Universal Brotherhood – April 1898

RICHARD WAGNER'S MUSIC DRAMAS: VIII-2 — Basil Crump

VIII. PARSIFAL.

(Continued.)

The King's aim is an ideal aim; he desires Justice and Humanity; and if he desires them not, if he desire no more than that which the individual citizen desires, then will the very claim which is made upon him by his rank, and which permits none but ideal interests, make him the betrayer of the idea which he represents, and cast him into sufferings, which have ever been the main subject of the inspiration of the tragic poet in his oft-told tale of the fruitlessness of human life and human action. The individual who is called to the throne has no choice in the matter; he cannot listen to the voice of his own inclinations, and must fill a lofty station to which only high natural faculties are adequate. Thus to him is allotted a superhuman destiny which must needs crush a weak nature into nothingness. — Wagner's State and Religion.

Of the glorious Prelude to this drama, or rather Mystery-Play, there is not space to speak here in detail; suffice it to say that it is described by Wagner as expressing the great trinity "Love; — Faith — Hope," erroneously translated in the New Testament as "Faith, Hope, Charity." In it we hear the gentle voice of loving Compassion, the strong hymn of Faith, the agonized cry of the stricken sinner, and the Hope of Redemption.

The first Act opens with a solemn forest scene in the domain of the Grail. From the distance, as if from the Castle, comes, as a reveille, the first theme of the Prelude:

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At its sound the old but vigorous Gurnemanz awakes and rouses the Esquires who are sleeping around him. He is a similar character to Wolfram in Tannhauser and Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, representing Intelligence and faithful devotion without the fire which urges either to sin or to lofty spiritual aspiration. He is the trusty companion of the suffering King Amfortas, and it is through him that Parsifal is brought to the Temple of the Grail.

While he is enquiring after the King's wound the wild figure of the woman Kundry enters on horseback with balsam from Arabia. Amfortas, who is brought in on a litter, accepts the remedy and passes on to his bath. (1)

The Esquires look askance at Kundry and suggest that she is bewitched; but Gurnemanz reproaches them, saying she is a watchful messenger, ready ever to serve yet never looking for thanks. "She lives here now, perhaps regenerated," he adds, "that she may expiate the unforgiven sins of a former life." In Kundry Wagner has united the characters of Prakriti (Nature in the Hindu Philosophy) from his sketch of Die Sieger, Gundryggia the wild serving messenger of Asgard's heroes, and Herodias of the New Testament. It is easy to recognize in her the protean force of Nature which can be used alike for good or evil by the will of man, becoming a delusion and a snare to him who is not strong enough to resist her. Awake she is the humble servant of the Grail; in the magnetic sleep imposed on her by Klingsor she is used in the service of evil.

Gurnemanz now proceeds to tell the story of the fall of Amfortas. Titurel when he founded the Grail Brotherhood permitted none but those with pure motive to enter it. This power of Titurel to exclude those selfish and evil forces which would do the community irreparable harm is the prerogative of that being who has risen to the height where she or he can work consciously with Nature's laws. Where such a being is recognized and called to the place of King or Ruler, in the true mystic sense meant by Wagner, the utmost benefit to the community results. An example of this is shown in the power given to the Leader and Official Head of the Universal Brotherhood — an organization formed at the commencement of a New Cycle in the evolution of Humanity.

Klingsor strove hard to enter, but Titurel knew he was not fit and refused him. Now mark the words of the drama: "Powerless to kill sin in his soul, he laid a guilty hand upon his body, and this hand he again stretched towards the Grail. Its Guardian spurned him scornfully. At this he was enraged, and his fury disclosed to him that his infamous act could give him counsel in the use of black magic; which he now turned to account. He transformed the desert into a wondrous garden of delight peopled with women of diabolical beauty, and there he lies in wait to lure the Knights of the Grail to the pleasures of sin and the pains of hell; those who are entrapped fall into his power, and many there are who have met this fate. Now when King Titurel grew old he conferred the lordship upon his son Amfortas, who spared no effort to end this magic scourge."

Forgetting that the Lance should never be separated from the Grail — the Will from Wisdom — Amfortas foolishly went forth with it alone to overcome Klingsor, only to fall an easy prey to the transformed Kundry. "Close neath the fortress" continues Gurneramanz, "the young monarch was separated from us: a woman of appalling beauty had bewitched him, in her arms he lay entranced; the Lance dropped from his hand; a cry of deathly agony! I rushed towards him; Klingsor vanished, laughing, he had carried off the sacred Lance. I fought to cover the King's retreat; but a wound was burning in his side, the wound that will not heal.

"Prostrate before the plundered sanctuary in impassioned prayer, Amfortas piteously implored for a token of redemption: whereupon a holy radiance floated from the Grail, and there shone forth the vision of one who spoke these words: — (2)

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As Gurnemanz concludes a wounded swan flutters to the ground with an arrow through its breast, and the youth Parsifal appears, bow in hand. Notice that here, as in Lohengrin, the swan precedes the coming of the Deliverer, and exactly the same musical theme is used. Parsifal is bitterly reproached by all for the cruelty of his deed, of which at first he seems unconscious; then, as Gurnemanz shows him the helpless wing, the dark-stained plumage, the dimming eye, it dawns upon his feeling (though not yet upon his understanding), as it did upon that of the youthful Wagner when the dying hare he had shot in thoughtless sport crawled to his feet and looked into his face. It is perhaps deeply significant that this first lesson in sympathy should come from the animal world, and it will be remembered that exactly the same incident occurs in the life of Buddha, beautifully expressed by Edwin Arnold in his "Light of Asia":

     The bird is mine
By right of mercy and Love's lordliness;
For now I know, by what within me stirs,
That I shall teach Compassion unto men,
And be a speechless World's Interpreter,
Abating this accursed flood of woe,
Not man's alone.

Parsifal is now asked his name and replies, "Many have I had, but now I remember none of them." Here again, as with Kundry, Wagner indicates that Parsifal has lived many times before under other names. This belief in Rebirth he held in common with Schopenhauer, Emerson, Walt Whitman, and other intuitive thinkers who sensed the deeper truths of life.

The dead swan is borne reverently away, and Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry are left alone. We now learn from the colloquy between them the story of Parsifal's birth and up-bringing. Like Siegfried and Tristan his father Gamuret was slain before his birth. His mother's name was Herzeleide, which means "Heart's Affliction," and she brought him up in the desert unsophisticated and ignorant of arms lest he should share his father's fate. But once he saw in a forest "shining men on beautiful animals." They were the first glimpse of those higher powers which drew him in the direction of the Grail's domain. Inspired by the sight he followed but could not overtake them, passing over hill and dale and using his bow against "wild beasts and great men," who all "learnt to fear the fierce boy." Alas! he now learns from Kundry that Herzeleide has pined and died since his departure, and his grief and self-reproach are terrible to witness. Kundry brings him water from a spring and then crawls away wearily to a thicket, for she feels the terrible magic of Klingsor beginning to assert its sway over her, denoted by the following theme:

notes

Gurnemanz now has a first faint intuition that this seemingly witless boy, Parsifal, is the promised Deliverer, and determines to see if the Law will let him witness the ceremony in the Temple. To Parsifal's artless question "Who is the Grail?" he replies, "That may not be told; but if you are chosen to serve it, this knowledge will not be concealed from you. And see! I think I have recognized you aright! (for they begin to pass towards the Temple.) The pathway to the Grail leads not through the land, nor could any one find it save he whom the Grail itself directs." Here the rhythmical theme of the bells of Monsalvat is heard and the scenery begins to move while Parsifal and Gurnemanz appear to walk:

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Concerning this extraordinary masterstroke in scenic illusion Wagner wrote:

"The unrolling of the moving scene, however artistically carried out, was emphatically not intended for decorative effect alone; but, under the influence of the accompanying music, we were, as in a state of dreamy rapture, to be led imperceptibly along the trackless ways to the Castle of the Grail; by which means, at the same time, its traditional inaccessibility, for those who are not called, was drawn into the domain of dramatic performance."

As the scene proceeds Parsifal remarks in surprise, "I hardly step, and yet I seem already far." "You see my son," explains Gurnemanz, "Time changes here to Space"; indicating, of course, that they are passing into a higher state of consciousness where the ordinary conceptions of Time and Space do not obtain. Just as, in dream, one goes through a life's experience in a few seconds, or traverses vast distances in the twinkling of an eye.

The contrapuntal movement in the music grows more and more complex as the sanctuary is approached, until it culminates in the heart-rending wail of anguish associated with the crucified Christos and the wounded Amfortas:

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Parsifal and Gurnemanz now enter the mighty hall where the ceremony of the Liebesmahl or Love-Feast is about to be performed; it is devoid of windows, as shown in Mr. Machell's picture in the last article, the only light being shed from above through the lofty dome. Gurnemanz places Parsifal at the side where he can watch, saying: "Now pay attention; and if you are a Fool, and pure, let me see what knowledge and wisdom may be given to you." To the rhythmical music, accompanied by the deep-toned bells themselves, the Knights march in, singing a solemn chant, and take their places at the semi-circular tables under the dome, the altar being in the centre. They proceed by regular steps, bringing the heel, at each pace, into the hollow of the other foot. Next appears Amfortas on his litter, in front of him four Esquires carry the shrine of the Holy Grail covered with a crimson cloth and place it upon the altar, Amfortas being placed immediately behind on a raised couch. From the mid-height of the dome comes a chant of youthful voices followed by a still more ethereal choir from the extreme height. Then, after a long silence, the voice of the aged Titurel, as if from the grave, calls from the vault behind Amfortas, requesting him to unveil the Grail, that he may look upon its radiance once more and live.

Passionately the wounded King prays that he, the impure sinner, may die and that his aged father may fulfill the sacred office; but as he sinks back, almost unconscious, the divine Promise once again floats down from the height, and Titurel repeats: Unveil the Grail!

With an effort Anifortas obeys, the golden shrine is opened, and he bends in silent prayer over the ancient crystal Cup. A mysterious darkness fills the hall, while the choirs in the dome sing the following words to the motives of the Liebesmahl: "Take unto you My Body, take unto you My Blood; the symbol of our Love." Now a blinding ray of light descends upon the uplifted chalice which glows with crimson lustre; Amfortas, transfigured, waves it gently about and then blesses the mystic Bread and Wine which are divided among the Knights. The choir again invite the partaking of the Liebesmahl, and the Knights reply:

"Take of the bread, boldly transform it into bodily strength and power; faithful unto death, braving every danger, to perform the works of the Saviour.

"Take of the wine, transform it anew into the fiery blood of life.

"Rejoicing to fight in comradeship, with holy courage, faithful as Brothers."

The ceremony ended, the brethren rise and, before passing out, embrace one another in a peculiar fashion, clasping the right hand and passing the other over the shoulder. During all this time Parsifal has stood motionless in contemplation of the scene. He had paid no attention when requested by Gurnemanz to join the others, but at the loudest cry of agony from Amfortas he had clutched his heart convulsively and so remained as if benumbed. Gurnemanz now approaches him ill-humoredly and asks if he understands what he has seen. For answer the youth only shakes his head slightly and again clutches his heart. Gurnemanz is now quite angry; "You are, after all, nothing but a Fool!" he cries. "Get out there, go your own way!" He pushes him through a door, and, as he turns to follow the other Knights, a single Voice from the heights of the dome re-echoes the Promise, as if to remind him of his forgotten intuition concerning Parsifal:

By Pity enlightened, the stainless Fool.

But Parsifal has had his second lesson in sympathy, this time from a fellow human being. In the next Act we shall see how he battles with and overcomes the powers of evil by sheer purity of heart and the fire of his own heroic will. For this is no Deliverer of the "Sweetness and Light" order; he is essentially a Warrior, and, like his prototype of the New Testament, he comes "not to bring Peace but a Sword." As with Siegfried, it is after the victory that the peace will come.

What a touching and faithful picture is Amfortas of the humanity of today, seared and weakened with the consequences of its own misdeeds, and particularly that misuse of its divine gift upon which Wagner has laid his finger!

And Titurel! Does he not speak to us from out the glories of a golden past when man walked with God and had not yet fallen a prey to the delusions of his lower nature — the enchanted garden of Klingsor? What, then, of the Future? "It is not thinkable," says Wagner, "except as stipulated by the Past." Therefore we know that in Titurel we have the promise of Parsifal, the future Divine Ruler of regenerated Humanity.

The Lance in the possession of Klingsor represents the weapon of the Will of man used in the service of self instead of compassionate Love. Only he who can forget self utterly in sympathy for others will be able to wrest the Will from the clutch of self and restore it to its true place as the weapon and servant of Divine Wisdom.

(To be continued.)

FOOTNOTES:

1. Many details must be omitted here and elsewhere through lack of space. (return to text)

2. Gurnemanz here uses the "Thoren-motive" afterwards sung by the celestial choirs with such wonderful effect. I give the original German words. The French "Pur Simple" is perhaps the nearest equivalent for "reine Thor"; the English word "Fool" conveys the wrong impression. An accepted translation of the lines is: — "By Pity enlightened, the stainless Fool: Wait for him, my chosen One." (return to text)


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