adding a considerable amount of detailed commentary on the characters and themes of the drama. But once again the work was dropped and set aside; this time for eleven and a half years, when the composer’s time and creative energy was devoted to The Ring. After its first full performance at Bayreuth in August 1876, Wagner found time again to work on Parsifal. By 23 February 1877 he had completed a second and more extensive prose draft of the work, and by 19 April of the same year he had adapted it into a verse libretto.
Wagner composed the opera one act at a time, scored between August 1879 and 13 January 1882. On 12 November 1880, he had conducted a private performance of the prelude for his patron Ludwig II of Bavaria at the Court Theatre in Munich. The premiere of the entire work was given in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth on 26 July 1882, conducted by Hermann Levi. Stage designs were by Max Brückner and Paul von Joukowsky, under the guidance of Wagner himself. The Grail Hall was based on the interior of Siena Cathedral that Wagner had visited in 1880, while Klingsor’s magic garden was modelled on the gardens at the Palazzo Rufolo in Ravello. In July and August 1882 sixteen performances of the work were given in Bayreuth conducted by Levi and Franz Fischer. The production boasted an orchestra of 107, a chorus of 135 and 23 soloists (with the main parts being double cast). At the last of these performances, Wagner took the baton from Levi and conducted the final scene of Act III, from the orchestral interlude to the opera’s end.
For the first twenty years, the only staged performances of Parsifal took place in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, as Wagner wished to keep the opera exclusively for the Bayreuth stage. He was determined to prevent it from degenerating into ‘mere amusement’ for an opera-going public. Only at Bayreuth did he feel that his last work would be presented in the way envisaged by him — a tradition maintained by his wife, Cosima, long after his death. He also hoped that by giving Bayreuth the monopoly on its performance, the opera would provide an income for his family long after his death.
Up until 1903, an embargo was maintained on stage performances outside Bayreuth. However, on 24 December 1903, after receiving a court ruling that performances in the United States could not be prevented by Bayreuth, the New York Metropolitan Opera staged the complete opera, employing many Bayreuth-trained singers. Incensed with their actions, Cosima barred anyone involved in the New York production from working at Bayreuth in future performances. However, this did not deter other unauthorised performances. Bayreuth finally lifted its monopoly on Parsifal on 1 January 1914 in the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Bologna with Giuseppe Borgatti taking the lead.
Interestingly, performances of Parsifal at Bayreuth have become associated with an unusual tradition of audiences not applauding at the end of the first Act. This is the result of a misunderstanding arising from Wagner’s desire at the premiere to maintain the serious mood of the opera. After a thundering applause following the first and second Acts, Wagner spoke to the audience and said that the cast would take no curtain calls until the end of the performance. This caused much confusion, as the audience remained silent at the end, until Wagner addressed them again, saying that he did not mean that they could not applaud. After the performance Wagner complained, “Now I don’t know. Did the audience like it or not?” At subsequent performances some believed that Wagner had wanted no applause until the very end, and there was silence after the first two acts. In time, it became a Bayreuth tradition that no applause would be heard after the first act, though this was certainly not Wagner’s original idea.
Largely due to its overtly Christian symbolism, Wagner considered Parsifal to be a sacred work for the stage and not an opera; the music is unusually solemn and slow. It opens near the sanctuary of the Holy Grail, as the old knight Gurnemanz and two sentries awaken and perform their morning prayers. Several other knights prepare a bath for the injured ruler Amfortas, who suffers from an incurable wound. Suddenly, a mysterious, ageless woman (Kundry) appears as the Grail’s messenger, explaining she has brought medicine for Amfortas. The knights carry in the king, while he reflects on a prophecy that tells of his cure by a “pure fool, enlightened by compassion”. When the knights ask about Klingsor, a sorcerer that is trying to destroy the knights of the Grail, Gurnemanz tells the story of Amfortas’ wound: The Holy Grail and the Holy Spear were given into the care of Titurel, Amfortas’ father, who assembled a company of knights to guard the relics.
Wishing to join the brotherhood, an unhappy man called Klingsor had tried to overcome his sinful thoughts by castrating himself, but the brotherhood rejected him. Seeking vengeance, he built a castle across the mountains with a magic garden full of alluring women to entrap the knights. When Amfortas set out to defeat Klingsor, he was himself seduced by a mesmirisingly beautiful woman. Klingsor stole the Holy Spear from Amfortas, using it to stab him, giving a wound that can only be healed by the innocent youth of which the prophecy told…
The score contrasts the sacred with the sensual, from the magnificence of the music for the procession to the Grail Hall in Act I to the richly orchestrated scene in which Kundry tries to seduce Parsifal in Act II. The Act I Prologue is notable for its ethereal beauty of expression, while other highlights include the Good Friday music in Act III and the opera’s closing scene, in which Parsifal reveals the Grail to the knights.
Parsifal makes liberal use of leitmotifs. Although Wagner did not specifically identify or name leitmotifs in the score, the esteemed Wagner follower Hans von Wolzogen, whose guide to Parsifal was published in 1882, identified and analysed many of them and they were later highlighted in piano arrangements of the score. The opening prelude introduces two important leitmotifs, generally referred to as the Communion theme and the theme of the Grail. Along with Parsifal’s own motif, these are repeated throughout the course of the opera. Wagner himself reacted to the naming of motifs with disgust: “In the end people believe that such nonsense happens by my suggestion.”
A number of orchestral excerpts from the opera were arranged by Wagner himself and remain in the concert repertory. The prelude to Act I is frequently performed either alone or in conjunction with an arrangement of the “Good Friday” music that accompanies the second half of Act III Scene 1.
Wagner spent the rest of his life principally at Villa Wahnfried, only making a visit to London in 1877 to give a successful series of concerts and then making several other journeys to Italy. During these years he dictated to his wife his autobiography, Mein Leben, which he had commenced work on in 1865. In the winter of 1882 he journeyed to Venice, where he remained for several months. He died of a heart attack at the age of 69 on 13 February 1883 at Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a sixteenth century palazzo...