Skip to page content

Composed: 1877-1882

Length: 65 minutes

Orchestration: solo tenor, solo mezzo-soprano, solo bass, 6 sopranos, double women's chorus, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings

First Los Angeles philharmonic performance: July 21, 1981, with tenor Jon Vickers, mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos, bass Lenus Carlson, and the Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Erich Leinsdorf conducting

In 1882, the revolution was still three decades away. Wagner had already tested the limits of 19th-century musical syntax in his opera Tristan und Isolde (1865). Now, with Parsifal, he offered a summation of his dramatic and musical theories in what he knew would be his final work.

Wagner had first curled up with Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic Parzival in July and August of 1845, during a summer vacation at Marienbad. Wagner encountered the inspiration for most of his life's work during the 1840s. He spent more than three decades thinking about Parzival, knowing that it would probably be his final work, and eventually wrote the libretto in one month - mid-March to mid-April - in 1877. Wagner sketched the bulk of the work between 1877 and 1879 and completed the full score on January 13, 1882. The opera premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Wagner's theater in northeastern Bavaria, on July 26, 1882.

Wagner's Parsifal revolves around the redemption of a corrupt and decaying society through the actions of a guileless innocent, the title character. The opera's action unfolds in medieval Spain, where knights are fighting to protect Christendom from Muslim warriors. At the castle of Montsalvat, a circle of knights protects the holy spear used to pierce Christ's side at the crucifixion and the holy grail, which caught the blood from the wound. The knights derive their strength from the grail, which they ceremoniously uncover before going into battle. But an evil sorcerer, Klingsor, stole the spear while the knights' king, Amfortas, lay in sin with Kundry. Klingsor stabbed Amfortas in the side, giving him a wound that won't stop bleeding, a mark of his sin, and took the holy spear. It is left to Parsifal, the innocent called unknowingly to Montsalvat by the grail, to redeem the knights.

Act II is a crucial moment in that redemption. The action unfolds at Klingsor's castle, where Parsifal arrives, resists the temptations first of the Flower Maidens and then of Kundry, reclaims the spear, in one fell swoop destroying Klingsor and gaining the means to heal Amfortas' wound and redeem the knights.

Musically, Act II differs in tone somewhat from the rest of the opera. The elevated, timeless quality of the music Wagner fashioned for the scenes in Act I here gives way to the violent, seething strains of the prelude that opens Act II. Fifteen minutes into the Act, following Klingsor and Kundry's scene, we hear Parsifal's noble theme played by the horns, heralding his arrival at the castle. What follows is an elaborate seduction scene, with Wagner at first writing music of disorienting menace for the Maidens, imparting a sense of how Parsifal, the innocent, would perceive the situation.

The heart of the Act, and some say, of the opera, comes with the sprawling confrontation between Kundry and Parsifal that follows the entreaties of the Flower Maidens. Wagner uses every compositional means at his disposal to trace the dramatic and emotional contours of the scene with the utmost musical sophistication. Parsifal's outburst at "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" is a crucial turning-point in the opera, emphasized musically by the full orchestra. Here, Parsifal's identification with another's suffering marks the first step in his transformation from an innocent into one whose self-knowledge will redeem the knights. As the Act ends, Parsifal seizes the spear out of the air and holds it aloft, making the sign of the cross as the orchestra plays a radiant transformation of a motive from the prelude to Act I associated with faith and the spear.

Parsifal marked, for Wagner, a summation of his life's work. The opera is a mysterious combination of that which concerned Wagner over his long career - Christianity and spirituality in general, redemption, history, philosophy, and society. Musically, it marks the last word on his ideas about associating specific musical motives with characters (Parsifal, for example), objects (the spear), or abstractions (faith). It is an utterly personal statement of Wagner's beliefs and ideals, no matter how unpalatable some of these might have been (his anti-Semitism being a primary example), set to music of the utmost beauty, power, and refinement, a grand summation of what 19th-century music was all about.

-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/ Annotator.