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Thread: Religion in Wagner's Parsifal: Christian opera, Buddhist opera, both, or neither?

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    Default Religion in Wagner's Parsifal: Christian opera, Buddhist opera, both, or neither?

    There have been a number of threads dealing with Wagner's fascinating final opera, a work unique in the operatic repertoire in its enigmatic nature and in the controversy it arouses. I've decided to start this one in order to set in bold relief an aspect of it which has aroused strong feelings and diverse views since the opera's premiere at Bayreuth in 1882. Conversation about the presence of religion in Parsifal has been under way in this thread,

    The Best Books on Wagner, interview with Michael Tanner

    but is really tangential there. I think the subject deserves a thread of its own, which I hope will prompt people to examine their experience of this great work and perhaps be inspired to investigate it further, or even to discover it for the first time.

    Wagner was strongly influenced by both Christianity and Buddhism in the creation of Parsifal, but he had an idiosyncratic slant on both of these religious traditions. For example, he insisted that Jesus was of Greek rather than Jewish origin, argued (like the Hellenistic Gnostics) that the Old Testament had nothing to do with the New Testament, that the God of Israel was not the same God as the father of Jesus, and that the Ten Commandments did not show the mercy and love of Christian teachings. Apparently he was raised in a rather conventional Christian home, and attend the St. Thomas Lutheran school in Leipzig. His impressions of Christianity were evidently intense; he recalled that as a boy he had contemplated the image of Christ on the cross and "yearned, with ecstatic fervor, to hang upon the Cross in the place of the Saviour." A man of the theater in the making!

    Religious themes - specifically Christian or more broadly mythical - are essential aspects of Wagner's operas, and he had planned operas on both the life of Christ and a Buddhist tale. His mature religious outlook derived partly from the work of German philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who bequeathed to his era a blend of Enlightenment rationalism and idealism, along with Eastern philosophy (writings from which which had recently become more accessible to scholars). Feuerbach's view of religion as a projection of the deepest concerns of humanity, and Schopenhauer's transmission of Buddhist thought, were both definite influences. In his late years, confronted with the racial theories of Count Gobineau, Wagner countered Gobineau's racial suprematism by asserting that only Christianity could harmonize the races of mankind. What, exactly, that would entail is not entirely clear, but given some statements by the composer it's conceivable that it would not necessarily involve belief in a supernatural deity. Nothing about Wagner is simple!

    How much of this, and more, found its way into Parsifal, and how we feel about it, is what I'd like to explore in this thread. I'll begin by looking at evidence in the libretto of a central doctrine of Christian orthodoxy: the Atonement.
    Last edited by Woodduck; May-31-2019 at 23:09.

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    Parsifal is full of references to Christianity. It's story is based on medieval legends about the Holy Grail - the cup from which Christ supposedly drank at the last Supper - and the spear of Longinus which pierced his side at the crucifixion. There are representations onstage of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, and of baptism. These might be no more than the trappings of religion in the absence of references to doctrine and belief. But we do find some of those.

    Salvation contingent on an individual's acceptance of Christ's vicarious atonement, through his death, for human sin, is a central tenet of orthodox Christian belief. There are several passages in the libretto of Parsifal which seem to entail a statement of this doctrine, if not necessarily an advocacy of it. During the temple ceremony, voices from the dome sing,

    As once His blood flowed
    with countless pains
    for the sinful world
    now with joyful heart
    let my blood be shed for
    the great Redeemer.
    His body, that He gave to purge our sin,
    lives in us through His death.

    That seems a pretty clear reference to the doctrine of the atonement, and it implies as well a mystical identification with Christ's sacrifice through an incorporation of his blood and body. I see no contradiction of Christian orthodoxy here (unless one has Protestant reservations about the notion of mystical identification). In the opera's third act, when Parsifal returns to the domain of the Grail after years of wandering, Gurnemanz says to him,

    Among what heathen have you dwelt,
    not to know that today
    is the supremely holy Good Friday?
    Lay down your weapons!
    Do not offend the Lord, who today,
    bereft of all arms, offered His holy blood
    to redeem the sinful world!

    Later in the act, Parsifal baptizes Kundry and says,

    My first office I thus perform:
    Receive this baptism,
    and believe in the Redeemer!

    Finally, Gurnemanz explains Good Friday to Parsifal thus:

    It is the tears of repentant sinners
    that today with holy dew
    besprinkle field and meadow:
    thus they make them flourish.
    Now all creation rejoices
    at the Saviour's sign of love
    and dedicates to Him its prayer.
    No more can it see Him Himself on the Cross;
    it looks up to man redeemed,
    who feels freed from the burden of sin and terror,
    made clean and whole through God's loving sacrifice.
    Now grasses and flowers in the meadow know
    that today the foot of man will not tread them down,
    but that, as God with divine patience
    pitied him and suffered for him,
    so man today in devout grace
    will spare them with soft tread.
    Thus all creation gives thanks,
    all that here blooms and soon fades,
    now that nature, absolved from sin,
    today gains its day of innocence.

    It's hard to imagine anyone looking at these passages and failing to conclude that subscribing to the Christian belief in the redemptive power of Christ's death is, at the very least, a necessary qualification for being a knight of the Holy Grail. But we can't assume too much here: it's still reasonable to ask in what sense Parsifal can be considered a "Christian opera." We can ask: to what extent are Christian doctrine and Christian religious tradition expressed through the action of the opera? To what extent is the work intended to advance Christian ideas or ideals? Is Parsifal a story with a specifically Christian message, is it merely a story involving characters who happen to be Christian, or might it even be, as a number of recent theatrical presentations seem inclined to make it, a critique and possibly a rejection of Christianity? And, not least in importance - since Parsifal is a work of music, and since Wagner was emphatic that it was primarily through the music that his works were ultimately to be understood - what does the music tell us?
    Last edited by Woodduck; May-31-2019 at 22:19.

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    Ooooooh!

    I will need to study the work further before commenting, but this is a great idea for a thread.

    N.

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    It’s great there’s finally a thread for this topic (if someone is ever going to look for some information on books about Wagner, he/she is going to find something pretty different from what one was looking for from the previous thread ).
    Last edited by annaw; May-31-2019 at 23:04.

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    I grew up Christian (conservative Protestant), and didn't know Parsifal until later, but I would have consider it heretical; a parody of Christianity. I know that others have come to a very different conclusion, including seeing it as a deeply Christian opera. I have never seen it that way.

    I see it as an Arthurian legend, told within that context. It depicts a religious brotherhood, but doesn't necessarily advocate for it. (Similarly, the Ring depicts Odinism, rather than pushes it). And though there are many references to Christianity (though much of it extra-Biblical) it does not include the name Jesus Christ (which certainly would have been a problem for a younger me). I think accurately depicting that context was important to Wagner; but if he wanted it to specifically/only be about Christianity (as Christianity) he could have made that explicit.

    I also think of what happens in Parsifal, and what it means, and it doesn't strike me as particularly Christian in nature. Now Lohengrin I can see as an allegory of the relationship of humans to God, and there's a lot going on with messaging in Tannhäuser, but Parsifal seems to be somewhere else.

    Or at least these are my initial feelings. I am sure it will be interesting re-examining the opera (and my feelings about it) in this thread!

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    I should note that I had not read the Books thread, and upon skimming, some of the things I mention were indeed brought up there.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mountmccabe View Post
    I grew up Christian (conservative Protestant), and didn't know Parsifal until later, but I would have consider it heretical; a parody of Christianity. I know that others have come to a very different conclusion, including seeing it as a deeply Christian opera. I have never seen it that way.

    I see it as an Arthurian legend, told within that context. It depicts a religious brotherhood, but doesn't necessarily advocate for it. (Similarly, the Ring depicts Odinism, rather than pushes it). And though there are many references to Christianity (though much of it extra-Biblical) it does not include the name Jesus Christ (which certainly would have been a problem for a younger me). I think accurately depicting that context was important to Wagner; but if he wanted it to specifically/only be about Christianity (as Christianity) he could have made that explicit.
    Interesting, mountmccabe. In essence I agree.

    I also grew up attending a conservative Protestant church (the poor souls even elected me what was called "young people's president," a position I never could figure out, although I noticed that there was no Grail to wave over the kneeling congregation). I discovered Parsifal at about age 15, and it did a major number on me: it reduced me to a sort of blissful zombie the first time I heard it complete (the old 1951 Bayreuth recording, the only one available at the time). The interesting thing is, re this thread, that I couldn't connect it with what they were talking about in church at all; it seemed not heretical but simply unrelated. The only thing that did seem related was some of the music, which, fascinatingly, I felt was more powerfully spiritual, more profoundly searching of my soul in its blend of pain and exaltation - and thus more evocative of the Christian struggle with sin and redemption - than any music I had ever associated with a religious service. I remember playing for my mother the "transformation music" from Act 1 and telling her that it expressed real spirituality, while the hymns we sang in church didn't. I don't recall what she said; it would have been something kind, although I doubt that she agreed with me deep down, if she understood at all. But you know what? I still think, deep down, after all these years, that I was right. Parsifal may not be a "Christian work" in any strict sense, but its music seems to me to distill the religious agon of Western man, in all the pain and glory of his acutely felt individuation, better than any music I know. It could only be the product of a Christian culture, and I'm reminded that Wieland Wagner said that his grandfather's works were "above all Christian." That is a fascinating claim, isn't it?
    Last edited by Woodduck; Jun-01-2019 at 03:47.

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    Here's my hot take; all of Wagner's opera's are over the top monuments to his massive ego. If he used Christian themes they were just a means to an end. Kind of like how Nietzsche named his autobiography "Ecce Homo" comparing himself to Christ as if he was a new messiah. The late 19th, early 20th centuries were sure ripe with egomaniacs.

    Christian opera? Buddhist opera? No -- it's a Wagner opera. It's religious in it's own way.
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    Quote Originally Posted by arnerich View Post
    Here's my hot take; all of Wagner's opera's are over the top monuments to his massive ego. If he used Christian themes they were just a means to an end. Kind of like how Nietzsche named his autobiography "Ecce Homo" comparing himself to Christ as if he was a new messiah. The late 19th, early 20th centuries were sure ripe with egomaniacs.

    Christian opera? Buddhist opera? No -- it's a Wagner opera. It's religious in it's own way.
    Taking your post seriously for a moment (of course I'm joking), do you think the creation of great art can proceed from a desire to erect a "monument to one's ego"? Have you ever engaged in intense creative activity and noticed what happens when you begin thinking of yourself rather than the work? Do you know anything about Wagner's creative process or goals?

    There are certain posts which are clearly monuments to the egos of the posters. One giveaway is that the poster shows no sign of being either knowledgeable about or interested in the subject.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Jun-01-2019 at 07:38.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Do you know anything about Wagner's creative process in particular?
    Actually I've read about his creative process, especially during Parsifal.

    "Certain schools of recent Wagner scholarship have focused on the composer's erotics. Joachim Köchler, author of Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, conveys, according to Spencer, "a lively portrait of a cross-dressing composer who needed an aura of femininity to stimulate his senses".

    The richly erotic texture of operas such as Parsifal, Wagner's final opera, apparently required the creation of very specific conditions to provoke the composer's inspiration. Pink satins and rose-scented cushions were apparently de rigueur, and he would have his bath, positioned below his work room, filled with ungents so the perfume would rise up and fill his nostrils. Parsifal is a work that wrestles with carnality and the pain caused by sexual desire. The second act involves the titular hero striving to overcome the sexual allure of the Flower Maidens who attempt to seduce him in a magical, scent-filled garden. "He clearly needed this very refined and sensual, almost fetishistic atmosphere," said Mr Millington.

    Scholars have also connected his taste for embroidered dressing gowns and floral perfumes with the fragrances described in the Venusberg - a grotto where sirens, naiads, nymphs and bacchantes indulge in orgiastic pleasures - in the opera Tannhäuser; and with the flowery banks described in the great love duet in the opera Tristan und Isolde."
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    There are certain posts which are clearly monuments to the egos of the posters. One giveaway is that the poster shows no sign of being either knowledgeable about or interested in the subject.
    To this point I'll admit that you're right. I'm not really that interested in the subject. I'll leave the topic alone for those who are serious about Wagner. Cheers.
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    Quote Originally Posted by mountmccabe View Post
    I grew up Christian (conservative Protestant), and didn't know Parsifal until later, but I would have consider it heretical; a parody of Christianity. I know that others have come to a very different conclusion, including seeing it as a deeply Christian opera. I have never seen it that way.

    I see it as an Arthurian legend, told within that context. It depicts a religious brotherhood, but doesn't necessarily advocate for it. (Similarly, the Ring depicts Odinism, rather than pushes it). And though there are many references to Christianity (though much of it extra-Biblical) it does not include the name Jesus Christ (which certainly would have been a problem for a younger me). I think accurately depicting that context was important to Wagner; but if he wanted it to specifically/only be about Christianity (as Christianity) he could have made that explicit.

    I also think of what happens in Parsifal, and what it means, and it doesn't strike me as particularly Christian in nature. Now Lohengrin I can see as an allegory of the relationship of humans to God, and there's a lot going on with messaging in Tannhäuser, but Parsifal seems to be somewhere else.

    Or at least these are my initial feelings. I am sure it will be interesting re-examining the opera (and my feelings about it) in this thread!
    I really like you brought up Lohengrin here. I agree that Lohengrin seems to me quite Christian/Biblical opera. The Christian themes are maybe easier to notice because Lohengrin’s plot is not as difficult as Parsifal’s seems to be. Also, in Lohengrin Wagner doesn’t deal with salvation in Christian sense the same way he does in Parsifal and thanks to that he avoids many possible contradictions with the Bible. I actually really like Lohengrin!
    Last edited by annaw; Jun-01-2019 at 09:21.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Wagner was strongly influenced by both Christianity and Buddhism in the creation of Parsifal
    and why not? Christianity does take from Buddhism among other things.

    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    he insisted that Jesus was of Greek rather than Jewish origin
    well, Christ was certainly into Greek philosophy, but i say he was a Roman.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Zhdanov View Post
    and why not? Christianity does take from Buddhism among other things.



    well, Christ was certainly into Greek philosophy, but i say he was a Roman.
    Now I've heard everything!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Zhdanov View Post
    and why not? Christianity does take from Buddhism among other things.


    well, Christ was certainly into Greek philosophy, but i say he was a Roman.
    And what heresy is this, then?

    Are you sure you aren't confusing Jesus with Brian, in the Life Of Brian?

    You'll be telling us next he was a Wo-Man (can't pronunce the "R" in "Roman"), and that his main follower was Biggus Dickus.

    Nah, Christianity is firmly rooted in Judaism. Bhuddhism is way off.
    Last edited by Partita; Jun-01-2019 at 12:28.

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