[pahr-suh-fuhl, -fahl]
Parsifal is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the medieval (13th century) epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail.

During the first act, Parsifal, an apparently witless fool, sees the suffering of the wounded Amfortas, King of an order of knights who guard the Grail. In the second Act Parsifal wanders into the domain of Klingsor, a magician who is trying to corrupt the Knights of the Grail and who has stolen from them the spear used to pierce Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. There Parsifal meets Kundry, the slave of Klingsor, who attempts to seduce him. In resisting her, he destroys Klingsor, and recovers the Spear. In the third Act, Parsifal returns to the Grail Kingdom to heal Amfortas.

Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but it was not finished until twenty-five years later. It was to be Wagner's last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular sonority of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Parsifal was first produced at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The Bayreuth Festival maintained an exclusive monopoly on Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Wagner preferred to describe Parsifal not as an opera, but as "ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" - "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage". At Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there is no applause after the first act of the opera.


Wagner first read Wolfram von Eschenbach's poem Parzival while taking the waters at Marienbad in 1845. After encountering Arthur Schopenhauer's work in 1854, Wagner became interested in oriental philosophies, especially Buddhism. He was particularly inspired by reading Eugène Burnouf's "Introduction à l'histoire du buddhisme indien" in 1855/56. Out of this interest came "Die Sieger" ("The Victors", 1856) a sketch Wagner wrote for an opera based on a story from the life of Buddha. The themes which were later explored in Parsifal of self-renouncing, reincarnation, compassion and even exclusive social groups (castes in Die Sieger, the Knights of the Grail in Parsifal) were first introduced in "Die Sieger".

According to his own account, recorded in his autobiography Mein Leben, Wagner conceived Parsifal on Good Friday morning, April 1857, in the Asyl (German: "Asylum"), the small cottage on Otto von Wesendonck’s estate in the Zürich suburb of Enge, which Wesendonck - a wealthy silk merchant and generous patron of the arts - had placed at Wagner’s disposal. The composer and his wife Minna had moved into the cottage on 28 April:

However, as he later admitted to his second wife Cosima Wagner, this account had been coloured by a certain amount of poetic licence:

The work may indeed have been conceived at Wesendonck's cottage in the last week of April 1857, but Good Friday that year fell on 10 April, when the Wagners were still living at Zeltweg 13 in Zürich. If the prose sketch which Wagner mentions in Mein Leben was accurately dated (and most of Wagner’s surviving papers are dated), it could settle the issue once and for all, but unfortunately it has not survived.

Wagner did not resume work on Parsifal for eight years, during which time he completed Tristan und Isolde and began Die Meistersinger. Then, between 27 and 30 August 1865, he took up Parsifal again and made a prose draft of the work; this contains a fairly brief outline of the plot and a considerable amount of detailed commentary on the characters and themes of the drama. But once again the work was dropped and set aside for another eleven and a half years. During this time most of Wagner’s creative energy was devoted to the Ring cycle, which was finally completed in 1874 and given its first full performance at Bayreuth in August 1876. Only when this gargantuan task had been accomplished did Wagner find the time to concentrate on Parsifal. By 23 February 1877 he had completed a second and more extensive prose draft of the work, and by 19 April of the same year he had transformed this into a verse libretto (or “poem”, as Wagner liked to call his libretti).

In September 1877 he began the music by making two complete drafts of the score from beginning to end. The first of these (known in German as the Gesamtentwurf and in English as either the Preliminary Draft or the First Complete Draft) was made in pencil on three staves, one for the voices and two for the instruments. The second complete draft (Orchesterskizze, Orchestral Draft, Short Score or Particell) was made in ink and on at least three, but sometimes as many as five, staves. This draft was much more detailed than the first and contained a considerable degree of instrumental elaboration.

The second draft was begun on 25 September 1877, just a few days after the first: at this point in his career Wagner liked to work on both drafts simultaneously, switching back and forth between the two so as not to allow too much time to elapse between his initial setting of the text and the final elaboration of the music. The Gesamtentwurf of Act III was completed on 16 April 1879 and the Orchesterskizze on the 26th of the same month.

The full score (Partiturerstschrift) was the final stage in the compositional process. It was made in ink and consisted of a fair copy of the entire opera, with all the voices and instruments properly notated according to standard practice.

Wagner composed Parsifal one act at a time, completing the Gesamtentwurf and Orchesterskizze of each act before beginning the Gesamtentwurf of the next act; but because the Orchesterskizze already embodied all the compositional details of the full score, the actual drafting of the Partiturerstschrift was regarded by Wagner as little more than a routine task which could be done whenever he found the time. The Prelude of Act I was scored in August 1878. The rest of the opera was scored between August 1879 and 13 January 1882.

Parsifal in performance

The premiere

On 12 November 1880 Wagner conducted a private performance of the Prelude for his patron Ludwig II of Bavaria at the Court Theatre in Munich. The premiere of the entire work was given in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth on 26 July 1882 under the baton of the German-born Jewish conductor Hermann Levi. Stage designs were by Max Brückner and Paul von Joukowsky who took their lead from Wagner himself. The Grail hall was based on the interior of Siena Cathedral which Wagner had visited in 1880, while Klingsor's magic garden was modelled on those at the Palazzo Rufolo in Ravello. In July and August 1882 sixteen performances of the work were given in Bayreuth conducted by Levi and Franz Fischer. The production boasted an orchestra of 107, a chorus of 135 and 23 soloists (with the main parts being double cast). At the last of these performances, Wagner took the baton from Levi and conducted the final scene of Act 3 from the orchestral interlude to the end.

At the first performances of Parsifal problems with the moving scenery during the transition from Scene one to Scene two in Act 1 meant that Wagner's existing orchestral interlude finished before Parsifal and Gurnemanz arrived at the Hall of the Grail. Engelbert Humperdinck, who was assisting the production, provided a few extra bars of music to cover this gap. In subsequent years this problem was solved and Humperdinck's additions were not used.

The ban on Parsifal outside Bayreuth

For the first twenty years of its existence, the only staged performances of Parsifal (apart from eight private performances for Ludwig II at Munich in 1884 and 1885) took place in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the venue for which Wagner conceived the work. Wagner had two reasons for wanting to keep 'Parsifal' exclusively for the Bayreuth stage. Firstly, he wanted to prevent 'Parsifal' from degenerating into 'mere amusement' for an opera-going public. Only at Bayreuth could his last work be presented in the way envisaged by him - a tradition maintained by his wife, Cosima, long after his death. Secondly he thought that 'Parsifal' would provide an income for his family after his death if Bayreuth had the monopoly on its performance.

The Bayreuth authorities allowed unstaged performances to take place in various countries after Wagner's death (e.g. London in 1884, New York City in 1886, and Amsterdam in 1894) but they maintained an embargo on stage performances outside Bayreuth. On 24 December 1903, after receiving a court ruling that performances in the USA could not be prevented by Bayreuth, the New York Metropolitan Opera staged the complete opera, using many Bayreuth-trained singers, much to the chagrin of Wagner's family. Unauthorized stage performances were also undertaken in Amsterdam in 1905, 1906 and 1908. In 1913, Wagner's centenary year, Bayreuth's monopoly on the work was finally broken and since then the work has been freely staged throughout the world. The first authorized performance was mounted in Barcelona: it began one hour before midnight on December 31 1912, taking advantage of the one hour time difference which existed at that time between Barcelona and Bayreuth. Such was the demand for Parsifal that it was presented in more than 50 European opera houses between 1 January and August 1st 1914.

Applause during Parsifal

At Bayreuth performances audiences do not applaud at the end of the first act. This tradition is the result of a misunderstanding arising from Wagner's desire at the premiere to maintain the serious mood of the opera. After much applause following the first and second acts, Wagner spoke to the audience and said that the cast would take no curtain calls until the end of the performance. This confused the audience, who remained silent at the end of the opera until Wagner addressed them again, saying that he did not mean that they could not applaud. After the performance Wagner complained "Now I don't know. Did the audience like it or not?" At following performances some believed that Wagner had wanted no applause until the very end, and there was silence after the first two acts. Eventually it became a Bayreuth tradition that no applause would be heard after the first act, however this was certainly not Wagner's idea. In fact during the first Bayreuth performances Wagner himself cried "Bravo!" as the Flower-maidens made their exit in the Second Act, only to be hissed by other members of the audience. At theatres other than Bayreuth, applause and curtain-calls is normal practice after every act.

Post-War performances

Parsifal is one of the Wagner operas regularly presented at the Bayreuth Festival to this day. Among the more significant post-war productions was that directed in 1951 by Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson. At the first Bayreuth Festival after World War II he presented a radical move away from literal representation of the Hall of the Grail or the Flower-Maiden's bower. Instead, lighting effects and the bare minimum of scenery were used to complement Wagner's music. This production was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Swiss stage designer, Adolphe Appia. The reaction to this production was extreme: Ernest Newman, Wagner's biographer described it as "not only the best Parsifal I have ever seen and heard, but one of the three or four most moving spiritual experiences of my life". Others were appalled that Wagner's stage directions were being flouted. The conductor of the 1951 production, Hans Knappertsbusch, on being asked how he could conduct such a disgraceful travesty, declared that right up until the dress rehearsal he imagined that the stage decorations were still to come. Knappertsbusch was particularly upset by the omission of the dove which appears over Parsifal's head at the end of the opera, which he claimed inspired him to give better performances. To placate his conductor Wieland arranged to reinstate the dove, which descended on a string. What Knappertsbusch did not realise was that Wieland had made the length of the string sufficient so that the conductor could see the dove, but the audience could not. Wieland continued to modify and refine his Bayreuth production of Parsifal until his death in 1966.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast
July 26, 1882
(Conductor: Hermann Levi)
The Met Premiere Cast
December 24, 1903
(Conductor: Alfred Hertz)
Parsifal tenor Hermann Winkelmann Alois Burgstaller
Kundry mezzo-soprano
or soprano
Amalia Materna Milka Ternina
Gurnemanz, a veteran Knight of the Grail bass Emil Scaria Robert Blass
Amfortas, ruler of the Grail kingdom baritone Theodor Reichmann Anton van Rooy
Klingsor, a magician bass-baritone Karl Hill Otto Goritz
Titurel, Amfortas' father bass August Kindermann Marcel Journet
Two Grail Knights tenor,
Anton Fuchs
Eugen Stumpf
Julius Bayer
Adolph Mühlmann
Four Esquires sopranos,
Hermine Galfy
Mathilde Keil
Max Mikorey
Adolf von Hübbenet
Katherine Moran
Paula Braendle
Albert Reiss
Willy Harden
Six Flowermaidens 3 sopranos,
3 contraltos
or 6 sopranos
Pauline Horson
Johanna Meta
Carrie Pringle
Johanna André
Hermine Galfy
Luise Belce
Voice from Above, Eine Stimme contralto Sophie Dompierre Louise Homer
Knights of the Grail, boys, flowermaidens


Place: Spain, the castle of Monsalvat and Klingsor's magic palace.

Act 1

Scene 1

Ethereal music –– in a major chord –– is heard, reaching an octave note to finish. The sequence is reprised in a minor chord that fails to hit the high note at its end. Finally, the Grail leitmotif is followed by a brassy 'Faith' leitmotif. The prelude closes with the Fool's wanderings, reaching final resolution as he finds the Holy Forest.

In a forest near the castle of Monsalvat, home of the Grail and its Knights, Gurnemanz, eldest Knight of the Grail, wakes his young squires and leads them in prayer. He sees Amfortas and his retinue approach, and asks its lead Knight for news of the King’s health. The knight says that the King has suffered during the night and is going early for his bath in the holy lake. The squires ask Gurnemanz to explain how the King’s injury can be healed, but he evades their question and a wild woman––Kundry––bursts in. She gives Gurnemanz a vial of balsam, brought from Arabia, to ease the King’s pain and then collapses, exhausted.

Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, is carried in on a stretcher. He calls for Gawain, whose own attempt at relieving the King's pain had failed. The King is told that this Knight has already left, seeking a better remedy. Angrily, the king says that leaving without permission is the sort of impetuousity which led Amfortas himself into Klingsor’s realm, and to his downfall. He accepts Kundry’s potion and tries to thank her, but she answers hastily that thanks will not help and urges him to his bath.

The King's procession continues on. Once it has gone, the squires eye Kundry mistrustfully and question her. After one short retort, she falls silent. Gurnemanz tells them that Kundry has often helped the Grail Knights but that she appears and disappears at her whim. When he himself asks her why she does not stay to help, she replies that she never helps. The squires think she is a witch and sneer that if she is so helpful, why does she not find the Holy Spear for them? Gurnemanz solemnly tells that this deed is destined for someone else. He mentions that Amfortas had been the guardian of the Spear, but lost hold of it as he was seduced by an irresistibly attractive woman in Klingsor’s domain. Klingsor then grabbed the Spear and stabbed Amfortas: this wound in Amfortas’ side causes his suffering and, as told by Gurnemanz, will never heal on its own.

Two squires, returning from the King’s bath, tell Gurnemanz that Kundry’s balsam has eased the King’s sufferings for the moment. His squires ask Gurnemanz if he knew Klingsor. He tells them how both the Holy Spear, which pierced the side of the Redeemer on the Cross, and the Holy Grail, which caught the outflowing blood, had come to Monsalvat to be guarded by the Knights of the Grail under the rule of Titurel –– Amfortas’ father. Klingsor had yearned to join the Knights but unable to drive impure thoughts from his mind, resorted to self-castration, causing his expulsion from the Knights' order. Made bitter, Klingsor set himself up in opposition to the Kingdom of the Grail, learning dark arts and claiming a domain full of beautiful flower-maidens who seduce and enthrall Knights of the Grail. It was here that Amfortas lost the Holy Spear, which Klingsor now held while greedily eyeing the Grail, wanting it as well. Gurnemanz tells how Amfortas later had a holy vision which told him to wait for a “pure fool, enlightened by compassion” (“Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor”) who would finally heal the wound.

Just at this moment, cries are heard from the Knights: a flying swan has been shot, and a young man is brought forth, a bow in his hand and carrying a quiver of matching arrows. Gurnemanz speaks sternly to the lad and tells him that this is a holy domain. He then asks the lad if he did this deed and the lad boasts that if it flies, he can hit it ("Im Fluge treff' ich was fliegt!") The elderly Knight asks what harm the swan had done, getting the lad to notice the swan's blood-flecked remains, limp wings and lifeless eyes. Now remorseful, the young man breaks his bow and casts it aside. Gurnemanz now asks why the lad is here, who is his father, how the lad found this place and, lastly, his name. To each question the lad replies, "I don't know." The elder Knight sends his squires away to help the King, then asks the young man to tell what he does know. The Fool says he has a mother, named Herzeleide, and that he himself made his bow. Kundry has been listening and now she tells them that this boy’s father was Gamuret, a knight killed in battle, and also how the lad’s mother had forbidden her son to use a sword, fearing that he would meet the same fate as his father. Parsifal exclaims that upon seeing Knights pass through his forest, he immediately left his mother to follow them. Kundry laughs and tells the young man that his mother has died of grief, at which the lad attempts to grab Kundry, but then collapses in grief. Kundry herself now seems overcome with sleep, but cries out that she must not sleep and wishes that she would never waken. She crawls into the undergrowth to rest.

Gurnemanz knows that the Grail leads only the pious to Monsalvat and thus takes the lad to observe the Grail ritual. Parsifal does not know what the Grail is but remarks, as they walk, that while he seems scarcely to move, he has travelled far. Gurnemanz says that in this realm, time becomes space. An orchestral interlude leads into Scene Two.

Scene 2

They arrive at the Hall of the Grail, where the Knights are assembling to receive Holy Communion. The voice of Titurel is heard, telling his son, Amfortas, to uncover the Grail. Amfortas is racked with shame and suffering (" Wehvolles Erbe, dem ich verfallen"). He is the Guardian of the Grail, and yet he has succumbed to temptation and lost the Holy Spear: he declares himself unworthy of his office. He cries out for forgiveness (“Erbarmen!”) but hears only the promise of future redemption by the pure fool. On hearing Amfortas' cry, the boy appears to suffer with him, clutching at his heart. The Knights and Titurel urge Amfortas to reveal the Grail, which he finally does. The Hall is bathed in the light of the Grail as the Knights commune. Gurnemanz motions to the boy to participate, but he, entranced, does not notice. Amfortas does not commune, and as the ceremony ends, he collapses in pain and is taken out. Slowly the Hall empties leaving only the boy and Gurnemanz, who asks him if he has understood what he has seen. The boy cannot answer and is roughly ejected by Gurnemanz with a warning not to shoot swans. A voice from heaven repeats the promise, “The pure fool, enlightened by compassion."

Act 2

Scene 1

The second act opens in Klingsor’s magic castle, where he calls up his servant to enslave a foolish boy who has found his way into this magician's domain ("Die Zeit ist da."). He names her: Herodias, Gundryggia and, lastly, Kundry. She is transformed into an incredibly alluring woman, as when she seduced Amfortas. Waking from a deep sleep, she resists Klingsor. As he claims power over her, she mocks his enforced chastity, which casts him into self-reproach. Then she herself succumbs to an ancient curse. Klingsor now calls upon the Knights in his domain to attack the lad, but can only watch as the newcomer wounds them and beats them back. He sees this young man stray into his Flower-maiden garden and calls to Kundry to seek the boy out – but she has already gone.

Scene 2

The triumphant lad now finds himself in a garden, surrounded by beautiful and seductive Flower-maidens. They call to him, and entwine themselves about him while chiding him for wounding their lovers,... and for resisting their charms ("Komm, komm, holder Knabe!"). They soon fight amongst themselves to win his singular devotion but are stilled as a voice calls out, "Parsifal!" The boy now remembers that this name is what his mother used when appearing in his dreams. The Flower-maidens recoil from him and call him a fool as they leave Parsifal and Kundry alone. He wonders if this has all been a dream and asks how she knows his name. Kundry tells him that she knows his name from his mother ("Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust."), who had loved him and tried to shield him from his father’s fate, the mother he had abandoned and who had finally died of grief. Parsifal is overcome with remorse and blames himself for his mother’s death. He thinks he must be very stupid to have forgotten his own mother. Kundry says that this realization is his first sign of understanding, and that she can help him understand his mother’s love by kissing him. A lengthy kiss ensues, but Parsifal recoils in pain and cries out for Amfortas: Parsifal feels Amfortas' wound burning in his own side, and now understands Amfortas’ passion during the Grail Ceremony ("Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde!") Filled with this compassion for Amfortas, Parsifal rejects Kundry.

Furious, Kundry tells Parsifal that if he can feel compassion for Amfortas, then he must feel compassion for her as well. She has been cursed for centuries, unable to rest, because she saw the Savior on the cross and laughed. Now she can never weep, only laugh, and though she seems to be the slave of the Spear-carrier, due to her curse, she lives only to seduce. He rejects her again and asks her to lead him to Amfortas. She begs him to stay with her for just one hour, and then she will lead him to Amfortas. When he still refuses, she curses him to wander without ever finding the Kingdom of the Grail, and finally she calls on Klingsor to help her.

Klingsor appears and throws the Spear at Parsifal, which halts in midair, above his head. Parsifal seizes it and makes the sign of the Cross, and the castle crumbles. As he leaves, he tells Kundry that she knows where she can find him again.

Act 3

Scene 1

The Third act opens as it did in the First, in the domain of the Grail, but many years later. Gurnemanz is now aged and bent. He hears moaning near his hermit's hut and discovers Kundry unconscious in the brush, as he had many years before ("Sie! Wieder da!"). He revives her using water from the Holy Spring, but she will only speak the word “serve” (“Dienen”). Gurnemanz wonders if there is any significance to her reappearance on this special day. Looking into the forest, he sees a figure approaching, armed and girt in full armour. The stranger wears a helmet and the hermit cannot see who it is. Gurnemanz queries him, but gets no response. Finally, the apparition removes its helmet and Gurnemanz recognizes the lad who shot the swan, and then joyfully recognizes that the Holy Spear is now returned.

Parsifal tells of his desire to return to Amfortas ("Zu ihm, des tiefe Klagen.") He relates his long journey hence, wandering for years, unable to find a path back to the Grail: he had often been forced to fight, but never wielded the Spear in battle. Gurnemanz tells him that the curse preventing Parsifal from finding his right path has now been lifted, but that in his absence Amfortas has never revealed the Grail, and that Titurel has died. Parsifal is overcome with remorse, blaming himself for this state of affairs. Gurnemanz tells him that today is the day of Titurel’s funeral rites, and that Parsifal has a great duty to perform. Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet and Gurnemanz anoints him with water from the Holy Spring, recognizing him as the pure fool, now enlightened by compassion, and as the new King of the Knights of the Grail.

Parsifal looks about and comments on the beauty of the meadow. Gurnemanz explains that today is Good Friday, when all the world is renewed. Parsifal now baptizes the weeping Kundry and all three set off for the castle of the Grail. A short orchestral interlude leads into Scene Two.

Scene 2

Within the castle of the Grail, Amfortas is brought before the Grail shrine itself, and Titurel’s coffin. He cries out to his dead father to offer him rest from his sufferings, and wishes to join him in death ("Mein vater! Hochgesegneter der Helden!") The Knights of Grail passionately urge Amfortas to reveal it to them again but Amfortas, in a frenzy, says he will never again show the Grail, commanding the Knights, instead, to slay him thus ending his suffering and the shame he has brought on the Knighthood. At this moment, Parsifal steps forth and says that only one weapon can heal the wound ("Nur eine Waffe taugt"): with the Spear he touches Amfortas’ side, and both heals and absolves him. He commands the revealing of the Grail. As all present kneel, Kundry, released from her curse, sinks lifeless to the ground as a white dove descends to hover over the head of Parsifal.

Criticism and influence

As Wagner's last opera, Parsifal has been both influential and controversial. The use of Christian symbols in Parsifal (the Grail, the Spear, references to the Redeemer) have sometimes led to it being regarded almost as a religious rite. It should be noted, however, that Wagner never actually refers to Jesus Christ by name in the opera, preferring instead to refer to "The Redeemer". In his essay "Religion and Art" Wagner himself described the use of Christian imagery thus:


Friedrich Nietzsche, who was originally one of Wagner's champions, chose to use Parsifal as the grounds for his breach with Wagner. In "Nietzsche contra Wagner" he wrote: Despite this attack on the subject matter, he also admitted that the music was sublime: "Has Wagner ever written anything better?" (Letter to Peter Gast, 1887). Claude Debussy, who was in later years very critical of Wagner and his influence, called it "one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music". Gustav Mahler, who attended the premiere, stated afterwards: "When I came out of the Festspielhaus, unable to speak a word, I knew that I had experienced supreme greatness and supreme suffering, and that this experience, hallowed and unsullied, would stay with me for the rest of my life". Parsifal was a major source of inspiration for T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land", and also adapted for the screen (in a highly controversial fashion) by director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.

Perceived racism of the libretto

Some writers see in the opera the promotion of racism and anti-semitism suggesting that Parsifal was written in support of the ideas of Arthur de Gobineau who advocated Aryanism. Parsifal is proposed as the "pure-blooded" (ie Aryan) hero who overcomes Klingsor, who is perceived as a Jewish stereotype, particularly since he opposes the quasi-Christian Knights of the Grail. Such claims remain heavily debated, since there is nothing explicit in the libretto to support them, and Cosima Wagner's diaries, which relate in great detail Wagner's thoughts over the last 14 years of his life (including the period covering the composition and first performance of Parsifal) never mention any such intention. Wagner first met Gobineau very briefly in 1876, but he only read Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races in 1880. However, Wagner had completed the libretto for Parsifal by 1877, and the original drafts of the story date back to 1857. Despite this lack of chronology, Gobineau is frequently cited as a major inspiration for Parsifal.

There is no evidence that Parsifal was perceived as racist by its contemporaries; otherwise it would be difficult to understand why the Bayreuth première was directed by the German-Jewish conductor Hermann Levi.

If indeed Parsifal so clearly expressed the concept of Aryan supremacy then it would doubtless have been popular with the Nazi party in 20th Century Germany. In fact, the Nazis placed a de facto ban on performances of Parsifal because of its "pacifist undertones".


Other writers (particularly Bryan Magee) see Parsifal as Wagner's last great espousal of Schopenhaurian philosophy. Parsifal can heal Amfortas and redeem Kundry because he shows compassion, which Schopenhauer saw as the highest form of human morality. Moreover, he displays compassion in the face of enormous sexual temptation (Act 2 scene 3). Once again, Schopenhaurian philosophy suggests that the only escape from the ever-present temptations of human life is through negation of the Will, and overcoming sexual temptation is in particular a strong form of negation of the Will. When viewed in this light, Parsifal, with its emphasis on "Mitleid" (compassion) is a natural follow-on to Tristan und Isolde, where Schopenhauer's influence is perhaps more obvious, with its focus on "Sehnen" (yearning). Indeed, Wagner originally considered including Parsifal as a character in Act 3 of Tristan, but later rejected the idea.

Many music theorists have used Parsifal to explore difficulties in analyzing the chromaticism of late 19th century music. Theorists such as David Lewin and Richard Cohn have explored the importance of certain pitches and harmonic progressions both in structuring and symbolizing the work. The unusual harmonic progressions in the leitmotifs which structure the piece, as well as the heavy chromaticism of Act II, make it a difficult work to parse not only philosophically, but musically.

Listening to Parsifal

This section serves as an introduction to appreciating the music of Parsifal.


A leitmotif is a recurring musical theme associated within a particular piece of music with a particular person, place or idea. Wagner is the composer most often associated with leitmotifs, and Parsifal makes liberal use of them. The opening prelude introduces two important leitmotifs, the Communion theme and the Grail. These two, and Parsifal's own motive, are repeatedly referenced during the course of the opera. Other characters, especially Klingsor, Amfortas, and "The Voice," which sings the Tormotif (Fool's motive), have their own particular leitmotifs. Wagner uses the Dresden amen to represent the Grail, this motif being a sequence of notes he would have known since his childhood in Dresden.

Notable arias and orchestral excerpts

As is common in mature Wagner operas, Parsifal was composed with each act being a continuous block of music ("durchcomponiert"), hence there are no free-standing arias in the work. However a number of orchestral excerpts from the opera were arranged by Wagner himself and remain in the concert repertory. The overture to Act 1 is frequently performed either alone or in conjunction with an arrangement of the "Good Friday" music which accompanies the second half of Act 3 scene 1. Kundry's long solo in Act 2 ("Ich sah das Kind") is occasionally performed in concert, as is Amfortas' lament from Act 1 ("Wehvolles Erbe").


Wiener Staatsoper, Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Donald Runnicles, Vienna, 11 April 2004

Max Von Schillings / State Opera Orchestra, Berlin

Recordings of Parsifal

Parsifal was expressly composed for the stage at Bayreuth and many of the most famous recordings of the opera come from live performances on that stage. In the pre-LP era, Karl Muck conducted excerpts from the opera at Bayreuth which are still considered some of the best performances of the opera on disc (they also contain the only sound evidence of the bells constructed for the work's premiere, which were later melted down by the Nazis during World War II). Hans Knappertsbusch was the conductor most closely associated with Parsifal at Bayreuth in the post-war years, and the performances under his baton in 1951 marked the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival after the Second World War. These historic performances were recorded and are available on the Teldec label in mono sound. Knappertsbusch recorded the opera again for Philips in 1962 in stereo, and this release is often considered to be the classic Parsifal recording. There are also many "unofficial" live recordings from Bayreuth, capturing virtually every Parsifal cast ever conducted by Knappertsbusch.

Amongst the studio recordings, those by Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim (the latter two both conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) have been widely praised. The von Karajan recording was voted "Record of the Year" in the 1981 Gramophone Awards. Also highly regarded is a recording of Parsifal under the baton of Rafael Kubelík originally made for Deutsche Grammophon, now reissued on Arts Archives.

Selected recordings

Year Cast
(Parsifal, Kundry, Gurnemanz,
Amfortas, Klingsor)
Opera House and Orchestra
1951 Wolfgang Windgassen, Martha Mödl,
Ludwig Weber, George London,
Hermann Uhde
Hans Knappertsbusch
Bayreuth Festspielhaus orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Teldec
1962 Jess Thomas, Irene Dalis,
Hans Hotter, George London,
Gustav Neidlinger
Hans Knappertsbusch
Bayreuth Festspielhaus orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Philips
1970 James King, Dame Gwyneth Jones,
Franz Crass, Thomas Stewart,
Sir Donald McIntyre
Pierre Boulez
Bayreuth Festspielhaus orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
1972 René Kollo, Christa Ludwig,
Gottlob Frick, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
Zoltán Kelemen
Georg Solti
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Decca Records
1976 René Kollo, Gisela Schröter,
Ulrik Cold, Theo Adam,
Reid Bunger
Herbert Kegel
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Berlin/VEB Deutsche Schallplatten DDR
Cat: 0013482BC
1980 James King, Yvonne Minton,
Kurt Moll, Bernd Weikl,
Franz Mazura
Rafael Kubelík
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Arts Archives
Peter Hofmann, Dunja Vejzovic,
Kurt Moll, José van Dam,
Siegmund Nimsgern
Herbert von Karajan
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
1981 Reiner Goldberg, Yvonne Minton,
Robert Lloyd, Wolfgang Schoene,
Aage Haugland
Armin Jordan
Monte Carlo Radio Orchestra
Audio CD: Erato
Cat: 2292-45662-2
1987 Peter Hofmann, Waltraud Meier,
Simon Estes, Matti Salminen,
Franz Mazura, Hans Sotin
James Levine
Bayreuth Festspielhaus orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Philips
Cat: 434 616-2
1991 Siegfried Jerusalem, Waltraud Meier,
Jose van Dam, Matthias Holle,
Gunter von Kannen
Daniel Barenboim
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Teldec
1993 Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman,
Kurt Moll, James Morris,
Ekkehard Wlaschiha
James Levine
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
2005 Placido Domingo, Waltraud Meier,
Franz-Josef Selig, Falk Struckmann,
Wolfgang Bankl
Christian Thielemann
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon

Note: "Cat:" is short for catalogue number by the label company.


Strings Woodwind Brass Percussion Offstage Instruments
Violins Piccolo 4 Horns Timpani 6 Trumpets
Violas 3 Flutes 3 Trumpets 2 Harps 6 Trombones
Cellos 3 Oboes 3 Trombones Tenor drum
Double Basses English Horn Contrabass tuba Bells
3 Clarinets Thunder machine
Bass clarinet
3 Bassoons

The bells

For the entrance to the castle of Monsalvat in acts one and three, Wagner scored a repeating four-note theme, C G A E, to be played on bells. The theme is very low, ranging from the C in the bass clef to the E below it, and consequently it is impractical to use tubular bells or church bells. Wagner experimented with several options to get his desired effect, including gongs, metal drums, and a specially-built instrument called the Parsifal bell which was similar to a piano. He settled on the metal drums, which were in use at Bayreuth until 1940, when they were melted down by the Nazis for ammunition.

Modern performances of Parsifal usually use synthesized bells.


  • Beckett, Lucy (1981) Richard Wagner: Parsifal, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29662-5
  • Burbidge, Peter & Sutton, Richard (Eds.) (1979). The Wagner Companion. Faber and Faber Ltd., London. ISBN 0-571-11450-4.
  • Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983) Richard Wagner: his life, his work, his Century. William Collins, ISBN 0-00-216669-0
  • Magee, Bryan (2002). The Tristan Chord. Owl Books, NY. ISBN 0-8050-7189-X. (UK Title: Wagner and Philosophy, Publisher Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN 0-14-029519-4)
  • Melitz, Leo (2001). The Opera Goer's Complete Guide. Best Books Ltd., London. ISBN 0-7222-6262-0.
  • Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1.


External links

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