Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Wagner (1813 - 1883)
By the time Wagner got to composing Parsifal as the final, perhaps crowning achievement of his already dominating career, he was so steeped in story and myth and epic narrative that he had developed a whole personal science of their use and practical application. Each of his operas and music-dramas really spins out  its own mythic environment as the most important element of the evolving story. What eventually fascinates our attention when we get to know the 'Ring', are all the constant hints of the background mythology of that world and how it works, which all eventually coalesce into a coherent picture.

But two of his pieces, Lohengrin and Parsifal share the same underlying mythos of the Grail and its Knights sent out, agents of good sent to right wrongs. In Lohengrin we hear him speak of his father Parsifal and how the Grail sends it's Grail Knights out on missions.

After the Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner cast around for the plots of his final projects. That he was thinking about a religious subject is clear because he completed a scenario on Jesus [part of which found it's way to Hollywood] that he never used, and he was seriously developing another plot with strong Buddhist elements, whose ideas of re-incarnation forcing us through an inexorable cycle of lives, are taken up in Parsifal.

Then Wagner's life and career were transfigured by the patronage of Rudolph II, the king of Bavaria who worshiped Wagner and his Music Dramas: providing the apotheosis of his incredible career. The King practically fell in love with Wagner, and would have given him limitless money and support, but for the opposition of his own ministers, who eventually worked to keep Wagner and the Rudolph apart.

But the King did confide his most painful secret to Wagner, that he was a homosexual, but riddled by [the usual] Roman Catholic guilt about it, caught occasionally in the cycle of sinful debauch followed by rigorous self loathing and guilt and all the other auto-tortures the Church has always fostered.

Rudolph's self-loathing and guilt powerfully impressed Wagner and it began to influence the gestation of the Parsifal material. He consciously began to address the King's sexual guilt with metaphors of cleansing and purifying, and the idea of sexual defilement of the most sacred started to enter the middle of the story. The sexual components form a really trickster-like element to the whole plot, giving it a real archetypal depth-psychology jolt of power. If anyone tries to parse the plot of Parsifal along conservative religious values they are bound to fail to understand it. In typically Wagnerian fashion the myths have been so jammed together they become confused and inseparable. That is why this final, not even 'Music Drama', but now 'Bühnenweihfestspiel' : a 'Stage-Consecrating -Festival Play,' as Wagner insisted on designating it, has become a wild playground for countless different formulations and directorial solutions during the last few decades. It has become something like a vast operatic Rorschach test the Opera Director interprets for his audience. And yet its very convincing, almost overwhelming evocation of the sacred, of awesome spiritual power, always really does give a sense of presenting some sort of exalted drama of redemption which metaphorically purifies us, and even the stage itself.

Since any allusions to homosexuality were still impossible in that society, Wagner softened the focus of the transgressive act here, to sinful sexual seduction and to who is seduced and how he might be again purified. To provide the background myth of the despoliation of something sacred he began with the ancient medieval myth of the Sangraal which he read about  in 1845 in a 13th century play by Wolfram Von Eschenbach--which becomes the Grail which is still the best metaphor in our own culture for the elusively attainable supreme ideal: we hear of the search for the Grail of Cold Fusion, the Grail of simultaneous orgasm. It has become a trope.

* * *

When the Roman soldier Longinus pierced Jesus' side on the Cross, Mary Magdalene collected some of the flow of blood in a cup and saved it. The spear was later added to the sacred keepsakes from the crucifixion, and the mystic power of Christ's blood achieved a life of its own, evolving around itself a brotherhood dedicated to keep the Sacred Blood undefiled [a metaphor for the Christian Church, and of monastic enclave]. Eventually, in Wagner's vision, the Monk-warrior knights withdrew to the Pyrenees with their Grail and, at its direction, built a fortress-temple Montsalvat, to house their sacred objects and protect them from all mundane contamination.

A culture and hierarchy developed amongst the monk-knights who have a modern echo in the Chinese idea of the Shaolin Warrior Monks, similarly sent out on missions of good, or even in the comic book super heroes who are dedicated to fighting evil.

These Grail-Knights, are led by their Chief-like Abbot, whose task it is to reveal the Grail daily to the Knights, which is their only sustenance, and which they depend on for renewal--an Eucharistic metaphor, of course.

The Grail is further protected by it's almost extra-dimensional territory which is unapproachable by normal mortals except by the express permission of the Grail which seems to have become like an autonomous conscious entity emanating from the Divine.

Why ever all this protection and separation?

The Grail has a Super-Enemy!  Klingsor is a Satanic denier bent not only on destroying the power of the Grail, but in subverting and using it's power negatively through black magic. In an H.P. Lovecraft like setup, Klingsor needs both the sacred spear and the Grail to subvert their power to rule the world after the exercise of specific rites which involve the sexual seduction and thus destruction of any or all of the Grail Knights. Since they are so chaste and locked away from the world in their ecstatic daily Beatific Vision, it is surprising--or perhaps inevitable--that the animal-sexual side of their natures should become vulnerable.

Klingsor has set up an elaborate trap outside Montsalvat: a fantastic pleasure garden peopled by voluptuous sexually alluring women, who try to seduce any Knights who come into their clutches.

Montsalvat was built by Titurel when he was the leader and because of the power of the Grail, he lived for many centuries, and eventually had a son Amfortas. [The married side of the Grail Knights lives is, amusingly, never discussed or alluded to by Wagner: perhaps the Knights take unexplained wives at some point--thank goodness they are not gay!]

Amfortas became King of the Grail-Knights, but Titurel has still been kept alive preternaturally by the constant revelations of the Grail, although Amfortas reigns, Titurel is sustained alive, zombie-like, in a special niche in the Temple where he awaits his daily sustenance from seeing the Grail.

Klingsor is a fantastic villain who seeks supreme power and has even somehow castrated himself trying to marshal the black powers. He has an unwilling ally that he keeps in control with this power, Kundry, the most fascinating and troubling character here, who dramatizes in this plot the situation of laughing at someone else's misery, of the person lacking all compassion, which by extension can be understood as one of the most asocial and harmful human potentials: that of the psychopath who has no remorse and thus is capable of any crime. Kundry also shows evidence of schizophrenic dualism, in that she is in Klingsor's power only part of the time, and when not, seeks only to serve and help the very Knights she is compelled to try to destroy when his power is working on her.

If this were not complicated enough, we eventually find out in Act 2, that Kundry is the 'Woman Who Spurned Christ on the Cross,' who laughed at him when his compassionate gaze fell on her. Wagner seems here to symbolize the Jewish situation of ignoring the Christian message. Even worse, Kundry has been cursed because of her rejection, to wander the earth undying, forever seeking salvation which will only happen for her when she again encounters the same look of compassion that she saw, and rejected in Jesus' face. Only then will she be able to die.

She seems to go through cycles of dormancy after which she wakes like a zombie, either to come alive to seduce and be beautiful through Klingsor's power, or to humbly serve the Knights as a desiccated wraith. Most of the Knights are not aware she works for Klingsor at least part time, but Gurnemanz suspects.

Before the beginning of the action of this, let's still call it, opera, Amfortas has happened into Klingsor's pleasure garden. He is armed with Longinus' spear as part of his equipment.

He is confronted by Kundry in her most seductive appearance, and she manages to seduce him, knowing that this will negate his power, at which moment Klingsor takes the spear and wounds Amfortas with it and keeps it. This defiles the spear, and also the purity of the Knights who are now all compromised because of his sin. In a magic twist to rival any fairy story, his wound is dolorous, that is, unhealing: cursed to bleed and fester until it is touched again by the holy spear. [Since the appearance of AIDS the dolorous wound in Parsifal has come to provide a metaphor for the condition to many AIDS sufferers.]

The wounded Grail King is in constant agony: the part of Amfortas is by far the most suffering of Wagner's characters. In the worst ironic twist his wound bursts forth every time he ritually reveals the Grail, which he is forced to do because of the needs of his knights. This intolerable situation begins years before the action of the opera starts.

There are two more characters in the action: Gurnemanz, a senior knight who has witnessed and suffered through all these events and acts as a kind of historian, and finally the eponymous Parsifal, about whom nothing is known and who knows almost nothing about himself except that  he used to live with his mother.

Knowing this extensive and very dense back story will set anyone up to better experience the subsequent plot as it unfolds, as it is usually described in the plot's synopses.

Parsifal appears in the sacred Montsalvat territory and draws attention to himself when he kills a swan. Gurnemanz accuses him of murdering one of the enclave's protected animals, Parsifal is sorry. He sees the daily rituals of the Knights unfolding in the Sacred Forest of Montsalvat: they have to bring Amfortas, suffering now for years in his wounded agony, to the lake to bathe his wound. Kundry arrives as if coming from far away with Arabian spices to help manage Amfortas' wound. After this we hear the giant bells of Montsalvat calling the knights to the daily ritual in which Amfortas has to reveal the Grail and renew his agony.

Gurnemanz is surprised to see this interloper here at all, but remembering a phrase that has emanated from the Grail, that gives them all hope: "Through Compassion Knowing: The Pure Fool-- await him, whom I have chosen.", suspects that this may be the expected saviour, and invites him to come to witness the awesome spectacle of the revelation of the Grail.

The following music describes the mystic transition to the Grail Temple during which, as Gurnemantz says, time becomes space and space time. He hopes that when the newcomer sees the Grail he will reveal himself as the hoped for saviour, but when the spectacle unfolds with giant clanging bells and Wagner's most awesome music, Parsifal seems to be nothing more than stunned by it all,  and Gurnemanz has him unceremoniously thrown out.

But Klingsor seems to have noticed through magic that Parsifal is in fact the saviour and in the second act, attempts to have him seduced by Kundry and her harem of seductive vamps. The garden and its sirens do not attract Parsifal, and finally Kundry is revealed in her most beguiling incarnation. She lures him by telling him facts about himself and then telling him his mother is dead to weaken him. She almost has him interested, but as she begins to seduce him, he, through his compassion, notices her conflicted agony because she knows that by drawing him into coitus, she will also be destroying him. She remembers and re-lives her rejection of Jesus trying to elicit Parsifal's pity for her. Just as she almost has him, he has a flashback of what happened to him when he saw the Grail revealed at the end of the first act and describes hearing the Grail screaming for help as it is being revealed by its defiled keeper, because of the constant sacrilege of his open wound and the stolen spear. Parsifal suddenly is able to make the connection and understands everything in terms of compassion. Klingsor realizes he is powerless against him and in final desperation, throws the spear at Parsifal hoping to wound him like Amfortas.

He hurls the spear but it floats miraculously before Parsifal who seizes it, and waves it against Klingsor and destroys him and his illusory garden.

The third act happens many years later. Parsifal has sought but has not found the Grail a second time. He is presumed to have had many adventures as a knight errant and has even  gone to England to be part of King Arthur's Round Table as Sir Percival.

The last act at first unfolds in the Sacred Forest again.

Parsifal arrives in black armour, realizes that he has finally found Montsalvat, removes his armour, and falls in thankful prayer. It happens to be Good Friday to emphasize the Christian connection.  Gurnemanz witnesses his arrival and recognizes Parsifal as the savour after all and conducts him to the Grail Temple.

The Knights are in total disarray by this time, unable to sustain their discipline, and are forcing Amfortas, who has refused to reveal the Grail, to do it one last time, as a funeral service for Titurel who has now finally died as a result of being deprived of the Grail vision. The giant ceremony unfolds in clangorous despair as the knights bewail their destruction and the final view of the Grail one last time.

Amfortas seems to be ready for suicide in his last agony. Parsifal enters with the Sacred Spear which he has been carrying all along, touches Amfortas' wound with it, and heals him, and assumes the Kingship of the Knights. Kundry who has lingered alive all this time recognizes his look of Christ-like compassion and is finally able to die. We hear the newly sanctified choirs of knights and acolytes and holy children in the dome of Montsalvaat reach an ecstatic choral resolution in Wagner's most glorious harmonies.

Everything has been made new.

 * * *

Wagner just had the time to finish this final work perfectly and see it through its first Bayreuth production, before he died in Venice in the fall of the same year 1883. He should not be held responsible for all the subsequent theorizing and extrapolating of its many confusing and contradictory themes and poetically compacted ideas, which were then further twisted and pressed into service to support the German National Socialist theories of blood purity and racial defilement. The similarly complex and contradictory Bible has been used non stop to support such destructive  and hateful arguments.

Wagner's underlying message was about compassion.

This might have increased in him to encompass all humanity. All his plots seem to be on the search for an ever increasing humanity in spite of his well documented but inherited and socially fostered racial bias. He at least seems to have worked to keep direct mention of all that out of his plots. As in the Rorschach test, we project our own biases onto the material. Great art frequently has this reflexive effect.

Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.

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