"Parsifal" At Baireuth

By M. G. Van Rensselaer



Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.0

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"Parsifal" At Baireuth
By M. G. Van Rensselaer

Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Volume 66 Issue 394
Pages 540-556
Published in 1883

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

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This title contains 9710 words.
Estimated reading time between 28 and 49 minutes.

Page numbers are indicated using square brackets, like [62], while footnotes are indicated using parenthesis, like (1).

"Parsifal" At Baireuth

by M. G. Van Rensselaer

Parsifal at Baireuth

THIS our nineteenth century is commonly esteemed a prosaic, a material, an unimaginative age. Compared with foregoing periods, it is called blind to beauty and careless of ideals. Its amusements are frivolous or sordid, and what mental activity it spares from the making of money it devotes to science and not to art. These strictures—of which Mr. Ruskin has been the golden-tongued but somewhat narrow-visioned preacher—have certainly much truth to back them. But leaving out of sight many minor facts which tell in the contrary direction, there is one great opposing fact of such importance that by itself alone it calls for at least a partial reversal of the verdict we pass upon ourselves as children of a non-artistic time. This fact is the place that music—most unpractical, most unprosaic, most ideal of the arts—has held in nineteenth-century life.

Each epoch of artistic production has its own peculiar form of art, most widely practiced and beloved because best able to express the ideals and the aspirations of the men by whom it works. Poetry has had more periods of flowering than any other art because it is more versatile than any. But we can point with decision to the years between Pericles and Attalus as the greatest epoch of the sculptor's art, and to the fifteenth and its two succeeding centuries as the greatest age of painting. And in quite the same way—with, if anything, even greater strictness of limitation—we can point to our own as the age of music. Before the days of Gluck and Haydn music was in a child-like, though not a childish, state of development. And it may seem doubtful to-day whether there will come men after Beethoven and Wagner to further develop either symphonic or dramatic composition. It is these facts which give to the recent festivals at Baireuth a significance and an interest beyond that which they possess as mere prominent contemporary happenings or mere tributes of admiration to a popular living artist. It is not a non-artistic world which has seen the [541] full growth from small beginnings of both symphonic and dramatic forms in music. It is not a non-artistic generation which has gone by thousands to Wagner's isolated stage. Music is the æsthetic language in which our time has spoken, and the Baireuth festivals and the dramas there presented will, it is very sure, be looked back upon by future generations as the completest and most characteristic avatars of art our century can show. And this is what must make them interesting not only to musicians, but to every student of intellectual developments.

The oft-told tale of Wagner's life—that tale of early neglect, of following fierce opposal, of bitter struggle and still-existing cavil—need not be here repeated. But the battle is practically over, in Germany at least. Each year stragglers from the defeated camp come over by hundreds to the worship of the novel art, and each year its echoes are spreading more widely beyond the borders of its fatherland. But a few years back it was called very scornfully of the future. It is a very present thing to-day. Every young musician is to some extent Wagner's scholar. The people are thrilled by and respond to his music as they do to that of no other man. It is clearer, more easily comprehended, more germane to the public mind and sentiment, than the far simpler music of his predecessors. Older men have had to study it before comprehending and admiring. But the young generation thinks and feels and sees with Wagner by instinct and not by effort. And there could be, I think, no surer proof that his art is the natural, direct, unforced expression of the æsthetic feeling of his time and race—not a willful eccentricity, an abnormal development, attractive by its novelty, but destined to speedily decline and leave no trace behind.

It was Wagner's outspoken conviction from the very first that his work would never be quite understood till he should have a theatre under his own control, and built according to his own ideas. The determination to have such a stage was strong in days when the world thought him overambitious in hoping even to see his works on the repertories of existing houses. What the achievement of his wish implies is realized only if one knows the opposition of every kind—the rage, the scorn, the laughter, the abuse—with which he then contended. When, after a score of years, his dream seemed likely to be realized, many wondered that he should select a remote, neglected town like Baireuth for a still doubtful enterprise. But Wagner never showed his judgment and his artistic instinct with more clearness. Neither a smaller nor a larger, more important place would have done half so well. Baireuth seems as if designed by history for his purpose: in a central situation, yet off the great highway of casual travel; large enough to accommodate his audiences, and stately enough to give his art a fitting]y artistic background, yet small enough and dead enough to leave him and his theatre as the paramount, nay, the exclusive, sources of attraction. There is nothing to offend the taste in Baireuth as the home of a great and splendid art; but there is nothing to compete with that art, to make us forget why we are there, to interfere, as the Master himself would say, with the Stimmung appropriate to our pilgrimage.

Baireuth is a city of some 20,000 inhabitants, which, though much older of course, received its present shape in the last century. When the sister of Frederick the Great married tIme Margrave of Baireuth, the town rose to its greatest importance, and from that period date its chief features of interest—the long, rather solemn-looking "New Palace," most of the public buildings, the once exquisite but now deserted and shabby little rococo theatre, and the summer chateaux outside the gates—the Eremitage and the Phantasie—which, set in their beautiful gardens, are among the most fantastically love]y eighteenth-century creations. But Baireuth's importance was soon upon the wane, and for many years it had been to all intents and purposes shelved and forgotten by the world, when Wagner came to make it the most living centre of the most living art we have. Naturally he is the patron saint of the modern Baireuther, whose civic pride and national importance and private revenues he has so greatly helped. Here is not only the Master's theatre, but his home, built for him by the King of Bavaria, and standing in a pleasant garden almost in the centre of the town. Here he lives during the summer months, not, it will be believed, in the seclusion of strictly local circles, but constantly surrounded by a host of friends and disciples, and visited by troops of curious pilgrims. In the winter he goes [542] southward, of late to Sicily or Venice. But his head-quarters are at Baireuth—Munich, the scene of his first complete success, haying been almost entirely abandoned. His house is built in the Renaissance style, square, and with little ornament save a large sgraffito painting by Robert Krausse over the doorway, surmounted in its turn by the name of the villa, Wahnfried. This, being freely translated, means "peace from illusions" or "aberrations," and typifies the rest which Wagner found when settled at last in his own home near his own theatre, his battles over and his dreams all realized. The painting typifies his art. In the centre is the figure of Wotan, who personifies German Mythology; on one side is Greek Tragedy, and on the other, Music. To this group looks up Siegfried as typical of the "art of the future," which has resulted from a mingling of the old tragic art, of music and of the national mythology. Everything connected with Wagner's life in Baireuth has been made to suggest his work in a degree which seems odd to people less naïve than these artistic Germans more keenly alive to the ridiculous, and less blindly wrapped in their enthusiasms. His dogs are called Wotan, Freia, and Fricka. His children, even, are named for his creations, the youngest being Siegfried.

Wagner's home at Baireuth

If ever a man is crushed beneath the weight of a doubly suggestive patronymic, it may well be young Siegfried Wagner when he shall come to man's estate! In his garden, which stretches back of the house to the little public park, the Master may be seen taking his morning constitutional in velvet dressing-gown and cap, and passing up and down before the tomb, lettered with his own name, which he has already built. We are reminded of Schliemann's home in Athens, with its Homeric frescoes, and the children named from heroes of the Iliad.

Entering the house one finds a large hall running up to the roof, with a painted frieze showing scenes from the Nibelungen. Out of this hall opens a great square room containing the piano and many rows of book-shelves, filled for the greater part with works of Eastern philosophy, and with volumes relating to the old German themes that Wagner has adapted to new purposes. In a bay-window near the piano is the table at which he sits when working. Here during the summer season live Wagner and his strangely constituted family—his wife, who is the daughter of the Abbé Liszt, all her children by her divorced husband Hans von Bülow, and Wagner's own younger brood. Bülow's children seem to adore the Master as much as do his own, and to glory in his fame as though [543] they had a legal share therein. His wife—"Cosima," as she is familiarly, even affectionately, called on every hand—is a tall, striking-looking woman of Italian type, with a fine face showing remains of great youthful beauty. I have rarely seen a more interesting and impressive looking woman; and while many who admire Wagner as an artist dislike him as a man, there seems to be but a single feeling of admiration for his wife. She is not only extremely clever, extremely well educated, and extremely artistic, but is endowed with social charm and business ability to a degree that has made her Wagner's right hand since the day of their union. Many believe, indeed, that without her energy and tact the passionate and rather intractable artist would not so soon have seen the realization of his dreams. Wagner excused himself for his elopement, it is said, by declaring that he could not do his work without her. And the same reason seems to hold her excused in the eyes of her acquaintances. Liszt, who still retains his early enthusiasm for the artist and affection for the man in spite of all domestic vagaries, is a frequent visitor at Wahnfried. He is still a striking and venerable figure, though his former stately gallantry of manner has got a touch of senile unctuousness with advancing years. His long silvery hair was conspicuous in Wagner's loge the night I heard Parsifal, and his appearance was watched for with almost as much eagerness as that of the man who was once his protégé, but is now called Master by Liszt as well as others.

Wagner himself, as has been often told, is short and rather angular, though powerful, in build, scarcely passing by half a head the shoulder of his stately wife. His head is too large for his body, and his features are roughly and strongly irregular. About the mouth there is a hint of weakness—the weakness of a sensuous, passionate, artistic temperament. But in the chin we see all the indomitable strength of will that has fought his long battle and won his great success. And the splendid brow and massive head are a fitting home for the most versatile and majestic artistic intellect of our time. Owing to his short stature, and want of grace or repose of manner and elegance of dress, Wagner may disappoint one at first sight. But his face is, I think, in wonderful accord with his character and genius.

Wagner is hospitality itself when the Baireuth season is in progress, when he is resting from all labor save that attendant upon the production of his work. Every night his house is crowded with a motley assemblage of dignitaries, social, political, literary, and musical, and with strangers of all sorts and conditions from every part of Germany and every country of the world. There is often music to be heard. There is always lively talk of the most variegated kind. The absence of formality, the effusive gayety of the Master, and the kindly dignity of his wife put the most insignificant at ease. It is never in the least difficult to get an invitation, provided one is an enthusiastic Wagnerite, or even an earnest investigator—and does not the mere fact of his presence in Baireuth imply that a visitor is the one thing or the other?

Leaving the town we drive for a mile or more through pleasant suburbs to the low elevation which is crowned by Wagner's theatre. The slope of the little hill is prettily planted, and a wide drive sweeps up to the doors on either side the building. Across the drive to the right as we approach is a restanrant, well appointed, and eagerly patronized during the long waits between the acts. The performance of Parsifal began at four in the afternoon and lasted till a quarter to ten, but with two intermissions of nearly an hour each. During these pauses we walked about in the garden or in the great portico of the theatre, or renewed our strength in the restaurant until summoned to our seats by the sound of a couple of trumpets giving the notes of the "Grail Motive." Thus the strain, both physical and emotional, of the long, intense performance is reduced to a minimum, and one is as fresh and appreciative for the third act as for the first. (1)


The theatre itself is plainly built both inside and out. It was an experiment, and money was none too plenty—so not a penny was expended on mere ornament. Passing through one of the many doors—through which the crowded house can be emptied in less than two minutes—we see a vast rectangular room with rows of seats rising so steeply toward the back that each spectator looks well over the heads of those in front. The time-honored amphitheatre hardly suggests itself, however, for the rows are but slightly curved. The first is just the width of the proscenium, from which it is separated by the hood that conceals the orchestra in its lowered space. The seats then expand gradually toward the rear of the house, where a long curtained loge, or balcony, receives the Master and his friends. The triangular space left on either side between the benches and the wall is filled in with great Corinthian columns rising quite to the plain flat ceiling. These columns are doubled and tripled as the unoccupied space grows wider toward the front, and their pedestals increase in height as the floor declines so that their bases are always on a level. Between these pedestals are the many exits. If one has a side seat the eye is led along a contracting vista of columns until it reaches those which immediately flank the stage, and thus the effect as of a picture in its frame is never lost or interfered with. There are no proscenium boxes, no visible foot-lights or orchestra, no prompter's hood. My readers, accustomed only to the distracting architectural accessories of an ordinary theatre, will hardly conceive, perhaps, how greatly the effect of any scene is enhanced by its thus being, so to speak, the only thing in sight. And in a house so built no one can possibly do aught but look and listen to what is on the boards. It is not a show-place for the audience, but a darkened hall whither one has come for the drama's sake alone. The concealment of the orchestra is an equally fortunate arrangement. The power of the music is increased by its thus seeming the work of invisible agents instead of fiddling, piping, puffing gentlemen in non-dramatic garb. And the whole volume of sound comes to the ear with far more unity and precision of effect.

When a full rehearsal is in progress, Wagner takes his seat in the front row of the auditorium, just behind and above the Capellmeister, with whom he can communicate through an opening in the hood that conceals the players. Around him will be his wife and a group of musicians noting down, for future use in their various arrangements of the work, all the criticisms and directions which fall from the Master's lips. Every detail of the performance, dramatic as well as musical, is followed by his keen eye and directed and corrected by his sure artistic taste. The greatest singers are his ever-docile pupils, and their most highly prized reward is a word of praise from Wagner's lips. And whatever he may be with other men to his artists Wagner never fails in gratitude or in its public acknowledgment.

Wagner's title to have originated an entirely new development in lyrico-dramatic art does not rest upon his music in itself considered. He has been a musical innovator to an extraordinary degree, a creator of novel expressional methods without the aid of which he could not have put his novel aims in shape. But he has been an innovator, a creator, in a wider sense than this. He is the first operatic composer who is above all things a dramatist in the highest, noblest meaning of the word. His point of departure is not the music, but the kernel of the drama properly so called—the main idea he wishes to express. (2) He conceives this with extreme clearness, and elaborates it with perfect singleness of aim by every means of expression at his command—words, music, action, and stage settings. No slightest musical ornament or motive, no dramatic situation or accessory, is planned or allowed without strict reference thereto. With a greater variety of expressional means than have ever before been used by any dramatist, Wagner secures a strength and unity of effect unapproached on the modern stage. And his conceptions, moreover, are of so large and deep a sort as to [545] put him in the very first rank among poetical creators. It is well known that he writes his own text-books. But it is not to their verbal structure that I would point to confirm these words. He conceives as do the greatest dramatic writers. But lie elaborates, as I have said, in a novel fashion of his own not with words only, but with words and music both. Therefore we find in his printed texts a finely impressive plan, admirably calculated developments and situations, clearly defined personalities, with only just so much dialogue, and dialogue of only just such a sort, as will give an outline of his intentions. The filling up which other poets do with words, he does with the plastic, thrilling, marvellously expressive language of sweet tones.


Planning for the musical drama, Wagner plans in the same broad way as did the Greeks when writing for their equally artificial mode of presentation—for the open-air theatre, the chorus, mask, and buskin. He simplifies and solidifies his story much more than do other modern dramatists, gives us but a few important figures, and avoids all sub-plots and minor threads of interest. And he does something still more important and still more Greek than this. Speaking through music chiefly, he must speak to the feelings, and not to the reasoning powers. So he must speak broadly, strongly, and plainly, and only of things which may be expressed by emotional appeals without the aid of intellectual definitions and subtle details. Therefore he avoids all even comparatively petty [546] themes, all tales of transient interest or importance, all characters of local shape or flavor. He falls back upon the fundamental passions of humanity; deals with perennial facts and ever-living situations; typifies in his characters the main forces and the leading impulses, desires, and fatalities of our race. Such a broadly human theme is the struggle in man's heart between impure love and pure, which he has painted in Tannhäuser. Such is the lesson that innocence and love make shipwreck if unsupported by faith and trust, which he has taught in Lohengrin. For certain artistic reasons connected with scenery and costume, and with the advisability on the lyric stage of avoiding too close a comparison with every-day life, he puts his creations in the distant i)ast, and sometimes outside of the natural world of prose. But not for these reasons only. Dealing with the realms of fable, legend, and mythology, he has at command the poetic atmosphere, the larger psychical types, the primitive passions, the variety of circumstance and catastrophe, his aims demand. He gets outside of conventionalities, of trivialities, of lesser laws—of all bounds and limitations save such as art prescribes. Yet with all this his characters are not unsubstantial myths, or typical abstractions, or puppets of any sort, allegorical or other. With all their fabulous environment, their superhuman stature, they are men and women like ourselves only painted on a larger, bolder scale, to suit the large, bold nature of his art. They are warm with life and passion—not so much types as incarnations of good or evil; men of old time or of no time, but distinctly individualized kinsmen of our own, governed by the same impulses and swayed by the same influences that sway and govern us. To thus make a work of art broadly human instead of local or transient in its theme to infuse it with a deep and vital meaning below its palpable story, and yet keep the outer forum living, coherent, and artistically self-sufficient, is the noblest thing in art. And Wagner's power in this respect quite justifies the introduction of the figure of Greek Tragedy in the fresco above his door.


To his grasp of deep tragic motives Wagner adds a wonderfully dramatic instinct for situation, an instinct unparalleled, it has often been said with truth, since [547] Shakspeare's day. Much more is left to be explained and emphasized by action than is usual on the contemporary stage, whether lyrical or not. Of course his demands upon his singers are proportionately great. Some of the finest pieces of acting I have ever seen have been in Wagner's dramas, though they differed from other acting as his text differs from the text of others. Lyric acting must be defined with larger, stronger toucbes, must rise and fall with the broad, deep waves of musical emotion—not be subtly modulated and delicately expressed as in the spoken drama to suit the delicate, crowding suggestions of a poet's words. The art of Bernhardt or of Got would be as out of place on Wagner's stage as the art of Niemann or Materna at the Théâtre Français. But each style is right in its own place, and this new lyrico-dramatic style, heroic in mood, with its large methods of interpretation, was almost unknown before Wagner's day. It is a creation of his own, or, rather, a complementary art which has sprung up in response to the demands of his.

Parsifal is of especial importance among Wagner's dramas, because while the latest in time, it is also the deepest in theme and the completest in execution, showing his musical methods in their highest development and his intellectual force in its greatest strength. In it we have a play typical not only of some of the most fundamental passions of humanity, but of some of the deadliest and divinest. Its music is more complicated yet more consistent, its symbolism more important and more clearly shown. In it Wagner approaches as near to allegory as is possible in work which is to keep its artistic balance and perfection.

For the crude material of the play he went, as so often before, to the old German epics, thus getting his wide scope and his supernatural machinery, while keeping his ideas and personages akin to the natures and the feelings of his countrymen of to-day. The legend of the Holy Grail (3) —the vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea received the blood of Christ, and which was afterward put by heavenly messengers under the guard of a knightly company, who drew from it supernatural strength with which to subdue the enemies of right—was a property common to all Christendom long before the time of Eschenbach. But though it was thus common property, and though the scene of the story is still laid, indeed, in Spain and not in Germany, it was the version of Wolfram von Esehenbach, written in the thirteenth century, which gave it permanent shape and life, imbuing it at the same time with truly Teutonic feeling, and incorporating it with the hereditary treasures of German poetry. Of course Wagner has greatly altered the story to suit his dramatic ends. As ever, he has simplified it, changed and deepened its meaning, and divested it of all temporary or local sources of interest. It is no longer a mediæval romance—it is a purely ideal drama. It is no longer a legend of the fight of the Christian against the Turk, but a symbol of the ever-renewing conflict between purity and evil. The story as Wagner makes it is as follows: (4)

The sanctuary of the Grail and the home of its knights is at Monsalvat, in Spain. Their old king, Titurel, worn out with age and battles, has given over his headship to his son Amfortas, but still exists, kept alive by the supernatural strength conferred whenever the Grail is solemnly unveiled. On the hill opposite Monsalvat stands the castle of the enchanter Klingsor, who, having once sought admittance to the holy brotherhood, and having been rejected for his wickedness is now vowed to its destruction. His garden is filled with sirens (the flower-maidens of the play), but his chief dependence is upon Kundry, whose extraordinary character will be explained a little further on. Amfortas had, before the drama opens, heen seduced by her wiles, and losing his innocence, had lost to Klingsor the invincible holy spear—the spear which had pierced the side of Christ, and which, togetherwith [548] the Grail itself, was the source of the brotherhood's supernatural power. Amfortas was wounded in the side by the spear, and his wound can be healed only by a touch from the same weapon; but the weapon can only be recovered, according to a holy oracle, by a "spotless fool, wise through sympathy"—that is, by some one who knows not of Amfortas's sin and need, but who perceives them when himself tempted in the same way, and resisting the temptation. Parsifal is the destined savior, and the play begins when his advent is at hand.


As the curtain rises on the first act we see a broad woodland glade with a lake beyond. At the foot of a great tree in the centre of the scene are two sleeping pages, who, as the "Morning Call" sounds from distant trumpets, are awakened by Gurnemanz, one of the elder knights, and the special friend of the young king. He bids them pray for the king, who is approaching for his morning bath in the lake. Then follow short colloquies with the boys and with two knights who precede the king, then, with a burst of wild accompanying music, Kundry comes upon the scene. This figure has been crystallized by Wagner from multitude of varying legends which represent her under different forms but always as a sort of female Wandering Jew. According to one old tale she is the daughter of Herodias, cursed for having laughed when the head of the Baptist lay before her, condemned to roam forever, to forever laugh when she may most wish to weep, and to be evil always though struggling to be good. Wagner, to insure greater force, makes her a woman who has laughed at Christ upon the cross. Condemned to evil, she is yet not entirely lost. for in her better moods she mourns the past and struggles blindly for redemption. But whenever she falls asleep she is in Khingsor's power, and obliged afterward to do as he commands. In her desire to break her bondage she has entered the service of the Grail as a wild, outcast, almost unacknowledged servant of its knights, who are far from recognizing in her repulsive form the fair enchantress she becomes in Klingsor's hands, and the corrupter of their king. Now as she enters with a mad rush, it is to bring the king a healing balsam that she and her enchanted horse have sought in far Arabia. Giving it to Gurnemanz, she falls exhausted at the foot of a great rock just as the long train of knights appear with the litter of Amfortas in their midst. This is set down while Amfortas speaks with Gurnemanz, who gives him Kundry's offering. Here the scene on the Baireuth stage was one of exceeding beauty. All the many knights and pages, including the picturesque figure of the suffering, pallid, youthful king himself, were costumed in the same colors—in grayish-blue gowns and long cloaks of a dull coral red. The grouping was extremely artistic as all clustered around the king, lamenting his sorrow and reciting the prophecy about his savior. Then the cortége moves again, and the king is carried to his bath. Gurnemanz remains behind with the two pages, to whom, in a long recitative, he pleads toleration for the savage but well-meaning Kundry; and then, in answer to [549] their questions, recounts the story of the past and of Amfortas's sin and penitence. As he again repeats the prophecy a wild clamor breaks in from outside. A wounded swan floats across the stage, and the startled pages drag in the boyish Parsifal, its slayer. He is reproacbed by Gurnemanz for killing the sacred, innocent bird within these holy precincts. But he knows nothing of what he has done, being a wild lad, nurtured in the forest by his mother, whom he left to follow a passing troop of knights. Gurnemanz's words awake his concience. He hreaks his bow with childish petulance and throws away his arrows. Then Gurnemanz questions him as to name and origin, but he replies, "I know not," to almost everything, only telling that his mothers name is Herzeleid. Kundry rises from her apparent stupor and tells him his mother is dead. At first the boy attacks her with childish fury, then falls back, half fainting with emotion while Kundry, her savage spirit struggling with her desire to "serve" sullenly brings water to restore him. Then, overcome with fatigue, she sinks unwillingly, as fighting against her fate, into a deep sleep upon the ground, and thus subjects herself, as we shall see, once more to Klingsor's power. Now the cortége of the king again approaches, returning from the bath, and crosses the stage on its way to Monsalvat. Gurnemanz tells the wondering Parsifal that the sacred fast is about to occur, and bids him come, saying, "Thou art pure; to thee too will the Grail give strength." For, seeing the boys innocence, he hopes he may be the promised savior.


Now Gurnemanz and Parsifal with slow- steps appear to advance through the wood, but in reality it is the scenery which passes by, while they, moving amid its moving forms, are now in plain sight and now hidden behind rock or tree. It is a bold experiment in scenic art, and one that could not often be repeated. Indeed, Wagner seems to have felt as much; for when the same incident occurs again, in the third act, the curtains are kept closed, and only a repetition of the accompanying music reminds us of what we have seen before. But for once the innovation was worth making, as by its means we felt the same impressions that are supposed to have worked on Parsifal himself. The illusion was almost complete, and the scenery both beautiful and capitally imagined to reveal tbe supernatural character of Monsalvat. First the great green trees were replaced by rougher and more tangled shapes; then they assumed almost a rocky form; then came great contorted masses of rock and stone, suggesting columns and foundations; and then the base of the castle itself—all by gradual and not by sudden alterations. Then unexpectedly the walls burst open, and we saw the interior of a beautiful great hall, with Gurnemanz and Parsifal standing near the front of the scene. Here they remain while the long processions enter, the former bidding the boy watch with all attention all that he shall see. This interior of Monsalvat is the most splendid and artistic I have ever [550] seen upon the stage.


The Hispano-Moresque architecture is well conceived, and carried out with accurate beauty of line and color. In the front of the stage is a large vaulted space, and beyond it, in the centre, is a great circular open colonnade, supporting a galleried dome, which rises far out of view, and from which falls the light. On either side several long vaulted corridors run back, not in pictured but in actual far perspective. Within the columns and beneath the dome are semicircular tables prepared for the knights, a wide opening in front giving them admittance thereto, and to the altar of the Grail, which stands in the middle, and behind it the raised seat for the king. Troops of pages and children cross the scene from either side, and pass out of sight in different directions to take their places in the dome, whence their choruses shall sound. They too are all clothed in the colors of the Grail. Then the knights enter through the long passages from tbe back, with solemn tread and chant. Then a band of pages come carrying Amfortas on his litter, and preceded by others who bear the Grail in its shrine, and the great urns and baskets with the bread and wine that the glory of the Grail is to endow with supernatural strength. The king is lifted to his couch, and the Grail placed upon the altar, while the pages group themselves and their burdens on its steps. The singular beauty and impressiveness of this scene—so finely composed, so richly and harmoniously colored, so solemnly portrayed, and accompanied by music of such ravishing sweetness and such holiness of temper—can hardly be imagined by those who only know the ordinary spectacles of the ordinary stage. It seemed no spectacle at all, but an actual, deeply solemn scene. The spectator held his breath in awe, as did the bewildered Parsifal, allowed to gaze on mysteriously impressive rites. The knights place themselves at the tables, last of all Gurnemanz, after he has vainly motioned to a seat beside him the unheeding boy, who, until the whole ceremony is completed, stands quite still in the same spot, as though lost to all consciousness of self. Then we hear a voice from the invisible Titurel demanding the unveiling of the Grail, which shall renew his life. Amfortas breaks into agonized protests, telling of his sin, his suffering, his remorse, and his unworthiness to touch the sacred vessel. The children's voices from the dome repeat in sweet soprano notes the prophecy which promises him release and pardon. The knights call upon him to fulfill the duties of his office. And so at last he gives the signal. The pages take the goblet from its shrine, remove its coverings, and place it on the altar, while all bow their heads in silent prayer. Suddenly the room grows dark, and then the goblet flushes with a brilliant ruddy glow. Amfortas rises to his feet and lifts the shining vessel, while the pages hold the bread and wine within its rays, [551] and the far-off soprano strains and tender orchestral harmonies become triumphant with holy ecstasy. Then the glow dies out; daylight re-appears; and the pages pass the food to the silent knights, who take it with reverent gestures, while from the vault above comes the interchange of boys' and children's voices repeating the prophecy, and singing strains of faith and comfort. Then the knights join in the strain; but the king, with a reaction from the momentary strength of his excitement, sinks back upon his litter, and the pages press about him to stanch the blood again flowing from his wounded side. Then the processions form once more, and pass out in the same solemn order, last of all the troops of children from the dome. Gurnemanz remains alone with Parsifal, whom he asks whether he comprehends what he has seen. But the boy shakes his head, and will not even ask a question, and Gurnemanz, disappointed in his hope, thrusts him from the door.

When the second act begins we are shown the interior of the magicians enchanted castle. Klingsor sees in his magic mirror the approach of Parsifal, whom he recognizes as the predicted savior, and whom he determines to overcome with Kundry's help. He calls the latter, and she rises, wrapped from head to foot in ghostly white draperies, through a smoking pit in the background, on the brink of which she remains, shrouded and immovable, through the dialogue which follows—a dialogue which consists of imprecations and commands on Klingsor's part, and of fierce, defiant taunts but ultimate submission to her fate on Kundry's. Her resistance to the sorcerer's wish is seen to be even more desperate than usual, as she too has guessed that Parsifal is the promised helper. But she disappears with a frantic, hopeless burst of her cursed laughter, Klingsor and his room sink out of sight, and we find ourselves in the garden amid the troop of flower-maidens, who on Parsifal's approach surround him with playful appeals to be their comrade, and with jealous little quarrels for his favor. But Kundry enters, and the girls flee in simulated rage with the unresponsive boy. Kundry is now in the guise of the most beautiful of women. Making Parsifal sit at her feet, she tells him of his mother's death, and bids him believe that love alone can compensate him for her loss. Subtly blending the story of his mothers affection with her own, she stoops and kisses his not unwilling lips. But with the kiss a light breaks upon his mind. He starts to his feet in horror, exclaiming that he feels in his side the burning of Amfortas's wound, and sees in Kundry the king's betrayer. All her arts are of no avail to work upon the innocent boy, now"wise through sympathy." With a fine dramatic inspiration Wagner here weaves together the two contrasting strands of Kundry's character, making her use, under Klingsor's spell, her real remorse and her real longing for good as an argument to tempt Parsifal to what she knows must defeat this very aspiration. As though possessed by a spell beyond her force to break, she tells with pathetic accents of her sin, her curse, her unwilling slavery to evil, and she bids him love her, as only through his love can she be freed and PARSIFAL AND THE FLOWER-MAIDENS. [552] saved. But even this appeal, so genuine in its very falsity, and so dangerous because addressed to his noblest feelings, Parsifal is strong enough to resist. Then her evil nature gains the upper hand. She curses him with the curse of "wandering," and calls on Klingsor for assistance. The magician appears, and hurls the spear at Parsifal, but it remains poised over the head of innocence. Parsifal seizes it, and makes the sign of the cross. The magician and his enchanted realm disappear forever, and in their place we see a barren, rocky waste, through which Parsifal departs, bearing the spear, and leaving Kundry's unconscious form upon the ground. Thus is Kundry freed from Klingsor's power, but not yet from sin and suffering.

When the third act opens many years are supposed to have passed, during which Parsifal has been vainly seeking, hampered by Kundry's curse, the road to Monsalvat, and during which Kundry seems to have sought penance and purification in a pilgrim's life. Gurnemanz has grown to be a very old man. Worn with years and sorrow, he now leads a hermit's life on the edge of the Grail's domain, watching almost in despair for the helper's advent. As he sits in bitter reverie by his hut he recognizes Kundry in a fainting pilgrim who approaches. Taking her in his arms to a sacred spring near by, he brings her back to life, and asks her what she seeks. Humbly she replies, "To serve—to serve." But Gurnemanz tells her the knights need no help of hers. No messenger is wanted, for no labor is attempted by the wretched brotherhood, which has fallen year by year into greater discouragement and impotence since Amfortas, half mad with suffering and remorse, refuses to unveil the goblet. Titurel has died for want of its support, and Amfortas himself prays only for death as his deliverer. Then a man in armor approaches, carrying a spear, and with his visor closed. The old man chides him for bearing arms on holy ground, and during Good-Friday's solemn hours. He makes no reply, save to lay aside his casque and shield, plant his spear in the ground, and kneel before it. Gurnemanz now recognizes both Parsifal and the sacred weapon, and hails with joy the delivery so long delayed. Parsifal laments the long wanderings through which Kundry's curse has led him. But Gurnemanz tells him he is now at last unwittingly within the sacred boundaries. He too is exhausted by long wandering, and Gurnemanz seats him by the holy spring, bidding Kundry lave his feet while he removes his armor. Kundry humbly washes the feet of the man in whom she sees the savior who resisted her attempts to ruin himself and her, wipes them with her hair, and kneels with her face in the dust before him, while Gurnemanz acknowledges the new king of the Grail, and anoints him with the sacred water. In a strain of ineffable sweetness Parsifal says the first exercise of his new office must be to release Kundry from her curse. He baptizes her, and Gurnemanz leads them to Monsalvat. Now occurs behind closed curtains the transformation we saw in the first act. When the explanatory music is over and the curtains part again, we see the great hall once more, and the opening doors, through which again approach the troops of knights They were in sorrowful mood before, but now they are hopeless and despairing. The children do not ascend the dome, for they have no cheering prophecies to sing, but kneel in long rows across the front of the stage, their faces to the altar. The tables have been removed, as Amfortas persists in his refusal to unveil the Grail and beg for Heaven's blessing once again One band of bearers bring in the king's litter, and one the bier of Titurel, which they set down before the altar. In passionate, heart-broken words Amfortas reproaches himself for his father's death and their common misery. Starting from his couch, with trembling tread and agonized body he descends the altar steps, and clings to his father's bier, praying in his despair to death as his only helper, and declaring that with his destruction a happier day might dawn for his companions. The knights call upon him in almost angry tones not to forsake his duty on account of his own suffering, but to unveil the Grail once more. He refuses, tears open his gown so his wound may bleed afresh, and bids his friends in mercy hasten death. But as they stand about him in horror and dismay, Parsifal enters in his white garment, bearing the spear, and followed by the joyful Gurnemanz, and by Kundry, with the light of peace at last upon her face. Parsifal touches the king's side with the spear, which suddenly glows with supernatural light, and declares him healed and pardoned, but deposed from the [553] F. THERESE MALTEN, SOPRANO. [554] headship of the Grail. With solemn step he then draws near the altar, and himself bids the goblet be unveiled. He takes it in his hand and falls upon her knees, while all are hushed in prayer. Suddenly the room again is darkened, the Grail again grows vivid with ruddy light. Parsifal rises and holds it aloft, the spear in his other hand, the crimson light falling on his white garments, and a dove descending from heaven and hovering above his head. All break into a soft cry of solemn gladness, and Kundry sinks in peaceful death upon the altar steps.

The best musical materials in Germany were at Wagner's side last summer. The orchestra was that of the Munich Opera, enlarged by the addition of a few players from Meiningen, Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin, and numbered in all one hundred and four performers, under the leadership of Capellmeister Levy of Munich. There were twenty-nine flower-maidens, six having solo parts to sing. The chorus was sixty in number, and there was, besides, the choir of fifty boys. Whether or no the chorus singers were paid, I can not say. At least the expenses of their long stay in Baireuth were probably made good to them. But the solo singers gave their help for nothing, and were glad to do so, their reward coming in the instruction they received and the pleasure in which they shared, and in the universal fame which can in no way be so quickly and completely gained as by Baireuth triumphs. As there were fourteen public performances, spreading over a period of four or five weeks, the different parts were intrusted to several singers each, with the exception of the barytone part of Amfortas, which was assumed throughout by Reichmann of Munich. The tenori who played Parsifal were Winkelmann of Hamburg, Gudehus of Dresden, and Jäger, formerly of Dresden and Vienna. Kundry, the soprano part, was given to Materna of Vienna, Brandt of Berlin, and Malten of Dresden. Fuchs of Munich, also a barytone, sang Klingsor, alternating with Hill. The minor basso part of Titurel was given to Kindermann of Munich, while the great basso rôle of Gurnemanz was sung by Scaria of Vienna and by Siehr. For the first performance Wagner selected Materna, Winkelmann, Scaria, and Hill. Materna was well entitled to the honor, in view of her worldwide reputation. But, as it proved, even her laurels shrank a little before those of Malten, a young singer who had never been heard out of Dresden until she won success in London during the season of last spring. Her art in singing is not quite so perfect as Materna's, but her voice is fresher, and magnificently powerful, and her acting shows the greatest dramatic ability. She is beautiful as well, and in the temptation scene must far have surpassed her rivals. Brandt is an older woman, devoid of beauty, but with great dramatic talent, and is said to have been finest in the first act. Reichmann has a marvellous voice, and his impersonation of the youthful king—suffering, desperate, and overwrought—was consummately artistic. He, with his common human experience, was the true centre of interest, even more than the saintly, superhuman Parsifal. Wagner's great reliance upon the dramatic capabilities of his singers was never more clearly shown than in the last act of Parsifal. Kundry is on the stage from beginning to end, yet has but two words to say. Her part is one of pantomime alone, yet of capital importance. Malten, whom I was fortunate enough to see, filled it so adequately that it was only afterward one realized she had not sung as well as acted. Great dramatic ability is indeed required to play this rôle, with its constant change and contrast of mood—the sullen uncouthness of the first act, the frantic defiance of the colloquy with Klingsor, the temptation scene with Parsifal; and then this last pathetic act, the whole meaning of which depends upon appropriate action and facial expressiveness. That three women were found to fill it so adequately that its honors were almost equally divided between them proves the vitality and strength of the new dramatic school we owe to Wagner.

Scaria is perhaps the greatest basso of our time, and he, too, is equally good dramatically considered. His magnificent. voice rolls out like an organ with perfect ease and sureness, giving every word as distinctly as though it had been spoken and not sung. Jäger sang the evening of my visit, and though his voice has lost a trifle of its freshness, his acting was superb all through. The saintly dignity of his conception, the solemn ecstasy of his bearing, in the last act, will not easily be forgotten, nor the beauty of his white-robed figure and noble attitude as the [555] curtain fell for the last time upon the shining Grail and the floating dove. But the other tenori were said to be as adequate, and Winkelmann's voice is finer. I might easily go on to praise, with much of detail, all who took part in a wonderfully perfect representation. Yet the most remarkable thing of all—more admirable than the power of any individual singer—was the unity of the whole performance, the way in which the transcendental mood of the drama was preserved in every detail, the spirit of solemn absorption in a sacred scene which seemed to animate the least performer. The briefest lapse into commonplace, even, would have marred the impression. The slightest failure to seize and keep the exalted tone and temper of the work would have resulted most disastrously to the emotions of the audience. But no such lapse occurred. From Parsifal down to the smallest page-boy, every movement, every note, every facial expression, was in accord. Words and music seemed but to interpret with greater force emotions we saw clearly in each character upon the boards. But one point in the whole performance could be noted for criticism. The decorations in the garden scene were unfortunately gaudy in effect and bad in color, making a poor background both for the flower-maidens in their graceful evolutions, and for Parsifal and Kundry in their passionate dialogue.


The deeply moral symbolism of Parsifal will now be apprehended. The history of Christ is never referred to during the drama, for Wagner writes no such inartistic things as "allegories." But it is, of course, suggested—as are certain ceremonies of the Christian religion—by various scenes which occur quite naturally in the dramatic evolution of the visible characters. But the work has a still deeper intention than to suggest the facts and beliefs of any one creed. The visible Parsifal, the suggested Christ, are alike types of redeeming love and goodness; the visible Kundry, the suggested Magdalen, of sin, suffering, and salvation. All are used as means of impressing the eternal law—felt through all religions or in spite of none—the law that evil brings a curse behind it; that remorse alone will not undo its work; that love and good deeds are the only salvation of a sinful world. The lesson is a deep one—deeper than any Wagner had taught before. His thought has never been so profound, his music never so divine, as in this last drama. With a versatility and freshness almost inconceivable in a man of seventy, he has tuned his music to an entirely new mood. The passionate, exciting, sometimes sensuous, sometimes [556] wild, though always magnificent, strains that were appropriate to such themes as Tristan and Tannhäuser, the earthlier grace and purity which matched with the ideas of Lohengrin, have given way to music which is rapt and religious in spirit from end to end. Even the music of the second act does not disturb the impression, but serves merely as a foil to the more important phases of the work. The songs of the flower-maidens are not—as has so often been affirmed by those who did not hear them—sensuous in mood, but playful, delicate, and dainty. Even Kundry's temptation music is weird and powerful rather than sensuous in effect. This is not the place even if there were space to spare—in which to give an analysis of the strictly musical features of this great drama. Be it only said that in its elaboration Wagner has carried out with more perfect skill and fullness than ever before, his theory with regard to Leitmotiven, or "leading motives," which illustrate and explain, by their recurrence and their constant variations, the nature of his characters, and the ideas which lie behind their words or find expression in their silent actions. Every line of the score is so instinct with subtle meaning that many hearings and long study would not reveal them all. But the absolute beauty of the music does not depend upon their being completely apprehended. It becomes, of course, both more beautiful and more impressive when fully understood in its least note and inflection. But it has an outer, quite complete, and radiant charm even for a non-musical hearer, who may not be able to follow a single Leitmotive, or understand a single symbolic chord.

If I were asked to cite the most beautiful musical compositions I had ever heard, paying no regard to their meaning as possibly connected with the drama, one of the first would surely be the great choral scene in the first act of Parsifal. Needless to say, therefore, that in connection with its dramatic meaning it becomes one of the grandest of musical creations. From the nature of the subject no parts of the Parsifal music are as striking, as emotionally exciting, as some passages in Wagner's other works. But there is more of pure and delicate beauty in this than in any other. From the first notes of the exquisite introduction, through the dainty choruses of the flower-girls, the splendid harmonies of the feast scenes, and the pastoral charm of the "Good-Friday music" in the third act, to the last rich notes as the curtain closes, there are a hundred passages which might be cited to refute the old accusation of the ignorant, that whatever Wagner may do, he can not write "beautiful music."

Whether or no religious themes are considered suitable for dramatic presentation will depend upon individual ideas and feelings. The question need not here be entered into, for it has nothing to do with art in and for itself considered. One thing is, however, certain. A performance of this kind, religious throughout in intention, and in execution, must by all minds be held less objectionable than one where religious incidents are interspersed in a fabric of alien temper. Wagner himself calls this a "sacred play," and the question is being debated whether he means ever to let it be given on an ordinary stage, amid less unique and impressive surroundings than here at Baireuth.




For the encouragement of readers who may possibly wish to visit Baireuth at some future time, I will say that the extortions of the Nibelungen season of 1876 were not repeated in 1882. The performance lasted but one day instead of four, and was repeated many more times. So there was neither overcrowding nor overcharging. My companion and myself were assigned a very large room fronting on the market-place in the fine old house of a certain Kaufmann Bencker. For this room we paid $2 50 a day. The German breakfast of bread and butter with coffee, tea, or chocolate was served in our room at any hour we wished, at a charge of twenty-five cents for the two portions. Meals were not dear either at the hotels or at the smaller eating-houses; and a one-horse carriage to take three people to the theatre and back cost but $1 75. Moreover, trains were run in connection with each performance, so that it was not a necessity even to stay overnight in the town.


I do not forget, of course, that Wagner had predecessors in this new path; but they were predecessors in aim and intention chiefly, not to any vital extent in execution. Gluck announced, but Wagner has created. It is Gluck's and not Wagner's art which should properly be called of the future, though in a different sense from the one usually given to the words.


When the Crusaders took Cæsare, in the year 1101, the Genoese discovered a goblet which seemed to have been cut out of an immense emerald. They immediately decided it was the Grail, and attributed its lack of wonder-working power to their own unworthiness. For centuries it was preserved in Genoa as an undoubted relic. But when it was brought with the rest of his imperial loot to Paris by the first Napoleon, it was ruthlessly submitted to scientific tests, and proved to be of green glass only. It is now again in Genoa, revered by none, and the object of curiosity to very few.


A clear history of the Parsifal legend, together with an analysis of Wolfram's epic and of Wagner's drama, may be found in a little pamphlet called Parsifal, by O. Eichberg. It is, I think, the best among the many similar treatises which appeared in Germany last summer.