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One of the greatest figures of the 19th-century European art, Wilhelm Richard Wagner, is most commonly recognized in the world by his outstanding operas; however, the legacy he left for the future generations goes far beyond his music. Wagner’s philosophy, controversial ideas, progressive vision, and, most of all, his enigmatic personality still evoke interest among both his admirers and opponents. Addressing the composer’s music heritage, it is probably the legendary opera Parsifal that is just as much disputed over as its creator. The significance of this work, as well as its controversy, seem to reflect Wagner’s complicated personality, and thus is worth studying even in more than a century after the composer’s death.
The creation of Parsifal, the last and most considerable dramatic work of Wagner, lasted from 1857 to 1882, embracing the last third of the composer’s life, and thus absorbing his most mature and thoughtful ideas. Inspired by Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem Parzival, Wagner, at the same time, sharply criticizes the 13th-century author, calling him a poet of “barbaric and muddled period” who “understands nothing whatever of the real content” (Beckett 3). Therefore, the poem conjured up the vision of the future opera in Wagner’s imagination; however, it is the poem’s imperfection (in the eyes of Wagner) that made the composer seek for a more organized and meaningful form for the plot and actually gave a start for Parsifal creation. Indeed, if Wolfram’s characters were mainly plain, as he focused on the story plot and the symmetry of the events more, Wagner managed to develop psychological depth in every character and intensify their dramatic individualities (Kinderman 7).
Wagner also paid great attention to the stage organization, believing that only if he arranges every detail in person will the depth of the opera be understood by the audience (Rensselaer 6). Notably, only the last four years of the opera creation were dedicated to the music itself; all the other time, Wagner spent developing the dramatic aspect of his work (Kinderman 47). As a result, both the script and music for Parsifal were paramount at the time of the opera premiere. Special attention should be paid to the music solution and organization of different parts of the opera. For instance, the harmonic leitmotifs of the work were developed individually or every character; in addition, the outstanding feature of Parsifal is its unique chromaticism, which remains a subject of interest for the modern scholars (Beckett 96).
The opera’s greatness and controversy
The public interest towards Parsifal and the numerous attempts to analyze the themes and meanings encoded in the opera have produced a multitude of interpretations. Thus, Peter Bassett considers Parsifal to be a classic example of a hero’s journey, comparing it to The Divine Comedy by Dante (Bassett 7). Bassett describes the journey of a young man as a set of initiations that are aimed to make him more mature and gain wisdom. Lucy Beckett’s opinion is sound with that of Bassett; however, the researcher adds that in Parsifal, like in all the late works of Wagner, the theme of youth as contrasted to old age is dominant, as Parsifal is contrasted to Gurnemanz, Flower-maidens to Kundry and Amfortas to Titurel (Beckett 5).
Analyzing both opera’s music and script as generators of emotions, Jeremy Tambling finds certain ambivalence in Parsifal. Namely, while the music is rather pompous and very powerful, the dialogues and speeches of the characters, as well as their stories, seem to be rather negative and express rejection and resignation. Based on these observations, Tambling finds Parsifal extremely melancholic and states that the denial of effect is the central theme of the work (Tambling 283).
Besides its musical and philosophical significance, Parsifal also exposes some controversial aspects, which are still being discussed by various scholars. For instance, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wagner’s associate in his youth and his confirmed opponent in later years, focuses on the theological scope of the opera and is immensely critical about it. Nietzsche states that in Parsifal, Wagner goes “back to sickly Christian and obscurantist ideals” (par.3).
The modern scholar William Kinderman also writes about the religious ground of the opera; he finds the theme of compassion to dominate in Parsifal, with the Grail ritual being a focal point in it (Kinderman 298). This opinion is sound with another scholar’s statement that in Parsifal, Wagner showed the interrelation between humans and religion with the symbol of the Grail, which can rescue people but needs to be rescued by them too (Beckett 138). In general, this opera is often addressed to as a work of Christian symbols (Bell 5).
In contrast, a modern scholar, Anthony Winterbourne, has dedicated one of his books to Parsifal, entitled “A Pagan Spoiled: Sex and Character in Wagner’s Parsifal.” The book, as it can be understood from its title, views the opera as a work with meanings far from Christian. Thus, Winterbourne sees a “female-centered resolution” in the drama and finds the Kundry’s sexuality and her multiple personalities to be Parsifal‘s central theme (63). Such controversy in Parsifal interpretations contributes to the multifaceted nature of the opera and, thus, to its timeless value, which has gone far beyond the musical appreciation.
Besides the abovementioned aspects of the opera, its ideological meaning is often being addressed by critiques. Specifically, the ideas of racism and anti-Semitism are being pointed at in numerous studies of Parsifal. Such scholars as Alfred Lorenz and Karl Grunsky, the contemporaries of Wagner, found the image of Klingsor to be Jewish and found a reflection of the German nationality’s dominance in Klingsor’s defeat (Kinderman 36). Thus, Klingsor’s magic is juxtaposed to the power of orthodox faith and relics. Another character who is supposedly a representative of Jews is Kundry. The scene when she is trying to tempt Parsifal, according to some scholars, was designed by Wagner to show how the Aryans’ character and clear minds can resist the vicious ideas that are being imposed on Europe by the Jews (Kinderman 39).
The assumptions about Parsifal‘s racist meaning were enhanced by some of Wagner’s writings concerning the role of Jews in world art in general and their contribution to music in specific. In his thorough examination of the world music and literature, Wagner concludes that Jewish composers made no progressive contributions to the world music, and that “Jews have brought forth no true poet” (99). In addition, his wife, Cosima Wagner, many times expressed her loath towards the Jews, which also contributed to the impression of Wagner’s attitude to the issue (Brener 175).
At the same time, many scholars disprove the assumption that Wagner had encoded the racist ideology in his work. As an example, William Kinderman states that Parsifal shows the downside of the ideology and a “crude distortion involved in the German nationalist appropriation” and that it is because of Alfred Lorenz’ and Karl Grunsky’s deliberate racist interpretation and Hitler’s later involvement that the drama has acquired a new, anti-Semitic meaning (39). Milton Brener also points to the deception Gutman applied towards the audience while presenting Parsifal as an anti-Semitist ideology (Brener 288). Interestingly, the main person to direct Parsifal staging and help Wagner with the opera performance was a Jewish musician, Hermann Levi (Brener 201).
Wagner’s role in world classical music
Taking into consideration Wagner’s talent, his popularity, and ambivalence of his character, it is hard to overestimate his contribution to the world heritage of classical music. Hundreds of research papers, books, and articles have been devoted to Wagner’s oeuvre and his selected works, and hundreds are yet to be published by future generations. Wagner always leaves his audience with a feeling of strong admiration or denial, but never with indifference (Shaw 7). Therefore, the musicians who lived in the 19th century after Wagner was usually taking parts either for or against Wagner’s positions (Bassett 41). Wagner also contributed to the theory of classical music, making a study about conducting and leaving a new, harmonic leitmotif in his operas’ notes (Kinderman 18). A number of modern musicians and artists name Wagner as their inspirer. However, most of all, his significance to the classical music of the world is obvious in his music.
One of the world’s most talented composers and polemists, Richard Wagner, appeared to be also one of the most ambivalent figures in history. His last dramatic musical opera Parsifal reflects on both its author’s immense talent and his complicated character. The multitude of aspects considered in this work, together with the historical and political situation of the time, make a mixture of impressions that is sometimes hard to read. However, even with his moral and ethical values being questioned by some researchers, Wagner’s significance as of an innovator and a dedicated perfectionist of musical plays is undeniable. Regardless of an attitude towards Wagner and his personality, Parsifal is a work of art with world significance, which is compulsory to watch and listen at least once in one’s life.
Bassett, Peter. Wagner’s Persifal: The Journey of a soul. NY: Wakefield Press, 2008. Print.
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Beckett, Lucy. Richard Wagner: Parsifal. London: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Print.
Bell, Richard. Wagner’s Parsifal: An Appreciation in the Light of His Theological Journey. NY: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013. Print.
Brener, Milton. Richard Wagner and the Jews. Jefferson: McFarland, 2005. Print.
Kinderman, William. “The Challenge of Wagner’s Parsifal”. A Companion to Wagner’s Parsifal. Ed. William Kinderman and Katherine Rae Syer. London: Boydell&Brewer, 2005. Print.
Kinderman, William. Wagner’s Parsifal. London: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. 1887. Web.
Rensselaer, Mariana Griswold. “Parsifal” at Baireuth. 1883. Web.
Shaw, Letroy Robert. “Introduction.” Wagner in Retrospect: A Centennial Reappraisal. Ed. Leroy Robert Shaw, Nancy Rockmore Cirillo and Marion S. Miller. NY: Rodopi, 1987. Print.
Tambling, Jeremy. “The Power of Emotion: Wagner and Film.” Wagner and Cinema. Ed. Joe Jeongwon and Sander L. Gilman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. 273-294. Print.
Wagner, Richard (Trans. William A. Ellis). Judaism in Music. 1850. Web.
Winterbourne, Anthony. A Pagan Spoiled: Sex and Character in Wagner’s Parsifal. New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003. Print.