23 Jan 2006

KINDERMAN & SYER: A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal

Some twenty years ago, a leading German musicologist remarked that the music of Parsifal

is among the least discussed in Wagner's oeuvre.1 This situation, it is clear, was in direct contrast to the voluminous literature on its meaning and message. The music has been taken as given; critics, many of them non-musicians, have focused on the penetrating psychological studies of the main characters and the (would-be) deep philosophical content of the opera, ranging across a broad spectrum of topics such as personal morality and salvation, Christianity as living force or historical backdrop, Schopenhauerian pessimism and compassion (Mitleid), Buddhist reincarnation (Kundry's former lives) vegetarianism (the swan episode), nature as holy and healing, and the hotly debated question of anti-Semitic content in the opera. The situation has changed-for the better-over the years, and William Kinderman has been one of the driving forces behind this change, having published several studies on the compositional origins of Parsifal as revealed by the sketching process and how primary ideas in the sketches have long-range structural functions of great significance. Now Kinderman and Katherine Syer have published a volume of essays about Parsifal, and this book constitutes a major contribution to the literature on the opera in English. Containing contributions from major Wagnerian scholars in the U.S. and in Europe, its three parts follow a now standard and appropriate division of topics beginning with the sources of the text and its content and meaning, moving to a consideration of the music, of course with respect to the text, and concluding with some discussions of how the work was received.

Part I, "The Text: Sources and Symbols," contains essays on "Medievalism and Metaphysics: The Literary Background of Parsifal" (Mary Cicora), "Erotic Love in Chr├ętiens Perceval, Wolfram's Parzival and Wagner's Parsifal (James M. McGlathery), and "Parsifal and Religions: A Christian Music Drama?" (Ulrike Kienzle). Cicora skillfully traces aspects of the long gestation of the text-Wagner first became interested in the legend in the 1840s-showing how Wagner picked and chose from the main sources and modified them according to his own ideational and musical agendas that he developed with respect to manifold intellectual influences, e.g. Schopenhauer. McGlathery focuses on a specific aspect of that gestation, showing how Wagner reduced the number of female protagonists present in the medieval sources into a single one, Kundry. This chapter is a very useful case study of how Wagner worked with his text sources; I would have welcomed commentary on how the theme of erotic love fits into the ideational content of the opera as a whole and how it connected (or did not connect) with Wagner's own tumultuous love life and his ideas about these matters. Kienzle traces religious content in various stages of the libretto, including the important "Prose Sketch" of 1865. Her discussion delves deeply into musical matters as well, tracing important leitmotivs that she associates with Christ and his suffering. The question whether Parsifal is a Christian opera, which has many different connotations, has been hotly debated from the inception of its reception history. Many writers on the opera limit the Christian elements to a simple historic background without further relevance for the content. Kienzle offers a more balanced view: no to the question if it presents Christian dogma or represents a particular confession, but yes to the idea that Christianity is positively represented as a kind of general and perhaps secularized Weltanschauung, in which the ethical and moral questions are posed, redemption is forthcoming, and the figure of Christ has profound symbolic meaning.

Part II is devoted to "The Music: Evolution, Structure, Aesthetics" with discussions of "The Genesis of the Music" (Kinderman), "Unseen Voices: Wagner's Musical-Dramatic Shaping of the Grail Scene of Act 1" (Syer), and "`Die Zeit ist da': Rotational Form and Hexatonic Magic in the Act 2, Scene 1 of Parsifal" (Warren Darcy). Kinderman is one of the leading scholars interested in the compositional process as revealed through the study of sketches. He has published numerous studies concerning Beethoven's music, including a facsimile edition, transcription and substantial commentary and analysis of the one of Beethoven's most important sketchbooks in this later period, and has also published several essays on the compositional origins of Parsifal that form the basis for this highly informative chapter. He takes us through the relatively brief (five years) but highly concentrated history of the compositional process, covering the sketching of important thematic ideas, notably those appearing in the Prelude to Act 1, which were some of the earliest ones sketched, and their further development as thematic ideas and their importance for structural keys areas. He also focuses on the "Transformation Music" music leading to the first-act Grail Scene. With respect to the harmonic content, he is particularly interested in the pair of keys Ab and C minor both of which are introduced in the opening measures of the Prelude and play important structural roles in the entire opera. Syer pursues much more than the enigmatic meaning of the off-stage instrumental and vocal music (the unseen voices of her title) in the Grail ritual of Act I. In addition to offering convincing explanations of Wagner's intentions, e.g. the youthful choral voices early in the scene representing genderless personae in accordance with the traditional image of a genderless Christ, she subjects the scene to an in-depth and comprehensive analysis that focuses just as much, if not more, on seen voices. A detailed table of dramatic and musical events is a very helpful guide to her discussion, which would be handy to use while listening to the scene. Both Kinderman's and Syer's contributions are not for the analytically faint-hearted, but Darcy's essay is intended only for the reader well-versed in the most rigorous academic music theory and analysis. Noting that much of Wagner's music has resisted traditional analytical methods, he offers two new approaches, the first of which is the theory, developed by himself and James Hepokoski, of "rotational form" in which a brief motive is developed teleologically through a series of rotations leading to the final structural (tonal and formal) goal in the last rotation. The nature of the rotations can be explained according to the second approach, the theory of hexatonic systems developed by Richard Cohn to help explain highly chromatic key relationships in late tonal music. Darcy's analysis is dense and detailed; his principal concern seems to be that of demonstrating the usefulness of the analytical approach and the formal structuring of the scene rather than an illumination of the way the music presents text and creates meaning. His is primarily a structural rather than a hermeneutic approach.

Part III contains two essays that discuss specific aspects of the reception history of the work, that is the way it has been interpreted in writings and performances: "Die Weihe des Hauses (The Consecration of the House): Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the Early Reception of Parsifal" (Roger Allen) and "Parsifal on Stage" (Syer). Chamberlain, the English racist and later fascist admirer of Hitler who married into the Wagner family, first attended Bayreuth in 1882, the year of the premier of Parsifal. Allen joins several other authors who argue that Chamberlain's earlier writings on Wagner and his music are valuable and not infected with the racism and German chauvinism of his Foundations of the Nineteenth Century and his later work. For Chamberlain, as for many of Wagner's advocates in the 1880s, Parsifal was the central work in Wagner's oeuvre, and Chamberlain emphasizes the theme of redemption, but not from a truly Christian perspective, and does not argue for racial and national content in the work. The possible subtext in this essay is that because Chamberlain had not adopted the pernicious views that would mark his later work, his insider's view of Parsifal, in particular of its ideological "purity," possesses a special authority. Syer's second essay is a fitting conclusion to the book. In tracing the performance history of Parsifal from its first performance to the present she provides one its most interesting and most comprehensive contributions and it can be read with pleasure by a non-specialist reader. (This is also true of the essays in Part I.) It is also a very timely article, because her work represents a new development in musicological opera studies that focuses on productions from the point of view that an opera is even less a fixed artistic object than an instrumental piece, because it has more dimensions: scenery, costumes, stage action in addition to music. While each of these may be secondary to the musical score, together they have a power equal to the score and poetic text-they can even, under circumstances, determine the content and meaning (both of which are mutable) above and beyond, and in opposition to, word and tone. Syer is sensitive to all these dimensions and she also ties the specific characteristics of a production to the cultural and political background of its time, from the Wilhelminian period of the late nineteenth century through the First World War (covering here the end of the Wagner family's monopoly of performance rights and the fervor around the first non-Bayreuth performances in Germany, Europe as a whole, and the U.S., then moving to the experiments of the Weimar years, the setbacks and consolidations during the Third Reich, and the renewed search for new interpretative strategies and meanings in the post-war period.

Syer's article, which contains many wonderful images, demonstrates both the continuing significance and the controversial nature of Parsifal (attributes that are shared by Wagner's other mature operas) which both have helped secure its place in the operatic repertory and are stimulating increased scholarly attention.2 As I stated before, this collection of essays makes a major contribution to Parsifal interpretation. It cannot be denied that certain important topics have not been covered with all the attention they deserve, for example the question of the presence of nationalistic, racist, and anti-Semitic content that surfaced in the early reception of the opera and has been most intensely debated in the last quarter century. Nor is there a discussion of the musical and dramatic structure of the opera as a whole (nothing approaching a synopsis or an overview) nor the musical style per se or in its relationship to Wagner's earlier operas. These topics would have further strengthened an already very valuable book, but I mention these omissions less as a critique than simply as a point of information for readers who might want to gather more basic knowledge before taking up the challenge of these stimulating and weighty discussions. A must read for all Parsifalians.

Glenn Stanley
Professor of Music
University of Connecticut
Reviews Editor, 19th-Century Music


1Constantin Floros, "Studien zur Parsifal-Rezeption," in Richard Wagner:"Parsifal" (Musik-Konzepte 25) ed. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn (Munich:edition text+kritik, 1982), pp. 43-57.

2Kinderman is planning a monographic study of Parsifal and several other books and collections of essays on the opera are in preparation. The present author has recently completed an essay on the opera that will appear in the Cambridge Companion to Wagner, ed. Thomas Grey, in 2006/2007.