"Parsifal" is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival", the medieval (13th century) epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail.

During the first act, Parsifal, an apparently witless fool, sees the suffering of the wounded Amfortas, King of an order of knights who guard the Grail. In the second Act Parsifal wanders into the domain of Klingsor, a magician who is trying to corrupt the Knights of the Grail and who has stolen from them the spear used to pierce Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. There Parsifal meets Kundry, the slave of Klingsor, who attempts to seduce him. In resisting her, he destroys Klingsor, and recovers the Spear. In the third Act, Parsifal returns to the Grail Kingdom to heal Amfortas.

Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but it was not finished until twenty-five years later. It was to be Wagner's last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular sonority of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Parsifal was first produced at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The Bayreuth Festival maintained an exclusive monopoly on Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Wagner preferred to describe Parsifal not as an opera, but as "ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" - "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage". At Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there is no applause after the first act of the opera.


Wagner first read Wolfram von Eschenbach's poem "Parzival" while taking the waters at Marienbad in 1845. [Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983) "Richard Wagner: his life, his work, his Century." William Collins, ISBN 0-00-216669-0 p141] After encountering Arthur Schopenhauer's work in 1854, Wagner became interested in oriental philosophies, especially Buddhism. He was particularly inspired by reading Eugène Burnouf's "Introduction à l'histoire du buddhisme indien" in 1855/56. Out of this interest came "Die Sieger" ("The Victors", 1856) a sketch Wagner wrote for an opera based on a story from the life of Buddha. [Hollinrake, Roger (1992) in "The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music". Ed. Millington. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1 page 147] The themes which were later explored in Parsifal of self-renouncing, reincarnation, compassion and even exclusive social groups (castes in "Die Sieger", the Knights of the Grail in Parsifal) were first introduced in "Die Sieger". [cite web | url = | title = "Die Sieger" at Derrick Everett's Parsifal site "Monsalvat" | accessdate = July 26| accessyear = 2008]

According to his own account, recorded in his autobiography "Mein Leben", Wagner conceived "Parsifal" on Good Friday morning, April 1857, in the "Asyl" (German: "Asylum"), the small cottage on Otto von Wesendonck’s estate in the Zürich suburb of Enge, which Wesendonck - a wealthy silk merchant and generous patron of the arts - had placed at Wagner’s disposal. [Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983) "ibid" p270] The composer and his wife Minna had moved into the cottage on 28 April:

"... on Good Friday I awoke to find the sun shining brightly for the first time in this house: the little garden was radiant with green, the birds sang, and at last I could sit on the roof and enjoy the long-yearned-for peace with its message of promise. Full of this sentiment, I suddenly remembered that the day was Good Friday, and I called to mind the significance this omen had already once assumed for me when I was reading Wolfram's "Parzival". Since the sojourn in Marienbad [in the summer of 1845] , where I had conceived "Die Meistersinger" and "Lohengrin", I had never occupied myself again with that poem; now its noble possibilities struck me with overwhelming force, and out of my thoughts about Good Friday I rapidly conceived a whole drama, of which I made a rough sketch with a few dashes of the pen, dividing the whole into three acts." [ cite web | url = | title = Wagner, Richard "Mein Leben" vol II at Project Gutenberg | accessdate = October 8 | accessyear = 2007]

However, as he later admitted to his second wife Cosima Wagner, this account had been coloured by a certain amount of poetic licence:

22 April 1879: "R [ichard] today recalled the impression which inspired his “Good Friday Music”; he laughs, saying he had thought to himself, “In fact it is all as far-fetched as my love affairs, for it was not a Good Friday at all - just a pleasant mood in Nature which made me think, ‘This is how a Good Friday ought to be’”. [Wagner, Cosima (1980) "Cosima Wagner's Diaries" tr. Skelton, Geoffrey. Collins. ISBN 0-00-216189-3]

The work may indeed have been conceived at Wesendonck's cottage in the last week of April 1857, but Good Friday that year fell on 10 April, when the Wagners were still living at Zeltweg 13 in Zürich. [Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1 pages 135-136.] If the prose sketch which Wagner mentions in "Mein Leben" was accurately dated (and most of Wagner’s surviving papers are dated), it could settle the issue once and for all, but unfortunately it has not survived.

Wagner did not resume work on "Parsifal" for eight years, during which time he completed "Tristan und Isolde" and began "Die Meistersinger". Then, between 27 and 30 August 1865, he took up "Parsifal" again and made a prose draft of the work; this contains a fairly brief outline of the plot and a considerable amount of detailed commentary on the characters and themes of the drama. [Beckett, Lucy (1981) "Richard Wagner: Parsifal", Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29662-5, page 13.] But once again the work was dropped and set aside for another eleven and a half years. During this time most of Wagner’s creative energy was devoted to the "Ring" cycle, which was finally completed in 1874 and given its first full performance at Bayreuth in August 1876. Only when this gargantuan task had been accomplished did Wagner find the time to concentrate on "Parsifal". By 23 February 1877 he had completed a second and more extensive prose draft of the work, and by 19 April of the same year he had transformed this into a verse libretto (or “poem”, as Wagner liked to call his libretti). [Beckett, Lucy (1981) "ibid" page 22.]

In September 1877 he began the music by making two complete drafts of the score from beginning to end. The first of these (known in German as the "Gesamtentwurf" and in English as either the "Preliminary Draft" or the "First Complete Draft") was made in pencil on three staves, one for the voices and two for the instruments. The second complete draft ("Orchesterskizze", "Orchestral Draft", "Short Score" or "Particell") was made in ink and on at least three, but sometimes as many as five, staves. This draft was much more detailed than the first and contained a considerable degree of instrumental elaboration. [Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992)"ibid" pages 247-148.]

The second draft was begun on 25 September 1877, just a few days after the first: at this point in his career Wagner liked to work on both drafts simultaneously, switching back and forth between the two so as not to allow too much time to elapse between his initial setting of the text and the final elaboration of the music. The "Gesamtentwurf" of Act III was completed on 16 April 1879 and the "Orchesterskizze" on the 26th of the same month. [Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)"ibid" pages 477-479]

The full score ("Partiturerstschrift") was the final stage in the compositional process. It was made in ink and consisted of a fair copy of the entire opera, with all the voices and instruments properly notated according to standard practice.

Wagner composed "Parsifal" one act at a time, completing the "Gesamtentwurf" and "Orchesterskizze" of each act before beginning the "Gesamtentwurf" of the next act; but because the "Orchesterskizze" already embodied all the compositional details of the full score, the actual drafting of the "Partiturerstschrift" was regarded by Wagner as little more than a routine task which could be done whenever he found the time. The Prelude of Act I was scored in August 1878. The rest of the opera was scored between August 1879 and 13 January 1882. [Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992)"ibid" page 307.]

"Parsifal" in performance

The premiere

On 12 November 1880 Wagner conducted a private performance of the Prelude for his patron Ludwig II of Bavaria at the Court Theatre in Munich. [Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)"ibid" page 485.] The premiere of the entire work was given in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth on 26 July 1882 under the baton of the German-born Jewish conductor Hermann Levi. Stage designs were by Max Brückner and Paul von Joukowsky who took their lead from Wagner himself. The Grail hall was based on the interior of Siena Cathedral which Wagner had visited in 1880, while Klingsor's magic garden was modelled on those at the Palazzo Rufolo in Ravello. [ Beckett, Lucy (1981)"ibid" pages 90 - 91.] In July and August 1882 sixteen performances of the work were given in Bayreuth conducted by Levi and Franz Fischer. The production boasted an orchestra of 107, a chorus of 135 and 23 soloists (with the main parts being double cast). [Carnegy, Patrick (2006) "Wagner and the Art of the Theatre". Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-10695-5. Pages 107 - 118.] At the last of these performances, Wagner took the baton from Levi and conducted the final scene of Act 3 from the orchestral interlude to the end. [ Spencer, Stewart (2000) "Wagner Remembered". Faber and Faber, London. ISBN 0-571-19653-5. Page 270.]

At the first performances of "Parsifal" problems with the moving scenery during the transition from Scene one to Scene two in Act 1 meant that Wagner's existing orchestral interlude finished before Parsifal and Gurnemanz arrived at the Hall of the Grail. Engelbert Humperdinck, who was assisting the production, provided a few extra bars of music to cover this gap. [ Spencer, Stewart (2000) "ibid" Pages 268 - 270.] In subsequent years this problem was solved and Humperdinck's additions were not used.

The ban on Parsifal outside Bayreuth

For the first twenty years of its existence, the only staged performances of "Parsifal" (apart from eight private performances for Ludwig II at Munich in 1884 and 1885) took place in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the venue for which Wagner conceived the work. Wagner had two reasons for wanting to keep 'Parsifal' exclusively for the Bayreuth stage. Firstly, he wanted to prevent 'Parsifal' from degenerating into 'mere amusement' for an opera-going public. Only at Bayreuth could his last work be presented in the way envisaged by him - a tradition maintained by his wife, Cosima, long after his death. Secondly he thought that 'Parsifal' would provide an income for his family after his death if Bayreuth had the monopoly on its performance.

The Bayreuth authorities allowed unstaged performances to take place in various countries after Wagner's death (e.g. London in 1884, New York City in 1886, and Amsterdam in 1894) but they maintained an embargo on stage performances outside Bayreuth. On 24 December 1903, after receiving a court ruling that performances in the USA could not be prevented by Bayreuth, the New York Metropolitan Opera staged the complete opera, using many Bayreuth-trained singers, much to the chagrin of Wagner's family. Unauthorized stage performances were also undertaken in Amsterdam in 1905, 1906 and 1908. In 1913, Wagner's centenary year, Bayreuth's monopoly on the work was finally broken and since then the work has been freely staged throughout the world. [ Beckett, Lucy (1981)"ibid" pages 93 - 95.] The first authorized performance was mounted in Barcelona: it began one hour before midnight on December 31 1912, taking advantage of the one hour time difference which existed at that time between Barcelona and Bayreuth. Such was the demand for Parsifal that it was presented in more than 50 European opera houses between 1 January and August 1st 1914. [ Beckett, Lucy (1981)"ibid" page 94.]

Applause during Parsifal

At Bayreuth performances audiences do not applaud at the end of the first act. This tradition is the result of a misunderstanding arising from Wagner's desire at the premiere to maintain the serious mood of the opera. After much applause following the first and second acts, Wagner spoke to the audience and said that the cast would take no curtain calls until the end of the performance. This confused the audience, who remained silent at the end of the opera until Wagner addressed them again, saying that he did not mean that they could not applaud. After the performance Wagner complained "Now I don't know. Did the audience like it or not?" [Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)"ibid" p506] At following performances some believed that Wagner had wanted no applause until the very end, and there was silence after the first two acts. Eventually it became a Bayreuth tradition that no applause would be heard after the first act, however this was certainly not Wagner's idea. In fact during the first Bayreuth performances Wagner himself cried "Bravo!" as the Flower-maidens made their exit in the Second Act, only to be hissed by other members of the audience. [Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)"ibid" p506] At theatres other than Bayreuth, applause and curtain-calls is normal practice after every act.

Post-War performances

Parsifal is one of the Wagner operas regularly presented at the Bayreuth Festival to this day. Among the more significant post-war productions was that directed in 1951 by Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson. At the first Bayreuth Festival after World War II he presented a radical move away from literal representation of the Hall of the Grail or the Flower-Maiden's bower. Instead, lighting effects and the bare minimum of scenery were used to complement Wagner's music. This production was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Swiss stage designer, Adolphe Appia. The reaction to this production was extreme: Ernest Newman, Wagner's biographer described it as "not only the best Parsifal I have ever seen and heard, but one of the three or four most moving spiritual experiences of my life". [ Spotts, Frederic (1994). "Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival." New Haven and London: Yale University Press ISBN :0-300-05777-6. page 212.] Others were appalled that Wagner's stage directions were being flouted. The conductor of the 1951 production, Hans Knappertsbusch, on being asked how he could conduct such a disgraceful travesty, declared that right up until the dress rehearsal he imagined that the stage decorations were still to come. [Carnegy, Patrick (2006) "ibid" pages 288-290.] Knappertsbusch was particularly upset by the omission of the dove which appears over Parsifal's head at the end of the opera, which he claimed inspired him to give better performances. To placate his conductor Wieland arranged to reinstate the dove, which descended on a string. What Knappertsbusch did not realise was that Wieland had made the length of the string sufficient so that the conductor could see the dove, but the audience could not. [cite album-notes |first=Andreas |last=Kluge |notestitle=Parsifal 1951 |year=1992 |title=Wagner: Parsifal |publisher=Teldec |publisherid=9031-76047-2] Wieland continued to modify and refine his Bayreuth production of Parsifal until his death in 1966.


The bells

For the entrance to the castle of Monsalvat in acts one and three, Wagner scored a repeating four-note theme, C G A E, to be played on bells. The theme is very low, ranging from the C in the bass clef to the E below it, and consequently it is impractical to use tubular bells or church bells. Wagner experimented with several options to get his desired effect, including gongs, metal drums, and a specially-built instrument called the Parsifal bell which was similar to a piano. He settled on the metal drums, which were in use at Bayreuth until 1940, when they were melted down by the Nazis for ammunition.

Modern performances of "Parsifal" usually use synthesized bells.


* Beckett, Lucy (1981) "Richard Wagner: Parsifal", Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29662-5

*cite book|author=Burbidge, Peter & Sutton, Richard (Eds.)|title=The Wagner Companion|publisher=Faber and Faber Ltd., London|year=1979|id=ISBN 0-571-11450-4

*Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983) "Richard Wagner: his life, his work, his Century." William Collins, ISBN 0-00-216669-0

*cite book|author=Magee, Bryan|title=The Tristan Chord|publisher=Owl Books, NY|year=2002|id=ISBN 0-8050-7189-X (UK Title: "Wagner and Philosophy", Publisher Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN 0-14-029519-4)

*cite book|author=Melitz, Leo|title=The Opera Goer's Complete Guide|publisher=Best Books Ltd., London|year=2001|id=ISBN 0-7222-6262-0

*cite book|author=Millington, Barry (Ed.)|title=The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music|publisher=Thames and Hudson Ltd., London|year=1992|id=ISBN 0-02-871359-1


External links

* [ Monsalvat] Derrick Everett's extensive website on all aspects of Parsifal.
* [ Essay by Rolf May] A Theosophical view of Parsifal
* [ Complete English and German Libretto and Wagner's own stage descriptions]
* [ Complete vocal score of Parsifal]
* [ Wagner Operas] . A comprehensive website featuring photographs of productions, recordings, librettos, and sound files.
* [ Summary of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival]
* [ Parsifal on Stage: a PDF by Katherine R. Syer]
* [ Richard Wagner - Parsifal] . A gallery of historic postcards with visual motives from Richard Wagner's operas.
* [ Reviews of Parsifal on record.] by Geoffrey Riggs.

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