WAGNER'S PARSIFAL: A THEOLOGY FOR
One hundred years after its first performance, what do we say
about Parsifal today? This music of rousing intensity and yet
sublime simplicity with its floating, merging timbres, which- as
Wagner himself said-like layers of clouds part and join again,
holding us spellbound from the first bars of the Prelude onwards.
But what would the music of Parsifal be without the drama, the
drama without the scenery, the scenery without the words?
No, the music does not exempt us in our time from questioning
the work as a whole, for today, in the light of newly-discovered
dimensions in religious matters, it has become of current interest
again. I am not referring to the narrow question as to the priority
of religion or theatre -whether the theatre is a vehicle for a
religious message or whether religious subjects are proper material for the stage. I mean the comprehensive question concerning
religion in the theatre: not only what do we say about Parsifal but
what does Parsifal say to us?
It is unchristian, say many Christians today, because Wagner,
that neo-heathen, has desecrated the Holy Sacrament. It is all too
Christian, say many music-loving neo-heathens, following in the
steps of the later Nietzsche, for Wagner, after all, went on his
knees before the crucifix and thus consecrated himself as a member of the High Consistory. Can the argument be settled at all or
is the work perhaps both Christian and heathen at once? Is it
perhaps the work of a great dialectician who was always able, in
both life and art, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to resolve it in a
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Programmheft der Bayreuther Festspiele in 1982 on the occasion of the centenary production of
Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, Federal Republic of Germany.