Part 5: Parsifal & Wagner's other operas

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Part 5: Parsifal & Wagner's other operas

Post by alberich00 » Mon Jun 18, 2018 12:04 pm

Wagner rejected the old-time religion of belief in spiritual transcendence, predicated on renunciation of Nature and the body (and sexuality), and replaced it with inspired secular art, which re-embraces Nature and the body (and therefore sexuality) but nonetheless makes the inspired artist and his/her audience feel as if they've been redeemed from the mundane concerns of the world. This is the meaning behind his rejection of Schopenhauer's notion that redemption consists in stilling the Will. But Wagner ultimately soured even on this, and looked, in his last years, for a way to re-embrace the rejected and murdered mother, Nature, which wouldn't depend on self-deception or a longing for redemption from her. Wagner's final concept of redemption, that we cease to seek escape from the world of time/space/causation but instead identify ourselves with it in a cosmic way (as Feuerbach did: this was Feuerbach's most comprehensive definition of love, which embraces and acknowledges all things both good and evil in an almost Nietzschean sense), is in my view what's behind Parsifal's rejecting both the old service of the Grail, and the new redemption offered by the muse of art Kundry, as misconceived quests for redemption which actually lead to our perdition, in favor of a new embrace of the world, in which all things end, as it is.

Kundry's remark to Parsifal that she's willing to accept her own eternal damnation if she can only join in loving union with Parsifal to grant him the status of godhead, echoes what Wagner said of the Dutchman, that he feared that in Senta's compassionate longing to offer him final redemption, she might, if her effort failed, be forced to share in the Dutchman's eternal damnation, and the Dutchman regarded himself as potentially criminal for wishing for redemption through her, since it entailed such risk. In Tristan and the Ring this artistic redemption the muse offered to the hero does indeed fail, and both are condemned by this. The mere fact the muse must know for the hero the sin he can't afford to know or be conscious of, which he perpetuates unwittingly thanks to her protection, bespeaks this risk.

Needless to say the Prelude to Act Three of Tristan and Isolde, culminating in the alte Weise, corresponds to a certain extent with a Wasteland expressed in music, enhanced by verbal descriptions of the bleak, empty sea. Gutrune echoes this in her summary of her bleak situation in her private scene in T.3.3 when she says "Everywhere desolate" [Oed alles!], just before Hagen announces the arrival of the dead Siegfried.

Apropos of Gurnemanz's description of Kundry's cry of woe as sounding unlike that of any animal, Wagner stated in several essays, particularly towards and within the period in which he was authoring and composing Parsifal, that conscious man was capable of a depth of woe unknown to other animals. And of course Wotan echoes this when he calls himself the saddest of all beings while we hear what some call the Woman's Worth motif, but Dunning calls the Loveless Motif because it stems from the so-called Renunciation of Love Motif.

It's as if Kundry hibernates between appearances in the Grail realm.

This moment, this magical music, just before Parsifal appears to Kundry and Gurnemanz in Act Three, which anticipates Parsifal's unexpected return after what might be described as aeons of being lost and not finding his true path, is one of the most riveting musico-dramatic experiences in Wagner for me. And of course there's the lengthy but edge-of-your-seat suspense in the build up to the moment of recognition. Quite astonishing! Act Three offers some of the most stunning impressions which art has to offer. I'm always struck by RW's ability to capture with extraordinary subtlety that lightness that comes upon us with the first breath of spring creeping out of winter, that special feeling of early spring.

I suspect that you, like me, keep up the tradition of trying to experience at least a recording or dvd of all or part of Parsifal, particularly the Good Friday Spell, on Good Friday each year. Since I first experienced the last act of Parsifal I've been struck to what extent the music captures that transition in nature between winter and spring, especially earliest spring after the buds have come out and the first blooms have shown themselves. This is more effective in my home state of Maryland than down here in Florida, which is more like a perpetual summer in Klingsor's Magic Garden.

An apt description of Valhalla after Wotan has returned with his broken spear (note Parsifal refuses to use it to defend himself), sitting surrounded by all the gods, heroes, and Valkyries, who are left leaderless by his all-consuming depression and refusal to eat any longer Freia's golden apples of sorrowless youth eternal (i.e., he's given up his bid for transcendent value).

Parsifal doesn't just blame himself for not having grasped the need to inquire compassionately of Amfortas's wound, but blames himself (i.e., all of his prior selves) for the entirety of what historically led up to this culminating moment when man, set up for failure from the beginning of human history by artist-heroes or myth-makers in the guise of religious prophets and seers, to seek redemption outside the real world (which is what the quest for the Grail and in its service means) in a realm of illusion, which was predestined to disillusionment, started to become conscious of his error but was still emotionally committed to his historical bid for transcendent value. Siegfried is consciously ignorant of what Wotan required of him, but nonetheless he performed the tasks of redemption Wotan set up for him both by virtue of being born metaphysically of Wotan's daughter (the womb of Wotan's wishes) Bruennhilde, and by virtue of the Woodbird's revelations, which effectively represent the voice of Bruennhilde and the mother who died giving him birth. The mother who died giving him birth isn't just his birth mother Sieglinde but, figuratively, Mother Nature, Erda, who granted man the means to redeem himself psychologically from her bitter truths in religion (Wotan), altruistic morality (Siegmund's and Sieglinde's heroic capacity for compassionate love), and art (Siegfried's loving relationship with his muse Bruennhilde). All of Wagner's heroes are blind to their true identity and mission because this knowledge is held for them by their muse of unconscious artistic inspiration. That's why Parsifal only grasps his true mission through both Kundry's kiss and his refusal to succumb to it. Parsifal holds himself responsible for everything, from the beginning, even Kundry's curse, just as Tristan blames himself for having brewed the potion which Brangaene gave to Isolde and Isolde gave to Tristan. Had Wagner granted Siegfried more time to talk after he received his fatal blow from Hagen, Siegfried would presumably have recognized himself in Wotan. Bruennhilde's (Siegfried's unconscious mind's) final words, once she's awoken forever, confirm that Siegfried was after all just an unwitting agent of Wotan and was doomed to share in Wotan's self-destruction because of this.

Parsifal's visit to Klingsor's Castle and Magic Garden, which is dramatized in Parsifal, we might take as just the most recent, the final, visit of this kind, there having been innumerable prior visits during which Parsifal succumbed to temptation, because I think there's considerable evidence that Wagner regarded (perhaps only subliminally) Klingsor's Magic Garden and the seduction by the flowermaidens of Grail knights as his metaphor for the entire past history of inspired secular art, of which RW is the culmination, a history which Parsifal, having finally understood that his past relations with his muse of inspiration Kundry, his past ignorance of his true identity, was the cause why Amfortas has been suffering his unhealing wound, and that all of this error stemmed from religious man's original sin, his figurative killing of Mother Nature and positing of supernatural Godhead (the Grail, Valhalla) in her stead. Similarly, Siegfried's Rhine Journey interlude can be taken as a symbolic compression of the archetypal artist-hero's past lives. What RW dramatized in Twilight of the Gods was the creation and production for an audience of the ultimate, final work of art, The Ring of the Nibelung (Siegfried's narrative of his heroic life and how he learned the meaning of birdsong is Wagner's metaphor for his entire Ring and for its performance before an audience).

This, Good Friday as RW sees it, is the day that man embraces all that lives, withers and dies, and lives again in natural cycles, mortality itself, and ceases to demonize the body and mother nature the way his religious ancestors did in positing a supernatural realm of being which figuratively murdered our mother, Nature. In Feuerbach's reading the fact that religious man conceived of God as coming to earth incarnated in human form as his son, in order to grant mankind mercy and grace rather than justice, in response to original sin and to grant us absolution for it, was the beginning of mankind's eventual reconcilement to the death of the gods and their replacement with mortal man, who takes responsibility for himself.

The music Wagner composed to express Amfortas's spiritual exhaustion in Act Three, just before his final explosion of despair which culminates in his redemption by Parsifal, is extraordinary.

As Bruennhilde declared in the Ring''s finale, she knows all things now (she's now indistinguishable from her mother Erda, in a sense), all has become conscious, and for this reason she ceases to live. Kundry likewise has now permanently lost her former role as the artist-hero's muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, because all has now been made manifest, Wotan's unspoken secret, the religious mysteries, have been revealed. Feuerbach stated that it was historical man's destiny to solve this mystery, because man involuntarily and unwittingly dreamed it into existence in the first place, and was predestined to become conscious of this.

It always disturbs me that in most recordings and dvds of Parsifal it's very difficult to hear all the lines of melody, the full orchestration, including some of the astonishingly expressive highly textured filigree of the harp, in the orchestral and choral finale. I suppose this could be solved by properly miking these voices and bringing them out in recordings, but this is rarely done.
Of course, granted Wagner's Feuerbachian premises, that the whole realm of religious faith and sentiment is predicated on self-deception, and the fact that Wagner regarded himself as the world-historical heir to those prior artist-heroes (or, if you wish, the collective Volk, represented by Wotan, who artistically dreamed the realm of gods into existence in prehistoric times, before the era of the individual artist-hero, with the collaboration of man's gift for artistic self-deceit, Loge) who created the great religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc., there's nothing idolatrous about Parsifal's use of religious iconography and creative replication of ritual at all. Wagner of course saw Greek Tragedy as a dramatization of the myth as an explanation for the origin of ritual (or vice versa, if you wish). Wagner saw himself not only as a specific, individual, idiosyncratic, inspired artist, but also as participating in the archetype of all prior artist-heroes. He described this historical arc as a well-hewn causeway: Each unique artist contributes to a grand tradition of original contributions to man's quest to preserve religious feeling in the face of scientific secularism.
Or, we could see in this Wagner's Feuerbachian metaphor for mortal man recognizing that he himself was the author of the religious mysteries, the mystique of the Grail, and taking responsibility for himself. Wagner once described God, echoing Feuerbach, as the collective or social wisdom of humanity, and of course some individuals more than others become conscious of this.

I haven't offered any commentary in your chapter on the music for the obvious reason that I can't read music and only have an elementary knowledge of musical terminology. Nonetheless, I grasp the essential points you're making. It would be well for someone to do for Parsifal's motifs, as a whole, what you've begun here, to map their genealogical relations as Deryck Cooke did for the Ring motifs, and also to map their occurrences and variations of the same, insofar as possible, onto the libretto, as Dunning did from the score and as I attempted to do, using Dunning's and Cooke's work as my resource, by hearing alone. I have enough material in my notes on Parsifal to write a book-length work, but haven't yet undertaken this because I didn't have resources like Cooke and Dunning to compensate for my inability to read scores and write about them. Though I know all the thematic material from Parsifal and can more or less, on hearing any given motif or theme, describe in general terms that with which they're associated, I can't hear in my head as I see their musical notation the motifs and thematic material you discussed above. For these reasons I haven't yet closely studied Parsifal's motifs and their deployment, though each time I see a live production (I've seen three) or a dvd version (many dozens of times), I'm alert to unusual deployments of motifs. I think it would be splendid if you offered on your website your Parsifal motif list with their musical notation and sound files visitors can click on to hear them. This would of course allow numerous readers who can't read music to follow your argument in your chapter on the music more closely. It would also be invaluable if you could do the same for your even more extensive Ring motif list, though in this case I strongly feel you ought to add a number of crucial motifs which you omitted, but which are included in my revised list of 193 (or 194). I suspect you'll never have the time, but I think the odds are high that one of your many admirers around the world who can read and write music, who also have musicological understanding, would likely volunteer their services if they learned of your intent and need.

I wanted to add that the Ring has a strange forward compulsion which obviously stems from the synthesis of drama with music, which can only be experienced with truly great conductors who channel the Ring authentically like Fuertwaengler. This is something which someone who can't read music like myself picks up instinctively. I recall thinking to myself when I first became acquainted with Fuertwangler's 1951 mono Ring with the RAI on Seraphim that in T.3.2, at the moment Siegfried calls on the Gibichung hunters to come join him down here (by the Rhine) where it's fresh and cool, and we hear a brief musical interlude describing the crush of hunters coming down from above to join him, that this feels not only dramatically like the Ring is reaching its climax, but musically also. I recall how much I felt during my first experience of it how very inevitable everything felt. This was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It's strange, in a way, that the very music through which Wagner allows us to live in the real world yet lift ourselves above it, also captures this feeling of fate.

I suspect frankly that rituals and their corresponding myths grow in tandem. I'm not sure what evidence we have for any given ritual and its corresponding myth that one precedes or is the pre-condition for the other. It's inconceivable to me that any ritual doesn't have a corresponding myth. What does happen, though, is that often a tradition's or a myth's origin has either never become conscious in the first place, or has been forgotten, and its explanation altered over time subliminally to accommodate changing social conditions. I ask myself all the time how some particular tradition or religious practice can have originated, and whether the explanation offered by those who keep this tradition or repeat this ritual corresponds with the true history behind it. A similar problem presents itself in trying to determine whether Alberich's theft of the Rhinegold and forging of his Ring of power precedes (and is possibly the precondition for) the building of Valhalla, or vice versa. As I've shown, in many respects it can be argued that Alberich's forging of his Ring is the logical precondition for the building of Valhalla (and certainly his Ring motif transforms into the first two segments of the Valhalla Motif), but even if that's the case they grow in tandem.

It's helpful to think here of Tannhaeuser's being cursed by Venus after he threatens he'll not return to her (though in the past, evidently, he always called on her as his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration), that he'll, in effect, lose the fertility of the inspiration she always gave him when he returned to her, that he'll only reap shame where he seeks fame. That fertility depends on his always returning to her, but also never becoming conscious of his true source of unconscious artistic inspiration in her loving arms in the Venusbeg. The consequence of that curse on him for not returning to her is that the song Tannhaeuser sings in the Wartburg reveals its true source of inspiration, Tannhaeuser's illicit sojourn with Venus in the Venusberg, and Tannhaeuser is cast out by his former audience. Similarly, Siegfried and Tristan involuntarily and unwittingly cut themselves off from their true source of unconscious artistic inspiration, their muses Bruennhilde and Isolde, giving them instead to Gunther and Marke, only to reveal to their audience (Gunther and Marke) their original loving relationship with their muses, which brings unbearable shame to Gunther and Marke and doom to the artist-hero. And of course Klingsor, Wagner's final iteration of the formerly unconsciously inspired artist-hero, having castrated himself in his futile quest for holiness (which is the culmination of Siegfried's and Tristan's cutting themselves off from their true loves and muses) exposes Amfortas (again, a metaphor for Wagner's audience) to the muse Kundry's forbidden secrets, thus bringing to him unbearable shame and anguish.

All four examples constitute Wagner's metaphors for the modern artist having become too conscious of his formerly unconscious source of artistic inspiration, and making this forbidden secret public. And of course this retroactively disillusions mankind about religious revelation also, since unconscious artistic inspiration and religious revelation have the same source, the unconscious mind. For Wagner, mankind's age-old futile quest to posit a transcendent realm of being in opposition to his true mother, Nature, is "The Wasteland," but so is the excessive consciousness characteristic of the modern, secular, scientific world with its skepticism and cynicism towards all that is good and beautiful and mysterious. This of course Wagner captured in the bleak prelude to the third act of Tristan with its alte Weise, and in the prelude to the third act of Parsifal. It's also found cryptically in Gutrune's summing up her anguish (our anguish) in T.3.3, when she says "Everywhere desolate." The Feuerbachian assumption behind all of this is that our only source of true meaning and fertility of thought is in recognizing our origin in Nature, and therefore our contingent nature, which we can only do if we renounce our former bid for transcendent value. This is what Parsifal accomplishes after waking up to his true nature as a matricide, an artist-hero who in his past lives has unwittingly and foolishly perpetuated religious man's (Wotan's) sin against all that was, is, and will be, the figurative murder of our Mother Nature (Parsifal killed his mother through neglect, having sought instead to serve the Grail), in both religion and art, and decides to renounce the offer of temporary redemption his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Kundry offers to him (her salves and balms no longer healing, since we've now become too conscious, too awake, to benefit from them), and instead restores the fertility of Mother Nature, who in the past religious man renounced and demonized (stepping on the flowers of the field which wither and die only to be reborn).

Why can't we be responding to both, i.e., to what is self-evident and specific or idiosyncratic, and also to what is suggested, implied, hinted at, or subliminally linked with a far wider and deeper web of resonances of universal significance? Wagner's musical motifs surely operate to expand the meaning of what is self-evident in Wagner's mature music-dramas, to what is not self-evident, as you said yourself in The Ring of Truth. There is no sense for me in which Wagner's characters disappear behind symbols or behind the allegorical layers which give them depth and context. Furthermore, I find the fact that the characters carry a weight of world-historical or universal meaning which remains unknown to them dramatic and suspenseful in the highest degree, and this is surely a large part of the Wagnerian effect. I only made my numerous discoveries re the allegorical logic at work in Wagner's operas and music-dramas because of my passionate engagement with them as musical dramas long before I guessed what was really at stake.

But I agree with you 100 percent that no productions should deliberately set out to draw attention to what Wagner wished to merely suggest or hint at subliminally. Music critic Guy Dammann, for instance, in a review of your The Ring of Truth, cited a production of RW's Ring in Stockholm in which, evidently, some producer/director decided to present Fafner's lair as the interior of a church with worshippers (or something like that), and he attributed this conceit to the influence of my Ring interpretation at I wrote to tell him that this is precisely the opposite of what is called for in authentic Wagner productions. My allegorical interpretations are only to be applied to RW's works after the fact, as a means to grasp what will likely otherwise be inexplicable, but not to altering RW's stage directions or trying in live productions to imply more meaning than RW already did subliminally through his stage directions and employment of musical motifs. RW's operas and music-dramas should be presented as RW intended, and enhanced with modern technology only to the degree that this will solve difficulties RW had in his time in trying to realize his original vision on the stage. Many Regie-Theater proponents try to excuse their miscalculations and excesses and attempts to undermine RW's intent by presenting his works as ironical by pointing to RW's remark after the premier productions of the Ring at Bayreuth that next time we'll do something new. What he meant, surely, was next time we'll get it right in trying to bring my original vision to the stage persuasively.

I don't think most commentators on the Ring realize the extent to which Wagner modeled his hero who doesn't know who he is, Siegfried, on Oedipus. I recall a very astute expert on Greek Tragedy writing some years ago re RW's Ring that his use of the musical motifs of reminiscence and foreboding were heavily influenced by Sophocles's employment of verbal motifs such as echoes of "club-foot" to remind Sophocles's audience who Oedipus really is, and to create suspense that his true identity might be made public. In RW's Ring, the question is whether or not Siegfried's true identity as Wotan reborn will become conscious for him. And Bruennhilde, the metaphorical creator of the motifs of the Ring (which are the transfiguration of Wotan's thought, his confession to Bruennhilde, and conversion into feeling, by music), knows for Siegfried what he doesn't know, and like Sophocles's verbal motifs tell us, RW's audience, what his protagonists don't know. And of course Parsifal doesn't know who he is, doesn't remember his past lives, but Kundry does know.

You'll recall that I've applied concepts of repression and sublimation to the understanding of the significance of Wotan's confessing thoughts to Bruennhilde which he regards as too unbearable for him to say aloud, which in my reading means he regards them as too unbearable for him to consciously contemplate. Though I read a number of Freud's books and articles in my formative years I grasped this much about Wotan's confession instinctively when I first experienced the Fuertwaengler Ring at age 18, and it owes nothing to Freud. Further evidence that I'm on the right track, that RW discovered this on his own, can be found in the fact that Schopenhauer's chapter on Madness in, I think, volume II of The World as Will and Representation contains a description of repression and sublimation almost identical to my explanation of Wotan's confession. The interesting thing is that I know of no evidence RW ever took special notice of Schopenhauer's thesis. But I strongly believe RW's artworks, from at least Tannhaeuser onward (and perhaps even including Dutchman) can't be grasped without appeal to this thesis. It makes so much sense of many things otherwise inexplicable.

Throughout my entire life, my overwhelming feeling of the sacredness (not in the generically religious sense, but in the sense that the very meaning of my life, what is unique about me, was at stake) of certain experiences I had in nature, and in the arts of film, theater, literature, poetry, music, opera, art, architecture, etc., made it often impossible for me to try to share my experience with people for whom such experiences are only felt lightly or casually. I can't bear people who are easily distracted when confronted with such experiences: I feel they've tainted my experience, and it takes me a long time to purge this feeling. I have two classes of friends: those with whom I can share my deepest aesthetic experiences, a very small number, and those with whom I can't, but with whom I can nonetheless enjoy various kinds of friendly communion. For this reason I've almost always had to listen to or watch recordings or dvd's of performances of higher art alone.

I recall an observation Wagner made re the religious requirement of chastity, in which he stated that the requirement of chastity was a terrible feature of religion, in that it expressed a desire to renounce nature and yet live forever. His critique was inspired by Feuerbach's thoughts on celibacy and chastity as religious values. RW elsewhere suggested (if I recall correctly) we'd no longer renounce and demonize nature or our body if we accepted the Darwinian and Buddhist notions that we are one with all existence, and with all that lives, and not separate and apart as in Christian theology and the belief in an immortal soul. Wagner praised Tannhaeuser as a "whole" man, who embraces in himself not only spirit but the body, but nature, and suggested he is rejected by the Wartburg Christian community precisely because he is whole and complete in this way. Once he confesses involuntarily that his art was inspired by the Venusberg (with its associations with illicit sexuality and paganism and the earth, as opposed to heaven), the Wartburg community ejects him as having polluted what was sacred, which is why he's considered irredeemable. But Wagner praised this aspect of Tannhaeuser, just as he praised Elsa for breaching Lohengrin's requirement of unquestioning faith. Of course there is also the crucial matter of Tannhaeuser's thereby having sullied Elizabeth's love through what appears to be his infidelity to her, and her sacrificing herself in order to redeem him from the consequences, which is another matter entirely. In Tannhaeuser RW hadn't yet developed the fully consistent allegorical scheme of his mature music-dramas.
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