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  • Parsifal and Eroticism in Wagner's Music [1903]
  • Hanns Fuchs
    Translated by John Urang

A trove of Germanness, a grail of the arts, the Festspielhaus (festival hall) rises on the Bayreuth hill. Built by Meister Wagner, the Festspielhaus, as we know, housed the first Festspiele in 1876.

For six years, this temple of art closed its gates, to reopen again in 1882 for the debut performance of Parsifal.

As its creator famously stipulated, Parsifal, the Meister's swan song, may only be performed in Bayreuth. As a result, this work is perhaps the least known of Richard Wagner's dramas.

As a composer and poet, Wagner is at his artistic zenith in Parsifal, and the figures of this drama, perhaps more than those of all the other dramas, afford us deep insight into the instinctual life [Triebleben] of its creator.

Here, in wise Gurnemanz, we reencounter that deep feeling for young, fresh manliness we previously encountered in King Heinrich, Hans Sachs, and King Mark: we see him consort with the young Grail attendants in tones of paternal friendship. His anger over Parsifal's killing of the swan subsides quickly: "He (Gurnemanz) gently drapes Parsifal's arm over his shoulder, and supports his body by clasping it with his own arm; in this way, he guides him with careful steps."1 With soft words, he leads him up to the Grail castle.

That the instructions for this intimate physical contact are so exact must be seen as highly significant.

The thoughts of loyal Gurnemanz revolve around his lord, the ailing King Amfortas, and around delivering the king from his suffering and his searing pain.

The Dutchman and Tannhäuser are redeemed through a woman. Amfortas as well will find redemption. But it is not a woman who will save him. This is how Gurnemanz interprets the Grail's prophecy for the king.

And along with the king, Gurnemanz hopes for a savior. He believes he has found one in Parsifal, whose youthful, impetuous nature has made a deep impression on him. With the greatest courtesy he guides Parsifal to the Grail castle. Here Parsifal attends the Grail's revelation, sees the holy communion [Liebesmahl] of the Grail knights, and hears Amfortas's terrible lament—but he cannot answer the redemptive question about the meaning of all these wondrous happenings.

And when the addressee of this question just shakes his head, Gurnemanz throws him out roughly, in a truly human surge of rage.

For one who is not worthy to be taken into the community of the Grail, there are women: a Grail knight has better things to do than to chase after a woman's love; for him, women can only be a peril. [End Page 334]

The Grail-king Amfortas is among the many knights ruined by Klingsor's pleasure garden.

Armed with the holy spear that pierced the Savior's side when he was on the cross, King Amfortas marched into the rich heathen land. Gurnemanz, loyal and brave, accompanied him.

This wound, along with the knowledge of having broken the Grail's commandment by indulging in base sensualism, causes him terrible anguish. He vents his grief in a heartrending lament before uncovering the Grail, after which he sinks down, enfeebled, nearly unconscious.

Does this not lay bare the psyche of the Meister, that he can so completely immerse himself in a person's soul who sees bodily love as an inexpiable offense?

The last act shows us even more vehement emotional outbursts on the part of the Grail king. In a wild passion he calls for death: it alone can release him from his dreadful agony.

In wild despair, he leaps from his chair, hurls himself into the midst of the recoiling knights, and tears open his garments, calling ardently for death.

The knights have shrunk away from him in fear: there, in his moment of greatest need, his savior Parsifal approaches, the pure fool; he has returned with the holy spear that made the wound, that alone can heal it.

In the struggle between Klingsor and the holy Grail, the sorcerer is the weaker: the rich heathen lands with their enticements have no power over the Grail...


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pp. 334-344
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