Parsifal: Musical DNA


A subscriber writes:

Since its premiere in 1882, countless thousands of words have been written about the meaning of Wagner’s most challenging work, Parsifal. The text has been scrutinized and analyzed by devotees and detractors alike. These discussions are nearly always fascinating, often confusing, and occasionally ill-informed, and to their number I am certainly unequal to making an increase. Running the risk of sounding slightly oxymoronic I venture to say that such analyses are doomed to be endlessly inconclusive. Not surprisingly, far fewer words seem to have been written with regard to the true glory of this masterpiece – the music itself, the very notes that sustain it and without which few if any of the aforementioned writings would ever have come into being. I say that this is not surprising because it is so very difficult to render into words the effect of music upon the listener, if indeed it is ever possible at all. But about at least one aspect of it I feel I’d like to make the attempt. There are moments in Parsifal, alone among Wagner’s music dramas, during which I feel as if the composer allows one to look through the microscope, as it were, into the very DNA of music to see how it works. A case in point (only one of many throughout the work) occurs about halfway through the long monologue Amfortas sings towards the end of Act 3. (In the standard vocal score as published in 1902 by B. Schott’s Söhne it can be found at the top of page 263.) As the strands of counterpoint move through these strangely dying harmonies and arrive at their momentary resolution in the key of D-flat Major, (text, for purposes of reference only: “mir endlich spende den Tod! Tod! Sterben… einz’ge Gnade!) one of those glimpses through the microscope occurs. The sequential occurrence of this same passage six or seven measures later, this time arriving at D Major, is equally moving. To say that it is “beautiful” seems monumentally inadequate. And yet….? If such passages produce tears, and they most certainly do, they are not tears of sadness, nor of joy, nor of any emotion save that which arises when one is confronted by the absolute truth. Pressed to describe what those notes do, how they function, I would say quite simply that they tell the absolute, incontrovertible truth. And that can be said about very little in this life. The music of Parsifal is perhaps the most powerful corroboration I can think of in support Keats’ assertion that beauty is truth and truth beauty.


  • Agreed. There is something quite special about this opera. It is unlike any other opera, and therefore seems to defy and even transcend the genre of opera, hence the Wagnerian coinage ‘stage-festival’. It’s a celebration of everything one can possibly envisage on stage, including the best score, the best dramaturgy, in short, a true ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. This opera really does shed light on the DNA of humanity. In it, we reach the absolute depths and heights of human thought and emotion, even more so than the Ring Cycle or Tristan. Thank you for your innovative observation.

  • Thank you for your innovative observation.

    It is an opera that seems to defy and even transcend the very nature of opera, hence the Wagnerian coinage ‘stage-festival’.

    It’s a celibration of everything that can possibly be realised on stage, including the best score, the best dramaturgy, everything. Hence, a true ‘gesamtkunstwerk’.

    Wagner sheds light on the DNA of the human condition, exploring the depths and heights of human thought and emotion, more actual and less ‘mythical’ than the Ring or Tristan, in my view.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • I am a retired profession of English with an emphasis on Renaissance Literature and literary theory. My specialty in the latter connection concerned textual analysis with an emphasis on making explicit the complexities of literary texts that deliver complex meanings via sophisticated interplays among declared meanings and the “grammar” of meaning that such texts exhibit.

    The “libretto” of the Ring cycle, for example is a complex verbal text of parallels and contrasts of meaning that runs parallel with the similarly evolved musical materials that accompany and reflect them. It is possible to teach the Ring as a literary text, and I have done so.

    Parsifal is a complex text that plays hide-and-seek with its own actions and characters in ways that reflect the fundamental “journey” metaphor of the young Parsifal to the middle-aged Parsifal along a pathway from ignorance to moral enlightenment.

    If you are a director tasked with producing a staging of the opera then you are going to have to”solve” the problems of doing so. When you “don’t get it,” then you construct complex relations among characters that Wagner never dreamed of, as illustrated by the looney-toon inventions of the Gatti performances at Bayreuth in 2008 and following.

    The story of Parsifal is simple on its surface but complex in the constituents of his education (thus the opera is what called in literary history a “bildungsroman,” i.e. a story of a person gradually developing from fatuous childhood to responsible adulthood).

    The journey motif is basic here: a journey to a destination–the Grail castle–that the “Grail” alone chooses and invites a character to make. So when Parsifal “sillily” asks “Who is the Grail” he unwittingly stumbles on a fundamental truth of the journey that he makes in Act 1, namely that the grail is given in Wagner’s libretto a form of humanlike agency, an agency that will act in reverse in Parsifal’s narrative at the beginning of Act Three where he tells of long years lost in finding the road back to the Grail castle.

    I mention the above as indicative of only some of the more salient and fundamental of the literary/”narratival” motifs that bind the actions of opera together. Kundry’s history is telescoped as a narrative of all the “wicked women” of history and myth, who is punished in one direction by being narcoleptic on the one hand incapable of salvation on the other. We need more “laughs” from her in staged versions, because her sin as she relates it in the climax of Act Two was to laugh at Christ when he carried his cross. If you don’t follow the plain logic in a staged production then you’re missing a fundamental plot point in the libretto.

    The wound that can only be healed by the touch of instrument that made it has an old history in the myths of wounding and healing: something that is also underemphasized in most performances that I’m aware of.

    I can go on here, but my simple point is to emphasize an old bromide of literary critical “new criticism” of the latter part of the 20th century: when something happens more than once it is going to happen several times. Watch the plot–read the text–pay attention!

By PeterP

The Wagner Blog

The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

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