Protected by his mother throughout his childhood from any contact with the world, to keep him pure and innocent, Parsifal, having despite this discovered evil and sin, manages after a long, epic interior journey to discover the Grail, the fullness of life and the quietude of the soul.
In Wagner’s retelling of the legend of Percival and the Holy Grail, the naive young Parsifal stumbles across a kingdom he does not understand. After being raised by his mother, away from the world of men, Parsifal knows nothing of right or wrong, nor of sin or redemption. His innocence leads him to an unusual encounter with Gurnemanz, one of the Knights of the Grail.
In the Castle of the Grail, he experiences the glory of the Holy Grail, seeing its power with his own eyes. At the same time, he also sees and hears the cries of agony from Amfortas, the king. He has been seriously wounded, when Klingsor stole the Holy Spear from him, and the wound in his side will never heal. The gift of immortality that Amfortas has received from the Grail is now a torment to him, as he suffers under the pain of a wound that will never heal, but he is unable to die.
Parsifal makes it his life’s work to rescue the Spear from Klingsor, and destroy his kingdom. He is able to resist all temptation and sin, and he withstands many great trials, to bring the Spear back to the kingdom, and to return Amfortas back to his full strength. In returning the Spear, Parsifal fulfils the prophecy that the Grail offered to Amfortas in his suffering.
Opera in 3 acts
Sung in German
About 4 hours + intervals
Near the seat of the Grail
In a forest near the home of the Grail and its Knights, Gurnemanz, eldest Knight of the Grail, wakes his young squires and leads them in prayer. He sees Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, and his entourage approaching. Amfortas has been injured by his own Holy Spear, and the wound will not heal.
Musical introduction to the work with a duration of c. 9–13 minutes.
Gurnemanz asks the lead Knight for news of the King's health. The Knight says the King has suffered during the night and is going early to bathe in the holy lake. The squires ask Gurnemanz to explain how the King's injury can be healed, but he evades their question and a wild woman – Kundry – bursts in. She gives Gurnemanz a vial of balsam, brought from Arabia, to ease the King's pain and then collapses, exhausted.
Amfortas arrives, borne on a stretcher by Knights of the Grail. He calls out for Gawain, whose attempt at relieving the King's pain had failed. He is told that Gawain has left again, seeking a better remedy. Raising himself somewhat, the King says going off without leave ("Ohn' Urlaub?") is the sort of impulsiveness which led himself into Klingsor's realm and to his downfall. He accepts the potion from Gurnemanz and tries to thank Kundry, but she answers abruptly that thanks will not help and urges him onward to his bath.
The procession leaves. The squires eye Kundry with mistrust and question her. After a brief retort, she falls silent. Gurnemanz tells them Kundry has often helped the Grail Knights but that she comes and goes unpredictably. When he asks directly why she does not stay to help, she answers, "I never help! ("Ich helfe nie!"). The squires think she is a witch and sneer that if she does so much, why will she not find the Holy Spear for them? Gurnemanz reveals that this deed is destined for someone else. He says Amfortas was given guardianship of the Spear, but lost it as he was seduced by an irresistibly attractive woman in Klingsor's domain. Klingsor grabbed the Spear and stabbed Amfortas. The wound causes Amfortas both suffering and shame, and will never heal on its own.
Squires returning from the King's bath tell Gurnemanz that the balsam has eased the King's suffering. Gurnemanz's own squires ask how it is that he knew Klingsor. He solemnly tells them how both the Holy Spear, which pierced the side of the Redeemer on the Cross, and the Holy Grail, which caught the flowing blood, had come to Monsalvat to be guarded by the Knights of the Grail under the rule of Titurel, father of Amfortas. Klingsor had yearned to join the Knights but, unable to keep impure thoughts from his mind, resorted to self-castration, causing him to be expelled from the Order. Klingsor then set himself up in opposition to the realm of the Grail, learning dark arts, claiming the valley domain below and filling it with beautiful Flowermaidens to seduce and enthrall wayward Grail Knights. It was here that Amfortas lost the Holy Spear, kept by Klingsor as he schemes to get hold of the Grail as well. Gurnemanz tells how Amfortas later had a holy vision which told him to wait for a "pure fool, enlightened by compassion" ("Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor") who will finally heal the wound.
At this moment, cries are heard from the Knights ("Weh! Weh!"): a flying swan has been shot, and a young man is brought forth, a bow in his hand and a quiver of matching arrows. Gurnemanz speaks sternly to the lad, saying this is a holy place. He asks him outright if he shot the swan, and the lad boasts that if it flies, he can hit it ("Im Fluge treff' ich was fliegt!") Gurnemanz tells him that the swan is a holy animal, and asks what harm the swan had done him, and shows the youth its lifeless body. Now remorseful, the young man breaks his bow and casts it aside. Gurnemanz asks him why he is here, who his father is, how he found this place and, lastly, his name. To each question the lad replies, "I don't know." The elder Knight sends his squires away to help the King and now asks the boy to tell what he does know. The young man says he has a mother, Herzeleide (Heart's Sorrow) and that he made the bow himself. Kundry has been listening and now tells them that this boy's father was Gamuret, a knight killed in battle, and also how the lad's mother had forbidden her son to use a sword, fearing that he would meet the same fate as his father. The youth now recalls that upon seeing knights pass through his forest, he had left his home and mother to follow them. Kundry laughs and tells the young man that, as she rode by, she saw Herzeleide die of grief. Hearing this, the lad first lunges at Kundry but then collapses in grief. Kundry herself is now weary for sleep, but cries out that she must not sleep and wishes that she might never again waken. She disappears into the undergrowth.
Gurnemanz knows that the Grail draws only the pious to Monsalvat and invites the boy to observe the Grail rite. The youth does not know what the Grail is, but remarks that as they walk he seems to scarcely move, yet feels as if he is traveling far. Gurnemanz says that in this realm time becomes space ("Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit").
An orchestral interlude of about 4 minutes.
They arrive at the Hall of the Grail, where the Knights are assembling to receive Holy Communion ("Zum letzten Liebesmahle"). The voice of Titurel is heard, telling his son, Amfortas, to uncover the Grail. Amfortas is wracked with shame and suffering ("Wehvolles Erbe, dem ich verfallen"). He is the guardian of these holy relics yet has succumbed to temptation and lost the Spear. He declares himself unworthy of his office. He cries out for forgiveness ("Erbarmen!") but hears only the promise that he will one day be redeemed by the pure fool.
On hearing Amfortas' cry, the youth appears to suffer with him, clutching at his heart. The knights and Titurel urge Amfortas to reveal the Grail ("Enthüllet den Gral"), and he finally does. The dark hall is now bathed in the light of the Grail as the Knights eat. Gurnemanz motions to the youth to participate, but he seems entranced and does not. Amfortas does not share in taking communion and, as the ceremony ends, collapses in pain and is carried away. Slowly the hall empties leaving only the young man and Gurnemanz, who asks him if he has understood what he has seen. When the lad cannot answer, Gurnemanz dismisses him as just a fool and sends him out with a warning to hunt geese, if he must, but to leave the swans alone. A voice from high above repeats the promise: "The pure fool, enlightened by compassion".
Musical introduction of c. 2–3 minutes.
Klingsor's magic castle. Klingsor conjures up Kundry, waking her from her sleep. He calls her by many names: First Sorceress (Urteufelin), Hell's Rose (Höllenrose), Herodias, Gundryggia and, lastly, Kundry. She is now transformed into an incredibly alluring woman, as when she once seduced Amfortas. She mocks Klingsor's mutilated condition by sarcastically inquiring if he is chaste ("Ha ha! Bist du keusch?"), but she cannot resist his power. Klingsor observes that Parsifal is approaching and summons his enchanted knights to fight the boy. Klingsor watches as Parsifal overcomes his knights, and they flee. Klingsor wishes destruction on their whole race.
Klingsor sees this young man stray into his Flowermaiden garden and calls to Kundry to seek the boy out and seduce him, but when he turns, he sees that Kundry has already left on her mission.
The triumphant youth finds himself in a wondrous garden, surrounded by beautiful and seductive Flowermaidens. They call to him and entwine themselves about him while chiding him for wounding their lovers ("Komm, komm, holder Knabe!"). They soon fight and bicker among themselves to win his devotion, to the point that he is about to flee, but then a voice calls out, "Parsifal!" He now recalls this name is what his mother called him when she appeared in his dreams. The Flowermaidens back away from him and call him a fool as they leave him and Kundry alone.
Parsifal wonders if the Garden is a dream and asks how it is that Kundry knows his name. Kundry tells him she learned it from his mother ("Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust"), who had loved him and tried to shield him from his father's fate, the mother he had abandoned and who had finally died of grief. She reveals many parts of Parsifal's history to him and he is stricken with remorse, blaming himself for his mother's death. He thinks himself very stupid to have forgotten her. Kundry says this realization is a first sign of understanding and that, with a kiss, she can help him understand his mother's love. As they kiss Parsifal suddenly recoils in pain and cries out Amfortas' name: he feels the wounded king's pain burning in his own side and now understands Amfortas' passion during the Grail Ceremony ("Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde!"). Filled with this compassion, Parsifal rejects Kundry's advances.
Furious that her ploy has failed, Kundry tells Parsifal that if he can feel compassion for Amfortas, then he should be able to feel it for her as well. She has been cursed for centuries, unable to rest, because she saw Christ on the cross and laughed at His pains. Now she can never weep, only jeer, and she is enslaved to Klingsor as well. Parsifal rejects her again but then asks her to lead him to Amfortas. She begs him to stay with her for just one hour, and then she will take him to Amfortas. When he still refuses, she curses him to wander without ever finding the Kingdom of the Grail, and finally calls on her master Klingsor to help her.
Klingsor appears and throws the Spear at Parsifal, but it stops in midair, above his head. Parsifal takes it and makes the sign of the Cross with it. The castle crumbles and the enchanted garden withers. As Parsifal leaves, he tells Kundry that she knows where she can find him.
Musical introduction of c. 4–6 minutes.
The scene is the same as that of the opening of the opera, in the domain of the Grail, but many years later. Gurnemanz is now aged and bent. It is Good Friday. He hears moaning near his hermit's hut and discovers Kundry unconscious in the brush, as he had many years before ("Sie! Wieder da!"). He revives her using water from the Holy Spring, but she will only speak the word "serve" ("Dienen"). Gurnemanz wonders if there is any significance to her reappearance on this special day. Looking into the forest, he sees a figure approaching, armed and in full armour. The stranger wears a helmet and the hermit cannot see who it is. Gurnemanz queries him and chides him for being armed on sanctified ground and on a holy day, but gets no response. Finally, the apparition removes the helmet and Gurnemanz recognizes the lad who shot the swan, and joyfully sees that he bears the Holy Spear.
Parsifal tells of his desire to return to Amfortas ("Zu ihm, des tiefe Klagen"). He relates his long journey, how he wandered for years, unable to find a path back to the Grail. He had often been forced to fight, but never wielded the Spear in battle. Gurnemanz tells him that the curse preventing Parsifal from finding his right path has now been lifted, but that in his absence Amfortas has never unveiled the Grail, and lack of its sustaining properties has caused the death of Titurel. Parsifal is overcome with remorse, blaming himself for this state of affairs. Gurnemanz tells him that today is the day of Titurel's funeral, and that Parsifal has a great duty to perform. Kundry washes Parsifal's feet and Gurnemanz anoints him with water from the Holy Spring, recognizing him as the pure fool, now enlightened by compassion, and as the new King of the Knights of the Grail.
Parsifal looks about and comments on the beauty of the meadow. Gurnemanz explains that today is Good Friday, when all the world is renewed. Parsifal baptizes the weeping Kundry. Tolling bells are heard in the distance. Gurnemanz says "Midday: the hour has come. My lord, permit your servant to guide you!" ("Mittag: – Die Stund ist da: gestatte Herr, dass dich dein Knecht geleite") – and all three set off for the castle of the Grail. A dark orchestral interlude ("Mittag") leads into the solemn gathering of the knights.
Within the castle of the Grail, Amfortas is brought before the Grail shrine and Titurel's coffin. He cries out, asking his dead father to grant him rest from his sufferings and expresses the desire to join him in death ("Mein Vater! Hochgesegneter der Helden!"). The Knights of the Grail passionately urge Amfortas to uncover the Grail again but Amfortas, in a frenzy, says he will never again show the Grail. He commands the Knights, instead, to kill him and end his suffering and the shame he has brought on the Knighthood. At this moment, Parsifal steps forth and says that only one weapon can heal the wound ("Nur eine Waffe taugt"). He touches Amfortas' side with the Spear and both heals and absolves him. Parsifal commands the unveiling of the Grail. As all present kneel, Kundry, released from her curse, sinks lifeless to the ground as a white dove descends and hovers above Parsifal.
Parsifal – Tenor (Helden/dramatic)
A young man
Kundry – Soprano/Mezzo-soprano (dramatic)
Cursed to live forever until someone resists her charms
Gurnemanz - Bass (dramatic basso profondo)
A veteran Knight of the Grail
Amfortas - Baritone (dramatic)
Ruler of the Grail kingdom, son of Titurel
Klingsor - Bass-baritone (dramatic)
Titurel - Bass (dramatic basso profondo)
Two Grail Knights - Tenor, Bass
Four Esquires – Soprano, Alto, 2 Tenors
Six Flowermaidens - 3 Sopranos, 3 Contraltos (6 Sopranos)
Voice from Above (Eine Stimme) - Contralto
Place of birth: Leipzig, Germany
Place of death: Venice, Italy
Richard Wagner was a 19th century German composer, theatre director, conductor and librettist. His writing period spans over more than 50 years. He is most known for his operas, what he called, "music dramas". Particularly in his later operas he made use of "Leitmotifs" (leading motifs), musical phrases connected to a role character, a place or an idea. He also describes the music dramas as "Gesamtkunstwerk" (total work of art). This idea revolutionised opera. By combining poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts the story could unfold with the music supporting the drama.
Wagner's hostile writings expressing antisemitic views have been widely commented. Hitler was an admirer of his music and there are continuous debates about the extent to which Wagner's views might have influenced Nazi thinking.
Wagner married Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer in 1836. Their tumultuous marriage would last until Minna's death in 1866, although their relationship ended much earlier. In 1852 Wagner became infatuated with the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck. He would set five of her verses to music, the Wesendonck Lieder. In 1863 Wagner met Cosima von Bülow, the wife of Hans von Bülow and daughter of Franz Liszt. They had an affair that would lead to a marriage that would last until Wagner's death. They married in 1870 and had three children.
Wagner's legacy to the world of opera is of considerable scope, although controversial.
"Imagination creates reality."
Wagner built his own opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, specifically to house his own works during the annual festival, the Bayreuth Festival. Today audiences travel from all over the world to visit the summer festival. The orchestra pit is designed so that it doesn't draw any attention from the stage, with the orchestra members hidden under the stage, invisible to the audience.
Most prominent operas
Der fliegende Holländer 1843
Tristan und Isolde 1865
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 1868
Das Rheingold 1869
Die Walküre 1870
Wagner wrote the libretto for all of his operas and referred to the texts as "poems".
Parsifal is loosely based on Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a 13th-century epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail (12th century).
3d1, 3+1, 3+1, 3+1 - 4, 3, 3, 1
timp, perc, bells, harp, strings
On-stage: 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, church bells
Parsifal premiered at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882.
Titurel, der fromme Held (Gurnemanz)
Amfortas! Die Wunde! (Parsifal)
Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust (Kundry)
Mein Vater (Amfortas)