- A Companion to Wagner's "Parsifal"
William Kinderman begins his introduction to this fine collection of essays by asserting that "More than almost any other work, Wagner's Parsifal merits reevaluation" (p. 1). It is a remarkable statement. Given the vast literature on the composer and his works, it has become, as Warren Darcy has noted, "almost de rigeur to begin a book on Wagner by apologizing for having written it," not by asserting that it needs to exist.1 Kinderman suggests, however, that it is the very abundance of literature on Parsifal—which, he says, is "often unbalanced and contradictory"—that makes its "reevaluation" necessary.
Toward this end, Kinderman and his coeditor Katherine Syer have assembled nine substantial essays from a group of respected scholars (Kinderman and Syer each contribute two). All of the articles appear here in print or in English for the first time. The chapters are arranged in three sections, addressing the work's textual sources (part 1), its music (part 2), and its reception and stage history (part 3). While the contributions vary widely in specialization and subject matter—from Warren Darcy's highly technical analysis of the music of act 2, scene 1, at one extreme, to Syer's compendious survey of the work's stage history, at the other—there are nevertheless some shared characteristics. Most notably, for all of their scholarly up-to-dateness, the essays are largely reserved, even cautious, in interpretive tone. There are no flights of hermeneutic virtuosity or moments of literary éclat. Instead, the emphasis is on sketch study, detailed musical analysis, and careful historical spadework. Even the essays that contain nods toward recent critical trends—James McGlathery's discussion of erotic episodes in Chrétien, Wolfram, and Wagner; or Syer's essays on "voice" and reception history—are notably staid, tending much more toward thorough, comprehensive coverage than to hermeneutic performance. For a book on a drama containing such sordidness as self-castration and quasi-incestuous seduction, not to mention the undertones of anti-Semitism and misogyny detected by some critics, there is surprisingly little here that is risqué.
In the lead essay of part 1, Mary Cicora presents an overview of the relationship between Parsifal and its principal literary source, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. Cicora argues against a simplistic understanding of Wagner's nineteenth-century reanimation of Eschenbach's legend suggesting that, in Parsifal, [End Page 363] as in Wagner's other mature works, "one encounters the paradox of medieval subject matter employed as a vehicle for expressing the problems of [Wagner's] time" (p. 29).2 Cicora, a Germanist, draws largely on German-language secondary sources in her article, especially the work of Peter Wapnewski. While it is valuable to have the insights from Wapnewski and others made available to English readers, the emphasis on German-language scholarship at the expense of English sources results in a one-sided and incomplete bibliography. Lucy Beckett's fine summary of Wagner's sources is not once cited, for example.3 And Cicora's discussion of the "parallels and contradictions" between Christ and Amfortas (p. 48) contains no citation of the most famous reading of this aspect of the opera in English: David Lewin's article on Amfortas's Prayer.4
In "Erotic Love in Chrétien's Perceval, Wolfram's Parzival, and Wagner's Parsifal," James McGlathery presents a fascinating discussion of the shifting roles of erotic encounters in the three works. The essay is thorough and detailed, but its argument is easily summarized: there is far more sex in Parzival and Perceval than in Parsifal. Erotic encounters play a central role in both Chrétien's and Wolfram's works; the knightly deeds that the two epics chronicle are as often sexual as they are heroic. Not only are these episodes left out of Wagner's Parsifal, they are replaced by an emphasis on chastity that is present in neither Chrétien nor Wolfram. Most notably, sexual resistance, rather than heroic conquest, is Parsifal's crucial accomplishment in Wagner's drama.5 For...