Wagner’s Parsifal – The Music of Redemption
Roger Scruton, Allen Lane, 2020, 208 pages, hb, £20
Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera, staged at Bayreuth less than a year before he died. It is therefore sadly suitable as the subject of Roger Scruton’s last book.
Parsifal was inspired by the early 13th century German epic, Parzival, a 25,000-line poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which introduced the Holy Grail into German literature, and is seen as the culmination of the medieval Arthurian tradition that spanned Britain, France and Germany. Parzival and other Minnesang (‘songs of homage’) were in turn indebted to French troubadour songs, Gregorian chant and Latin verse, but added a uniquely Gothic gloom and Christian mysticism. Although Wagner did not believe in God, he saw the necessity of “godliness”, and strove to inculcate “the kernel of religion” through art.
The opera therefore links us to some of the earliest known music and myths of Europe, and the zenith of the ‘Age of Faith’. The Grail is the epitome not just of Christian mystery, but also perfection and personal salvation. The idea of a ‘pure fool’ or paraclete who saves the sin-stricken through compassion, and gains self-knowledge along the way, is a classic trope, but an invariably fascinating one. Small wonder Wagner’s swansong magnetised Scruton, who was a conservative by intellect and temperament, a seeker after faith, and a deeply engaged moral philosopher – not to mention a composer in his own right.
Scruton was an acknowledged authority on Wagner, having written on Tristan and Isolde and the Nibelung. Astounding general erudition allowed him to range assuredly across subjects from classical concepts of time, theories of the social contract, or the psychology of self-mutilation to the smallest details of the score. It is a bravura performance, especially because he completed it whilst dying of cancer. The only bad thing about this musicographical tour-de-force is knowing there can be no encore.
This review first appeared in The Lady, and is republished with acknowledgements