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Story and Analysis of Wagner's Great Opera



Author of "My Musical Memories," "Music and Morals," etc.

[Illustration: RICHARD WAGNER]

[Illustration: Funk and Wagnalls Symbol]

Funk & Wagnalls Company
New York and London


This story and analysis of Parsifal was
first published as a part of Mr. Haweis'
well-known work, "My Musical Memories."
The interest it has excited
seems to justify its republication at
this time in a separate volume.

F. & W. Co.

Published, February, 1904





ACT I 18





Portrait of Richard Wagner _Frontispiece_

Parsifal and Gurnemanz Passing Through
the Ravine (Act I) 30

The Great Hall of the Holy Grail
(Act I) 36

Parsifal Entering the Grail Castle in
Triumph (Act III) 62


I visited Bayreuth on the 24th of July, 1883, and attended two crowded
performances of Wagner's last work, _Parsifal_. In the morning I went
into the beautiful gardens of the Neue Schloss. On either side of a
lake, upon which float a couple of swans and innumerable water-lilies,
the long parklike avenue of trees are vocal with wild doves, and the
robin is heard in the adjoining thickets. At my approach the sweet song
ceases abruptly, and the startled bird flies out, scattering the pale
petals of the wild roses upon my path. I follow a stream of people on
foot, as they move down the left-hand avenue in the garden of the Neue
Schloss, which adjoins Wagner's own grounds.

Some are going - some are coming. Presently I see an opening in the
bushes on my left; the path leads me to a clump of evergreens. I follow
it, and come suddenly on the great composer's grave. All about the green
square mound the trees are thick - laurel, fir, and yew. The shades fall
funereally across the immense gray granite slab; but over the dark
foliage the sky is bright blue, and straight in front of me, above the
low bushes, I can see the bow-windows of the dead master's study - where
I spent with him one delightful evening in 1876.

I can see, too, the jet of water that he loved playing high above the
hedge of evergreen. It lulls me with its sound. "Wahnfried! Wahnfried!"
it seems to murmur. It was the word written above the master's
house - the word he most loved - the word his tireless spirit most
believed in. How shall I render it? "Dream-life! dream-life! Earth's
illusion of joy!"

Great spirit! thy dream-life here is past, and, face to face with truth,
"rapt from the fickle and the frail," for thee the illusion has
vanished! Mayest thou also know the fulness of joy in the unbroken and
serene activities of the eternal Reality!

I visited the grave twice. There is nothing written on the granite slab.
There were never present less than twenty persons, and a constant
stream of pilgrims kept coming and going.

One gentle token of the master's pitiful and tender regard for the
faithful dumb animals he so loved lies but a few feet off in the same
garden, and not far from his own grave.

Upon a mossy bank, surrounded with evergreens, is a small marble slab,
with this inscription to his favorite dog:

"_Here lies in peace 'Wahnfried's' faithful watcher and friend - the good
and beautiful Mark_" (der gute, schöne Mark)!

I returned, too, to Wagner's tomb, plucked a branch of the fir-tree that
waved above it, and went back to my room to prepare myself by reading
and meditation for the great religious drama which I was to witness at
four o'clock in the afternoon - Wagner's latest and highest
inspiration - the story of the sacred brotherhood, the knights of San
Graal - _Parsifal_!


The blood of God! - mystic symbol of divine life - "for the blood is the
life thereof." That is the key-note of _Parsifal_, the Knight of the
Sangrail. Wine is the ready symbolical vehicle - the material link
between the divine and the human life. In the old religions, that
heightened consciousness, that intensity of feeling produced by
stimulant, was thought to be the very entering in of the "god" - the
union of the divine and human spirit; and in the Eleusinian mysteries,
the "sesame," the bread of Demeter, the earth mother, and the "kykeon,"
or wine of Dionysos, the vine god, were thus sacramental.

The passionate desire to approach and mingle with Deity is the one
mystic bond common to all religions in all lands. It is the "cry of the
human;" it traverses the ages, it exhausts many symbols and transcends
all forms.

To the Christian it is summed up in the "Lord's Supper."

The medieval legend of the Sangrail (real or royal blood) is the most
poetic and pathetic form of transubstantiation; in it the gross
materialism of the Roman Mass almost ceases to be repulsive; it
possesses the true legendary power of attraction and assimilation.

As the Knights of the Table Round, with their holy vows, provided
medieval Chivalry with a center, so did the Lord's table, with its
Sangrail, provide medieval Religion with its central attractive point.
And as all marvelous tales of knightly heroism circled round King
Arthur's table, so did the great legends embodying the Christian
conceptions of sin, punishment, and redemption circle round the Sangrail
and the sacrifice of the "Mass."

In the legends of _Parsifal_ and _Lohengrin_ the knightly and religious
elements are welded together. This is enough. We need approach
_Parsifal_ with no deep knowledge of the various Sagas made use of by
Wagner in his drama. His disciples, while most eager to trace its
various elements to their sources, are most emphatic in declaring that
the _Parsifal_ drama, so intimately true to the spirit of Roman
Catholicism, is nevertheless a new creation.

Joseph of Arimathea received in a crystal cup the blood of Christ as it
flowed from the spear-wound made by the Roman soldier. The cup and the
spear were committed to Titurel, who became a holy knight and head of a
sacred brotherhood of knights. They dwelt in the Visigoth Mountains of
Southern Spain, where, amid impenetrable forests, rose the legendary
palace of Montsalvat. Here they guarded the sacred relics, issuing forth
at times from their palatial fortress, like Lohengrin, to fight for
innocence and right, and always returning to renew their youth and
strength by the celestial contemplation of the Sangrail, and by
occasional participation in the holy feast.

Time and history count for very little in these narratives. It was
allowed, however, that Titurel the Chief had grown extremely aged, but
it was not allowed that he could die in the presence of the Sangrail. He
seemed to have been laid in a kind of trance, resting in an open tomb
beneath the altar of the Grail; and whenever the cup was uncovered his
voice might be heard joining in the celebration. Meanwhile, Amfortas,
his son, reigned in his stead.

Montsalvat, with its pure, contemplative, but active brotherhood, and
its mystic cup, thus stands out as the poetic symbol of all that is
highest and best in medieval Christianity.

The note of the wicked world - Magic for Devotion - Sensuality for
Worship - breaks in upon our vision, as the scene changes from the Halls
of Montsalvat to Klingsor's palace. Klingsor, an impure knight, who has
been refused admittance to the order of the "Sangrail," enters into a
compact with the powers of evil - by magic acquires arts of diabolical
fascination - fills his palace and gardens with enchantments, and wages
bitter war against the holy knights, with a view of corrupting them, and
ultimately, it may be, of acquiring for himself the "Sangrail," in which
all power is believed to reside. Many knights have already succumbed to
the "insidious arts" of Klingsor; but the tragical turning-point of the
_Parsifal_ is that Amfortas, himself the son of Titurel, the official
guardian of the Grail, in making war upon the magician, took with him
the sacred spear, and _lost_ it to Klingsor.

It came about in this way. A woman of unearthly loveliness won him in
the enchanted bowers adjoining the evil knight's palace, and Klingsor,
seizing the holy spear, thrust it into Amfortas's side, inflicting what
seemed an incurable wound. The brave knight, Gurnemanz, dragged his
master fainting from the garden, his companions of the Sangrail covering
their retreat. But, returned to Montsalvat, the unhappy king awakes only
to bewail his sin, the loss of the sacred spear, and the ceaseless
harrowing smart of an incurable wound. But who is Parsifal?

* * * * *

The smell of pine woods in July! The long avenue outside the city of
Bayreuth, that leads straight up the hill, crowned by the Wagner
Theater, a noble structure - architecturally admirable - severe, simple,
but exactly adapted to its purpose. I join the stream of pilgrims, some
in carriages, others on foot. As we approach, a clear blast of trombones
and brass from the terrace in front of the grand entrance plays out the
Grail "motive." It is the well-known signal - there is no time to be
lost. I enter at the prescribed door, and find myself close to my
appointed place. Every one - such is the admirable arrangement - seems to
do likewise. In a few minutes about one thousand persons are seated
without confusion. The theater is darkened, the footlights are lowered,
the prelude begins.

Act I

The waves of sound rise from the shadowy gulf sunken between the
audience and the footlights. Upon the sound ocean of "wind" the "Take,
eat," or "Love-feast" motive floats. Presently the strings pierce
through it, the Spear motive follows, and then, full of heavy pain,
"Drink ye all of this," followed by the famous Grail motive - an old
chorale also used by Mendelssohn in the Reformation Symphony. Then comes
the noble Faith and Love theme.

As I sit in the low light, amid the silent throng, and listen, I need no
interpreter - I am being placed in possession of the emotional key-notes
of the drama. Every subject is first distinctly enunciated, and then all
are wondrously blended together. There is the pain of sacrifice - the
mental agony, the bodily torture; there are the alternate pauses of
Sorrow and respite from sorrow long drawn out, the sharp ache of Sin,
the glimpses of unhallowed Joy, the strain of upward Endeavor, the
serene peace of Faith and Love, crowned by the blessed Vision of the
Grail. 'Tis past. The prelude melts into the opening recitative.

The eyes have now to play their part. The curtain rises, the story
begins. The morning breaks slowly, the gray streaks redden, a lovely
summer landscape lies bathed in primrose light. Under the shadow of a
noble tree, the aged knight. Gurnemanz, has been resting with two young
attendants. From the neighboring halls of Montsalvat the solemn
_reveillé_ - the Grail motive - rings out, and all three sink on their
knees in prayer. The sun bursts forth in splendor as the hymn rises to
mingle with the voices of universal nature. The waves of sound well up
and fill the soul with unspeakable thankfulness and praise.

The talk is of Amfortas, the king, and of his incurable wound. A wild
gallop, a rush of sound - and a weird woman, with streaming hair, springs
toward the startled group. She bears a phial with rare balsam from the
Arabian shores. It is for the king's wound. Who is the wild horsewoman?
Kundry - strange creation - a being doomed to wander, like the Wandering
Jew, the wild Huntsman, or Flying Dutchman, always seeking a deliverance
she can not find - Kundry, who, in ages gone by, met the Savior on the
road to Calvary and derided him. Some say she was Herodias's daughter.
Now filled with remorse, yet weighted with sinful longings, she serves
by turns the Knights of the Grail, then falls under the spell of
Klingsor, the evil knight sorcerer, and, in the guise of an enchantress,
is compelled by him to seduce, if possible, the Knights of the Grail.

Eternal symbol of the divided allegiance of a woman's soul! She it was
who, under the sensual spell, as an incarnation of loveliness, overcame
Amfortas, and she it is now who, in her ardent quest for salvation,
changed and squalid in appearance, serves the Knights of the Grail, and
seeks to heal Amfortas's wound!

No sooner has she delivered her balsam to the faithful Gurnemanz, and
thrown herself exhausted upon the grass - where she lies gnawing her hair
morosely - than a change in the sound atmosphere, which never ceases to
be generated in the mystic orchestral gulf, presages the approach of

He comes, borne on a litter, to his morning bath in the shining lake
hard by. Sharp is the pain of the wound - weary and hopeless is the king.
Through the Wound-motive comes the sweet woodland music and the breath
of the blessed morning, fragrant with flowers and fresh with dew. It is
one of those incomparable bursts of woodland notes, full of bird-song
and the happy hum of insect life and rustling of netted branches and
waving of long tasseled grass. I know of nothing like it save the forest
music in _Siegfried_.

The sick king listens, and remembers words of hope and comfort that fell
from a heavenly voice, what time the glory of the Grail passed:

"Durch Mitleid wissend
Der reine Thor,
Harre sein
Den ich erkor."

[Wait for my chosen one,
Guileless and innocent,

They hand him the phial of balsam; and presently, while the lovely
forest music again breaks forth, the king is carried on to his bath, and
Kundry, Gurnemanz, and the two esquires hold the stage.

As the old knight, who is a complete repertory of facts connected with
the Grail tradition, unfolds to the esquires the nature of the king's
wound, the sorceries of Klingsor, the hope of deliverance from some
unknown "guileless one," a sudden cry breaks up the situation.

A white swan, pierced by an arrow, flutters dying to the ground. It is
the swan beloved of the Grail brotherhood, bird of fair omen, symbol of
spotless purity. The slayer is brought in between two knights - a
stalwart youth, fearless, unabashed, while the death-music of the swan,
the slow distilling and stiffening of its life-blood, is marvelously
rendered by the orchestra. Conviction of his fault comes over the youth
as he listens to the reproaches of Gurnemanz. He hangs his head ashamed
and penitent, and at last, with a sudden passion of remorse, snaps his
bow and flings it aside. The swan is borne off, and Parsifal, the
"guileless one" (for he it is), with Gurnemanz and Kundry - who rouses
herself and surveys Parsifal with strange, almost savage curiosity - hold
the stage.

In this scene Kundry tells the youth more than he cares to hear about
himself: how his father, Gamuret, was a great knight killed in battle;
how his mother, Herzeleide (Heart's Affliction), fearing a like fate
for her son, brought him up in the lonely forest; how he left her to
follow a troop of knights that he met one day winding through the forest
glade, and being led on and on in pursuit of them, never overtook them
and never returned to his mother, Heart's Affliction, who died of grief.
At this point the frantic youth seizes Kundry by the throat in an agony
of rage and grief, but is held back by Gurnemanz, till, worn out by the
violence of his emotion, he faints away, and is gradually revived by
Kundry and Gurnemanz.

Suddenly, Kundry rises with a wild look, like one under a spell. Her
mood of service is over. She staggers across the stage - she can hardly
keep awake. "Sleep," she mutters, "I must sleep - sleep!" and falls down
in one of those long trances which apparently last for months, or years,
and form the transition periods between her mood of Grail service and
the Klingsor slavery into which she must next relapse in spite of

And is this the guileless one? This wild youth who slays the fair
swan - who knows not his own name nor whence he comes, nor whither he
goes, nor what are his destinies? The old knight eyes him curiously - he
will put him to the test. This youth had seen the king pass once - he had
marked his pain. Was he "enlightened by pity"? Is he the appointed
deliverer? The old knight now invites him to the shrine of the Grail.
"What is the Grail?" asks the youth. Truly a guileless, innocent one!
yet a brave and pure knight, since he has known no evil, and so readily
repents of a fault committed in ignorance.

Gurnemanz is strangely drawn to him. He shall see the Grail, and in the
Holy Palace, what time the mystic light streams forth and the assembled
knights bow themselves in prayer, the voice which comforted Amfortas
shall speak to his deliverer and bid him arise and heal the king.

* * * * *

Gurnemanz and Parsifal have ceased to speak. They stand in the glowing
light of the summer-land. The tide of music rolls on continuously, but
sounds more strange and dreamy.

Is it a cloud passing over the sky? There seems to be a shuddering in
the branches - the light fades upon yonder sunny woodlands - the
foreground darkens apace. The whole scene is moving, but so slowly that
it seems to change like a dissolving view. I see the two figures of
Gurnemanz and Parsifal moving through the trees - they are lost behind
yonder rock. They emerge farther off - higher up. The air grows very dim;
the orchestra peals louder and louder. I lose the two in the deepening
twilight. The forest is changing, the land is wild and mountainous. Huge
galleries and arcades, rock-hewn, loom through the dim forest; but all
is growing dark. I listen to the murmurs of the "Grail," the "Spear,"
the "Pain," the "Love and Faith" motives - hollow murmurs, confused,
floating out of the depths of lonely caves. Then I have a feeling of
void and darkness, and there comes a sighing as of a soul swooning away
in a trance, and a vision of waste places and wild caverns; and then
through the confused dream I hear the solemn boom of mighty bells, only
muffled. They keep time as to some ghastly march. I strain my eyes into
the thick gloom before me. Is it a rock, or forest, or palace?

As the light returns slowly, a hall of more than Alhambralike splendor
opens before me. My eyes are riveted on the shining pillars of
variegated marble, the tessellated pavements, the vaulted roof glowing
with gold and color; beyond, arcades of agate columns, bathed in a
misty moonlight air, and lost in a bewildering perspective of halls and

[Illustration: Copyright, 1903, by Pach Bros., N. Y.


I hear the falling of distant water in marble fonts; the large bells of
Montsalvat peal louder and louder, and to music of unimaginable
stateliness the knights, clad in the blue and red robes of the Grail,
enter in solemn procession, and take their seats at two semicircular
tables which start like arms to the right and left of the holy shrine.
Beneath it lies Titurel entranced, and upon it is presently deposited
the sacred treasure of the Grail itself.

As the wounded King Amfortas is borne in, the assembled knights, each
standing in his place, a golden cup before him, intone the Grail motive,
which is taken up by the entering choruses of servitors and esquires
bearing the holy relics.

Gurnemanz is seated among knights; Parsifal stands aside and looks on in
mute astonishment, "a guileless one."

As the Holy Grail is set down on the altar before the wounded king, a
burst of heavenly music streams from the high dome - voices of angels
intone the celestial phrases, "_Take, eat_" and "_This is my blood!_"
and blend them with the "faith and love" motives. As the choruses die
away, the voice of the entranced Titurel is heard from beneath the altar
calling upon Amfortas, his son, to uncover the Grail, that he may find
refreshment and life in the blessed vision.

Then follows a terrible struggle in the breast of Amfortas. _He_, sore
stricken in sin, yet Guardian of the Grail, guilty among the guiltless,
oppressed with pain, bowed down with shame, craving for restoration,
overwhelmed with unworthiness, yet chosen to stand and minister before
the Lord on behalf of His saints! Pathetic situation, which must in all
times repeat itself in the history of the Church. The unworthiness of
the minister affects not the validity of his consecrated acts. Yet what
agony of mind must many a priest have suffered, himself oppressed with
sin and doubt, while dispensing the means of grace, and acting as a
minister and steward of the mysteries!

The marvelous piece of self-analysis in which the conscience-stricken
king bewails his lot as little admits of description here as the music
which embodies his emotion.

At the close of it angel voices seem floating in midair, sighing the
mystic words:

"Durch Mitleid wissend
Der reine Thor,
Harre sein
Den ich erkor."

[Wait for my chosen one,
Guileless and innocent,

And immediately afterward the voice of Titurel, like one turning
restlessly in his sleep, comes up from his living tomb beneath the
altar: "_Uncover the Grail!_"

With trembling hands the sick king raises himself, and with a great
effort staggers toward the shrine - the covering is removed - he takes
the crystal cup - he raises it on high - the blood is dark - the light
begins to fade in the hall - a mist and dimness come over the scene - we
seem to be assisting at a shadowy ceremony in a dream - the big bells are
tolling - the heavenly choirs from above the dome, which is now bathed in
twilight, are heard: "_Drink ye all of this!_" Amfortas raises on high
the crystal vase - the knights fall on their knees in prayer. Suddenly a
faint tremor of light quivers in the crystal cup - then the blood grows
ruby red for a moment. Amfortas waves it to and fro - the knights gaze in
ecstatic adoration. Titurel's voice gathers strength in his tomb:

"Celestial rapture:
How streams the light upon the face of God!"

The light fades slowly out of the crystal cup - the miracle is
accomplished. The blood again grows dark - the light of common day
returns to the halls of Montsalvat, and the knights resume their seats,
to find each one his golden goblet filled with wine.

During the sacred repast which follows, the brotherhood join hands and
embrace, singing:

"Blessed are they that believe;
Blessed are they that love!"

and the refrain is heard again far up in the heights, reechoed by the
angelic hosts.

* * * * *

[Illustration: Copyright, 1903, by Pach Bros., N. Y.


I looked round upon the silent audience while these astonishing scenes
were passing before me; the whole assembly was motionless - all seemed
to be awed by the august spectacle - seemed almost to share in the devout
contemplation and trancelike worship of the holy knights. Every thought
of the stage had vanished - nothing was further from my own thoughts than
play-acting. I was sitting as I should sit at an oratorio, in devout and
rapt contemplation. Before my eyes had passed a symbolic vision of
prayer and ecstasy, flooding the soul with overpowering thoughts of the
divine sacrifice and the mystery of unfathomable love.

* * * * *

The hall of Montsalvat empties. Gurnemanz strides excitedly up to
Parsifal, who stands stupefied with what he has seen -

"Why standest thou silent?
Knowest thou what thine eyes have seen?"

The "guileless one" shakes his head. "Nothing but a fool!" exclaims
Gurnemanz, angrily; and, seizing Parsifal by the shoulder, he pushes him
roughly out of the hall, with:

"Be off! look after thy geese,


Online LibraryH. R. (Hugh Reginald) HaweisParsifal → online text (page 1 of 2)