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The Legend of the
Holy Grail:
The Source of Parsifal
An Opera by Richard Wagner

The legend of the Holy Grail is a fascinating subject: complicated, too; demanding for its full, explicit treatment a volume to itself. Wagner’s librettos all make engaging for the erudite, and much literature, the result of diligent delving, has followed in the wake of most of them. The Grail, as we now regard it, was the cup first used by Christ at the Last Supper, and afterwards by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood which flowed from the Saviour’s wounds as He hung on the Cross. Tennyson’s lines are familiar --

"The Holy Grail!. . . What is it?
The phantom of a cup that comes and goes?"
"Nay, monk, what phantom?" answered Percivale.

"The cup, the cup itself, from which our Lord
Drank at the last sad supper with His own."

"Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail" by Franz Stassen (1869-1949) from Parsifal: A Drama by Wagner Retold by Oliver Huckel (Crowell, New York, 1903)

There is good reason for believing that the Grail was originally a Pagan talisman; but, assuming that origin, it developed in course of time into a purely Christian symbol, and the legend was then largely influenced by Christian ideas.

In the various romances connected with the story, two distinct portions are easily made out: (1) the Grail itself (the actual sacred cup); and (2) the Quest of the Grail. The Quest romances are the older. In these the Grail is a miraculous food producing vessel; sharing its importance equally with a splintered sword which only the destined hero can make whole, and a lance which drips blood. The hero appears under the name of Perceval or Parzival (Wagner pretended to derive the name from Fal-Parsi, i.e. "pure fool") in most of the romances.

In his Quest he comes to the castle of the Grail, sees the holy vessel, fails to ask concerning it, is rebuked for this capital omission, has to wander many years, comes a second and a third time to the castle, welds the fragments of a broken sword or kills the enemy of the king, is hailed by the latter as his nephew, and succeeds him in his kindship or releases him from supernaturally prolonged life or from the enchantment of death in life. Such, in a word or two, is the subject-matter of the Grail romances, so far as they are connected with the Quest.

The Christianising of the legend brought about an important change in the idea of the Grail. Its properties became exclusively spiritual. It separated the pure from the impure, and gave to the pure "as full and sweet solace as their hearts could long for." In some versions, however, the material and the spiritual properties of the Grail are equally insisted upon. Malory makes the Quest romance the foundation of his noble and famous fragment, "Morte d’Arthur," and through him the subject has had a great and permeating influence on English literature, particularly in the works of Tennyson.

There was a version of the Grail romance as early as the end of the twelfth century. But Wagner admittedly founded his text on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s "Parzival" (cir. 1210), the completest and most beautiful, taking it as a whole, of all the forms of the legend that have survived. Mr. Henderson admirably summarises it in his book on Wagner. In the earlier part of his work, Wolfram devotes a large amount of space to the adventures of Parsifal’s father, whom he names Gamuret. Gamuret is killed through treachery, and his widow tries to bring up the son, Parsifal, in utter ignorance of everything pertaining to chivalry.

Wolfram’s "Parsifal" is, in fact, the simple-minded, witless character of the Wagner drama. His mother dresses him in fool’s clothes, and in these he appears at Arthur’s Court, demanding to be made a knight. In the course of subsequent adventures, he slays a noble, carries off the victim’s armour and equipments, and reaches the chateau of an elderly lord named Gurnemanz, from whomhe receives much instruction. Setting out once more, he arrives at a besieged city, and when the citizens have won their victory (which they do partly by his aid), he marries their queen.

Restless, he is soon on the move again, seeking fresh adventures; seeking also his mother, of whose death he is ignorant. Asking one night for shelter, he is taken to a goodly castle, and is there ushered into a great hall where four hundred knights are assembled. The owner of the castle, Amfortas, motions him to a seat beside himself. A squire enters, carrying a bleeding lance. Loud wailings follow. Then a steel door opens and twenty-four entrancingly lovely maidens, splendidly attired, appear. Behind them comes "our lady and queen," Repanse de Schoie, bearing the Holy Grail, which she places on a table in front of Parsifal and Amfortas, the latter evidently suffering intense pain, physical and spiritual.

A "love-feast" is provided by the power of the Grail. Amfortas presents Parsifal with his sword. Parsifal has remained silent, asking nothing, understanding nothing. He retires to his chamber, and in the morning finds the castle apparently deserted. He mounts his horse and departs; but as he goes a squire upbraids him for not asking a question on which depended the recovery of the afflicted Amfortas and his own happiness. But Parsifal, still confused, rides away, bent on yet further experiences. Finally he returns to the Court of Arthur, and while a banquet is in progress a sorceress named Kondrie appears.

She denounces Parsifal for neglecting to put that essential question at the castle; whereupon Parsifal abjures the Round Table, and returns to his wife, depreciating himself as unworthy, despairing of hope and mercy in the hereafter. By-and-by he meets with an aged knight and his lady, walking barefoot through the snow on a pilgrimage to the hut of a holy hermit. They censure the wanderer for not remembering that "’Tis holy Friday, when all bewail their guilt." The trio proceed together to the cell of the hermit.

The latter recounts to Parsifal the story of the Grail and the bleeding spear. Amfortas, he tells, had yielded to the temptation of lust, and as a punishment, had received in combat a wound from a poisoned lance. This wound would not heal, while the sight of the Holy Grail kept him from dying. Later a prophecy became connected with the Grail itself, to the effect that if a knight voluntarily came to ask the cause of the king’s sufferings, the sufferings would cease, and the inquiring knight would himself become king. Parsifal confesses that he once went to the castle, but asked no question. The hermit then instructs him further, absolves him of his sins, and sends him on his way.

Following upon this, we read of many and varied conflicts between the Knights of the Round Table, representing Christianity, and the emissaries of the evil one. Gawain liberates the maidens imprisoned by the magician Klingsor in the Château Merveil. Gawain goes no further than that. Parsifal, being the more pious of the two, is permitted to ride to Monsalvasch, inquire the cause of the king’s disorder, free him from his agony, and receive the crown. Now his wife arrives with his two sons, one of whom is Lohengrin, and destined to succeed Parsifal as the guardian of the Grail. The mediaeval writer goes on to tell the story of Lohengrin and Elsa, but further we are not required to follow him.

Such were the materials upon which Wagner based the text of his mystic drama. They differ in many respects both from the earlier and later forms of the legend, and Wagner used them so far only as suited his poetic purpose. He tossed about and made sport of Wolfram and all his "authorities." Sagas, legends, poems, histories, episodes from the Saviour’s life -- everything and anything appropriate he boldly incorporated according to his own fancy. His "Parsifal" text has been called a "mish-mash of Gospel narrative, mediaeval romance, and Teutonic philosophy." Yet Von Eschenbach was his chief model.

Comparing Wagner with that writer, there are several notable divergences between them. Eschenbach’s conception of the Holy Grail is based, not upon chastity, but upon charity: the Grail becomes with him a symbol, not of ascetic longing and its unearthly reward, but of human striving and human love in their noblest manifestation. Here Wagner has followed Wolfram; evolving, however, as was usual with him, many new and special points of dramatic and emotional interest: improving, adding, excising, re-casting. The character of Kundry, for example, is almost entirely a Wagnerian creation. In all the old poems, to be sure, there is a Kundry, some of whose characteristics Wagner has borrowed. But essentially she is his own -- a type of the eternal temptress, and yet a Magdalen.

Another thing to note is that Wagner rejects Wolfram’s account of the origin of the Grail -- the actual wonder-working vessel. According to Wolfram, sixty thousand angels who wished to expel God from heaven made a crown for Lucifer. When Michael, the archangel, struck it from Lucifer’s head, a stone fell to the earth. This became the Holy Grail, which was given in charge to Titurel and his dynasty of the Grail kings. How much more poetic and touching Wagner’s idea is need not be said. In his hands, in short, the old, old legend assumes a wonderfully concentrated form, exhibiting as never before the drama of the world’s sin and pain, its cause and cure.

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