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Wagner's Parsifal: The Music of Redemption

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Richard Wagner's final creation is also his most mysterious. The story of Parsifal, the 'pure fool, knowing through compassion', who has been called to rescue the Kingdom of the Grail from the sins that have polluted it, appears familiar enough, but the redemption sought by Wagner's characters is far from the Christian archetype. Wagner's Parsifal is an exploration of the Richard Wagner's final creation is also his most mysterious. The story of Parsifal, the 'pure fool, knowing through compassion', who has been called to rescue the Kingdom of the Grail from the sins that have polluted it, appears familiar enough, but the redemption sought by Wagner's characters is far from the Christian archetype. Wagner's Parsifal is an exploration of the drama, music and philosophy of this extraordinary musical icon by a writer whose knowledge and understanding of the Western musical tradition are the equal of his capacities as a philosopher. It shows how, through musical connections and brilliant dramatic strokes, Parsifal expresses in music a depth of feeling for which we do not have words, a deep longing for wholeness and relief from suffering which, Scruton argues, contains within itself the image of salvation.


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Richard Wagner's final creation is also his most mysterious. The story of Parsifal, the 'pure fool, knowing through compassion', who has been called to rescue the Kingdom of the Grail from the sins that have polluted it, appears familiar enough, but the redemption sought by Wagner's characters is far from the Christian archetype. Wagner's Parsifal is an exploration of the Richard Wagner's final creation is also his most mysterious. The story of Parsifal, the 'pure fool, knowing through compassion', who has been called to rescue the Kingdom of the Grail from the sins that have polluted it, appears familiar enough, but the redemption sought by Wagner's characters is far from the Christian archetype. Wagner's Parsifal is an exploration of the drama, music and philosophy of this extraordinary musical icon by a writer whose knowledge and understanding of the Western musical tradition are the equal of his capacities as a philosopher. It shows how, through musical connections and brilliant dramatic strokes, Parsifal expresses in music a depth of feeling for which we do not have words, a deep longing for wholeness and relief from suffering which, Scruton argues, contains within itself the image of salvation.

51 review for Wagner's Parsifal: The Music of Redemption

  1. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    Roger Scruton died in January of this year, just after concluding the editorial work on this book. It is now being published posthumously, with the proofreading completed by Professor Robin Holloway. It is a worthy swansong. Scruton was a philosopher whose renown went well beyond the inner circles of his field. Admittedly, the wider public might know him better for his polemicist defences of conservatism. These landed him – to his glee, chagrin or a mixture of both – into a number of controversie Roger Scruton died in January of this year, just after concluding the editorial work on this book. It is now being published posthumously, with the proofreading completed by Professor Robin Holloway. It is a worthy swansong. Scruton was a philosopher whose renown went well beyond the inner circles of his field. Admittedly, the wider public might know him better for his polemicist defences of conservatism. These landed him – to his glee, chagrin or a mixture of both – into a number of controversies over his career. However, Scruton was also (or, arguably primarily) a philosopher of aesthetics, with a particular interest in music. He made of Wagner’s works a specialist area of study, publishing studies on Tristan und Isolde (“Death Devoted Heart: Sex and Sacred in Wagner’s Trisan and Isolde”, 2003) and the Ring tetralogy (“The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring”, 2016). In this area, Scruton’s knowledge of music (he was an amateur composer) served him well. As its subtitle implies, Scruton’s final work explores the idea of redemption as the thematic basis of Wagner’s Parsifal. This premise is hardly contentious, since even the bare bones of Wagner’s libretto, a retelling of the Grail Story loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval poem Parzival, reveal the opera to be a work about redemption and healing. The First Act takes us to Montsalvat, the Castle of the Holy Grail, built by Titurel to house and protect the Holy Grail and the sacred Spear, relics of the Passion of the Christ. Amfortas, the King, is brought in on a litter in barely bearable pain. He was once seduced by a beautiful woman at the bidding of the sorcerer Klingsor, thereby losing the Spear and procuring a painful wound which can only be healed by a “pure fool made wise by compassion”. Just then, two knights seize a youth – Parsifal – who has ventured near the castle and killed a swan. The old knight Gurnemanz realizes that this might be the “innocent” who can restore order at Montsalvat. The Second Act is set in the gardens of Klingsor’s magic castle. The flighty Flower Maidens, seducers of many a knight, are excited at the arrival of Parsifal, but the sorcerer has a more ambitious plan and, like a diabolical pimp, sends Kundry out to meet the youth. As in the legend of the Wandering Jew, Kundry has been accursed after she laughed at Christ’s suffering (lovers of the Gothic will notice here one of the inspirations for Sarah Perry’s Melmoth). Kundry is now ensnared by Klingsor, who compels her to use her wiles and charms to bring righteous men to their downfall. Indeed, Parsifal seems impervious to the Flower Maidens, but Kundry knows how to break down his defences: she draws him to her by evoking memories of the mother whom he has abandoned. Kundry kisses him, but he recoils in horror, suddenly realising the source of Amfortas’s pain. Klingsor throws the spear at him but Parsifal seizes it and, making the sign of the Cross in the air destroys Klingsor’s castle and his evil powers. The Third and final act brings about the redemption and healing which are the themes of Scruton’s analysis – Parsifal, after years of wandering, returns to Montsalvat on Good Friday. Gurnemanz baptises him; Kundry, turned into a sort of penitent Magdalene, washes Parsifal’s feet and he baptises her in turn. Parsifal heals Amfortas’s wound, is crowned and leads the Knights in the ritual of the Grail as Kundry, freed of her curse, falls dead at his feet. It does not take a theologian to notice the Christian elements in the opera. However, Scruton argues that the idea of “redemption” proposed by Wagner, albeit partly inspired by Christian doctrines, is considerably different in conception to religious views of redemption. Indeed, despite the Christian symbolism, the worldview of the opera is equally inspired by Buddhist thought and the philosophy of Schopenhauer. One could consider Parsifal to be “post-Christian” (although that is not a term which Scruton uses) in that Wagner sought to show the possibility of godliness without the need of belief in a God and redemption in this world rather than in the next: Whether or not there is a God, there is this hallowed path towards a kind of salvation, the path that Wagner described as ‘godliness’, the path taken by Parsifal, and it is a path open to us all. In this regard, Scruton’s examination of Wagner’s use of ritual is particularly interesting. The Grail ceremonies portrayed in the opera are, very evidently, inspired by the sacrament of Communion in Christianity (and Catholicism in particular). This is emphasized in some of the earliest posters and illustrations associated with the opera, which emphasize Christian imagery. However, Wagner himself takes an almost anthropological approach to these rites, invoking the gravitas of religious rituals without implying any belief in their underlying theology. Significantly Wagner described Parsifal not as an opera, but as A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage (“Bühnenweihfestspiel”), highlighting the mystical aspects of the work. Yet, as Scruton pointed out, the final scene, with its appropriation of religious rites is also evidently not a Christian ceremony, leading Stravinsky to label it “blasphemous” and Debussy “ridiculous”. In developing his view of the opera, Scruton looks closely at plot (particularly in Chapter 2) and the music (particularly in Chapter 5). It is notoriously challenging to write about the meaning of music, that most abstract of forms, and inevitably there are moments where Scruton, like the best of authors on the subject, resorts to “poetic” phrases in a bid to express what can barely be put into words. Thus, we are told, “Faith, suffering, guilt, atonement, woe, redemption – these are the aspects of our world that are most tightly woven into the musical fabric, by melodies and harmonies that are saturated with the inner life”. That said, Wagner’s use of leitmotifs - musical themes appearing throughout the opera in representation of a character or concept –invites the sort of close scrutiny and exercise in extra-musical interpretation which Scruton embarks upon in this book. His views on how the leitmotifs are combined to achieve not just musical effects but also a philosophical meaning are certainly interesting and cogently put. In this regard, Chapter 6 of the book is particularly helpful, reproducing as it does all the various leitmotifs used in the opera. Here, Scruton acknowledges his reliance on the analytical catalogue produced by Derrick Everett, available on Everett’s Monsalvat website – probably the best resource on Parsifal available on the internet. Scruton borrows from Everett the name for the melodic idea which opens the prelude to the music-drama – the Grundthema. It is an apt moniker: Scruton shows (following other musicological studies) how, in a Beethovenian manner, the “Grundthema” can be further split into shorter motifs each of which takes a life and meaning of its own. Like the Grail in Parsifal, the opening theme is a “horn of plenty” providing many of the musical building blocks for the whole opera. Sometimes I felt that rather than discussing the opera, Scruton was using it as a springboard to address philosophical themes which were dear to him – such as the idea of compassion and duties towards animals (which he explores in Animal Rights and Wrongs) and sex and desire (the subject of his 1986 study Sexual Desire). Scruton, typically, casts his net of references wide – myth and anthropology, the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietsche, Schenkerian analysis, Christian theology and Buddhist thought. All are invoked in a bid to shed more light on Wagner’s enigmatic drama. Scruton’s book is a slim volume but by no means an easy read – and I say that as a musician (admittedly an amateur one) with a basic degree in philosophy. So possibly I wouldn’t recommend this book as a beginner’s guide to the opera (in that regard I would, once again, refer to the Monsalvat website which includes materials of use to readers of all levels – from initiates to the opera to its greatest aficionados). However, Scruton provies an insightful and multi-disciplinary analysis of Parsifal which comes across as a labour of love. https://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/20...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jason Callewaert

    I think it started out very well. Scrutons scene by scene analysis of the work was very interesting and easy to follow. But going on from there his interpretations are often quite difficult to follow. I'm not a native speaker, but read almost all my books in English, yet here I was often struggling with language. I also felt Scruton was sometimes pushing his ideas and by doing so ignoring other aspects. His focus on religion and rites is interesting, but he basically completely ignores the influ I think it started out very well. Scrutons scene by scene analysis of the work was very interesting and easy to follow. But going on from there his interpretations are often quite difficult to follow. I'm not a native speaker, but read almost all my books in English, yet here I was often struggling with language. I also felt Scruton was sometimes pushing his ideas and by doing so ignoring other aspects. His focus on religion and rites is interesting, but he basically completely ignores the influence of Schopenhauer's philosophy on the work. Having read 'The World as Will and Representation', I know there are a lot of answers about 'Parsifal' to be found in there, yet Scruton seems to ignore this when it doesn't fit his ideas. Overall I'm disappointed. After the first two chapters I was convinced this book would help me further understand this work that I consider the greatest musical achievement ever and even though Scruton brings a lot of great ideas, he doesn't tend to develop these ideas. 3*

  3. 5 out of 5

    Vivienne

    My thanks to Penguin Press U.K.- Allen Lane for an eARC via NetGalley of ‘Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption’ by Roger Scruton in exchange for an honest review. The introduction notes that Roger Scruton died just after completing the editorial work on this book. I was not familiar with his work in philosophy or musicology though it is clear that he was highly regarded. ‘Parsifal’ was Wagner's last music-drama first performed in 1892. It tells the story of Parsifal, the 'pure fool’, who ha My thanks to Penguin Press U.K.- Allen Lane for an eARC via NetGalley of ‘Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption’ by Roger Scruton in exchange for an honest review. The introduction notes that Roger Scruton died just after completing the editorial work on this book. I was not familiar with his work in philosophy or musicology though it is clear that he was highly regarded. ‘Parsifal’ was Wagner's last music-drama first performed in 1892. It tells the story of Parsifal, the 'pure fool’, who has been called to rescue the Kingdom of the Grail. Wagner was not a Christian believer, which makes it strange that he drew upon on the Grail mysteries that focused strongly upon themes of redemption and salvation and the image of the Holy Grail. Scruton writes: “Whether or not there is a God, there is this hallowed path towards a kind of salvation, the path that Wagner described as ‘godliness’, the path taken by Parsifal, and it is a path open to us all.” This was an intensely scholarly work that examines in detail the symbolism and in its final two chapters the musical structure of the opera with images from the score. The final chapter specifically examines the main leitmotifs used by Wagner within the opera. I hadn’t heard of this term before though once I saw its definition as a musical phrase associated with a certain character, place or emotion, I instantly recognised it; especially given how it has been embraced by film score composers, such as John Williams. I requested this book to as I have been curious to learn more about opera, especially those written by Wagner inspired by Arthurian and Grail myth and legend as these have been a long time interest of mine. However, I did find myself somewhat out of my depth here even if I was able to follow aspects of his arguments related to its story and symbolism. Scruton draws on a wide range of sources for his arguments. The book also has extensive references and a comprehensive index. I feel that it is a book likely more suited to someone with a stronger background than mine in philosophy, musical theory and, of course, opera. Still, I was able to recognise its quality as a scholarly work and my rating reflects this.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    I know quite a lot about classical music in general, but have never really been able to get into Wagner's music. When I saw this book on NetGalley it was a good opportunity to learn more. I very much enjoyed Scruton's overview of Wagner's Parsifal narrative, as well as his analysis of both the music and the libretto. He is able to convey complex issues in an accessible, non-patronising way for people like me who have some, but not an in-depth knowledge, of the subject. I am grateful to the publis I know quite a lot about classical music in general, but have never really been able to get into Wagner's music. When I saw this book on NetGalley it was a good opportunity to learn more. I very much enjoyed Scruton's overview of Wagner's Parsifal narrative, as well as his analysis of both the music and the libretto. He is able to convey complex issues in an accessible, non-patronising way for people like me who have some, but not an in-depth knowledge, of the subject. I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy via NetGalley.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Gabriele

    amo Wagner. amo anche Parsifal. e soprattuto amo l'espiazione dai nostri peccati. Scruton è stata una piacevole scoperta. amo Wagner. amo anche Parsifal. e soprattuto amo l'espiazione dai nostri peccati. Scruton è stata una piacevole scoperta.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Phoenix

    A very enjoyable book, although it would be difficult for readers not familiarise with staff notation.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Brett Linsley

    A powerful work of musical critique and theology. Will return to this again and again as I enjoy and am spiritually fed by Parsifal for years to come.

  8. 4 out of 5

    James Hageman

    Scruton's last book, about Wagner's last work. Demonstrates Scruton's extraordinary range as a philosopher, and the depth of Wagner's Parsifal. Even a yokel like me can understand even the sections that deal directly with the music. Scruton's last book, about Wagner's last work. Demonstrates Scruton's extraordinary range as a philosopher, and the depth of Wagner's Parsifal. Even a yokel like me can understand even the sections that deal directly with the music.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jon

  10. 4 out of 5

    Niels Krämer

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    Dominic Casanova

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sanjay Prabhakar

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    Paul Vittay

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    Eneil

  15. 5 out of 5

    Morag Kerr

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    Katy Vincent-Spall

  17. 5 out of 5

    Aleksandar Maksimovic

  18. 4 out of 5

    Prometheus

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ben Craik

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mrs B H Blythe

  21. 5 out of 5

    Richard Watson

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    James

  23. 5 out of 5

    Pethelsark

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mark Golden

  25. 5 out of 5

    Daniel K Henry

  26. 5 out of 5

    Leonard Reback

  27. 4 out of 5

    Till

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ron Shaw

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    Jeff Friesen

  30. 5 out of 5

    Robert Glover

  31. 4 out of 5

    Lance Johnson

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    Kristjan

  33. 5 out of 5

    altough2008

  34. 5 out of 5

    Richardpfurrgmail.Com

  35. 5 out of 5

    P Mullane

  36. 5 out of 5

    Ima Paydar

  37. 5 out of 5

    Ivan Raykov

  38. 4 out of 5

    David Manson

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  40. 5 out of 5

    Robert-Jan Van Amstel

  41. 5 out of 5

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  42. 4 out of 5

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  43. 4 out of 5

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  44. 4 out of 5

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  45. 4 out of 5

    Helluo Librorum

  46. 5 out of 5

    Antonio Gallo

  47. 4 out of 5

    MR CHRISTOPHER

  48. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey

  49. 4 out of 5

    Martin

  50. 5 out of 5

    Rumaysa Haqqani

  51. 4 out of 5

    Ahmad

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