Post by Dogbertd Post by Mike Scott Rohan Post by firstname.lastname@example.org Post by email@example.com
Parsifal is the one Wagner work I just haven't been able to grasp. I
read Ernest Newman's chapter on it many years ago, and will give it a
second go. Any other suggestions?
When and if you get it --- you'll get it
It took me a while, for several reasons -- because I found the
characters hard to relate to (especially Gurnemanz as he was then
played), perhaps because so much of the music sounded sanctimonious at
first, certainly because it didn't seem to have the atmosphere and
vitality of the Ring and the rest. That of course is not how I feel
now. What brought me into it was playing the usual "bleeding chunks",
till the vocabulary of the music became more comprehensible, and going
to a straightforward production of it at the ROH (god knows where
you'll find one these days). But I never really cottoned on to
Gurnemanz till I saw Robert Lloyd's performance in the otherwise
bizarre Syberberg film.
Still, if you don't like it, you don't -- no obligation to like them
all. I personally have very mixed views about Tannhauser and Tristan,
extraordinary as they both are. For me the key to Wagner is always the
drama -- not the words or the score on their own, but the interplay,
physical or mental. Parsifal is not a Christian drama, like a mystery
play; it's a drama *about* Christianity, involving so many of Wagner's
deepest feelings about humanity, the religious impulse and
transcendence generally. Including, unfortunately, his anti-semitism in
the figure of Kundry, though in what he seems to have thought was a
modified and humane form; it's the only one of his works that does. But
since she can also represent a much wider conflict in humanity, it
needn't be a barrier to enjoying it. Hope you do come to it, anyhow.
I'd agree that it can take some time for Parsifal to be fully absorbed.
This is partly down to Wagner himself: Parsifal simply doesn't have the
drive of most of his other operas, and to the non-convert must, at
times, seem rather meandering. Bryan Magee has some interesting
observations on why Parsifal is different to Wagner's other operas in
his book on Schopenhauer.
I'd suggest starting with the big choral set pieces (end of Acts 1 and
3) and then include the Good Friday music (Act 3). These were certainly
the bits that got me into Parsifal, and for me it's up there with
Mike, your comments on Kundry as anti-semitic are interesting, and I
wonder if you'd be prepared to expand on them a little? She is
undoubtedly a type of "wandering Jew", and Parsifal's rejection of her
releases her from the curse - a curse brought on by her lack of
compassion - but are these things necessarily antisemitic? I know that
Wagner was at the end of his life somewhat obsessed with the idea of
redemption through the blood of christ (which brought about his
disagreements with the antisemite Gobineau) but while there are ideas
of racial purity in Parsifal that we might now (with the benefit of
hindsight) find distressing, I never really thought that Kundry was a
particulalry antisemitic image. But perhaps I've missed something.
I agree about your choice of setpieces, certainly, though there are others. The Act II transition's gloomy grandeur can be offputting, but it galvanized me.
As to Kundry: I spend quite a lot of time, as anyone who writes about Wagner will, fending off the crazies, axegrinders and people who are simply victims of received ideas, who often distrust the motives of anyone questioning them. One favoured line is that all the operas are coded antisemitic propaganda, which I then have to demonstrate (usually to a worried editor) is utter bull, as we all know. Mostly it's not too hard; but Kundry is the single sticking point. Even though she is, as you say, tragic, sympathetic and ultimately more sinned against than sinning. Nevertheless, she is basically Wagner's image of the Wandering Jew, and therefore an emblem, for him, of Judaism. And Wagner, whatever else and to whatever degree, was an anti-semite; so any image of Judaism he creates is going to grow out of that, and be tinged by it. It can't be otherwise.
That said, though, I don't mean we have to concede anything to the Wagner-bashers here, even the ones who, like Barry Millington, simply see themselves as iconoclastic realists. There's no getting away from it, Kundry is sympathetic. She devotes herself almost fanatically to help and service, to the point of shattered self-abasement in Act III, and this to the knights who mostly distrust and suspect her. She behaves, in fact, more in line with Christian ethics than they do, hence Gurnemanz's rebuke to the less wise squires. That rebuke is important, because it could be a rebuke to any casual racist bullying -- can, in fact, be read as Wagner's rejection of such thuggery.
And yet the knights are partly right, because Kundry, for all her goodwill, can't be trusted; she is constantly being let down by an inner flaw, an original sin if you like. And while these betrayals aren't entirely her fault -- they wouldn't happen without some genuine evil to take advantage of them -- they still are in origin, because she incurred the curse in the first place. She has no power in herself to resist them, and needs Parsifal to resist her evil side in order to exorcise it. When this happens, it effectively destroys her -- what she was, at any rate, preparing her for atonement, baptism and a peaceful death.
So what we have, in this anti-semite's portrayal of a Jew, is very mixed and conflicted indeed. It certainly is not s Nazi-style stereotype, not even, pace some commentators, the depiction of sterile cosmopolitan glibness one would expect from Judenthum in der Musik. As I see it, it is what Wagner, in his convoluted mind, wanted to be a sympathetic portrayal, without actually contradicting his prejudices altogether. She has strong virtues; she tries; it's not entirely her fault she can't quite get it right; ultimately she comes so close that she's tragic; she needs help to change. It certainly isn't what any non-bigot would come up with, but at least -- as in some of his other comments in later life -- he seems to have been trying to create something sympathetic.
Why? I'd suggest, to disassociate himself from the uglier and more conventional manifestations of anti-semitism in his time, and the attacks launched on him as part of them. He never seemed to realise that he actually was such a part, though by no means the worst one. We know that he was as friendly to real, individual Jews as he was hostile to the imaginary ones he saw as massed against him, and this was his attempt to reconcile both. And being a dramatist, in doing so he created a complex and musically involving character.
Who dies at the end. For some (leaving aside the now-discredited Nazi-style interpretations!) this is simply another expression of Wagner's wish for Jewish self-extinction by assimilation into Christianity. But Wagner wasn't actually that Christian -- merely a believer in Christian faith as a road to a wider spirituality. Hence Kundry's character is heavily and specifically loaded with Buddhist-style belief. "Herodias warst du, und was noch?" "Nun such'ich Ihn, vom Welt zu Welt..." Kundry is not physically immortal, it seems. She's a wandering spirit that has inhabited many incarnations. In short, she's died before; but these deaths have not released her from her curse. She has always been reborn, one gathers into another conflicted life. Now the curse is broken, there's little doubt that this death is intended to be different -- a transition, in fact, to a desired extinction, the extinction of all desires. In short, Nirvana. So Kundry's death, for Wagner, comes not as a penitence or punishment, or even as a merciful release, but as an apotheosis, appropriate to the redemption of a tragic character.
Sorry about the length of that, but it's the best I can do in a spare half hour to why I feel I have to acknowledge Kundry as an anti-semitic element -- but one which ultimately shows Wagner's own conflicts about his bigotry. Another outspoken bigot I often invoke, G.K.Chesterton, was driven to admit a category of "nice Jews" -- for him, Jews who stuck to their identity and customs etc and didn't pretend to be gentiles and take English surnames like Montague etc. This doesn't cut much ice; US studies have shown that anti-semites can simultaneously agree with statements that Jews were too exclusive and should mix more in Christian society, and others that condemn them for trying to muscle in. But it does mitigate Chesterton's bigotry somewhat; at least he was acknowledging something, and trying to improve it. And so IMHO was Wagner.
. Without, of course, realizing that he was nevertheless part of them; but everyone finds it hard to break free of the assumptions they were born into.