In “Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption,” Sir Roger Scruton guides us—like Virgil—through the twisty cosmos of Richard Wagner and leaves us at the gates of paradise. Those who desire a treatment of Wagner’s final opera without the pollution of ideological criticism will find a wonderful breath of fresh air in Scruton’s treatment of the work.
Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption (208 pages, Penguin Books, 2020)
No individual caused more controversy in academia and helped to rejuvenate and defend an appreciation for Western art and culture than Sir Roger Scruton. His death left the world—our world—with a terrible vacuum in a time of crisis and turbulence. Yet his voice lives on in his final salute to the world he vigorously loved and defended to his dying breath.
No artist in the Western tradition is more reviled, mocked, and adored than Richard Wagner. He was, in some respects, a celebrity rockstar in his day. Wagner notoriously had a close friendship with Friedrich Nietzsche before their falling out—largely due to Wagner’s late-in-life movement toward embracing a heterodox form of Protestant Christianity. Wagner’s diary left no part of his being unobserved and revealed the more crass and crude aspects of his general outlook, which many now pillory. His operas were masterpieces that reached back into the ur-soul of mankind; still regarded masterful at least in terms of musical composition, they are nevertheless cruelly mocked and satirized by the crude materialist aesthetic that Wagner was rebelling against. Wagner as Wagner is persona non-grata even if his operas and musical pieces are still widely played and performed.
Roger Scruton may have rocketed to fame as the newest and most articulate defender of conservatism in the West with the publication of The Meaning of Conservatism and his critical anthology Thinkers of the New Left (republished as Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands), but Scruton’s reputation as a conservative thinker overshadows his more eminent contributions to the world-soul he wrestled with. Scruton was a conservative, that much is true, but his conservatism was expressed through the arts and humanities more than through politics and ideology. Scruton’s writings on art, architecture, and music reflect his Renaissance-style and humanistic soul.
It is fitting, then, that Scruton’s pilgrimage through Wagner ends with Wagner’s final masterpiece: Parsifal. Scruton’s Wagner trilogy—Death Devoted Heart, The Ring of Truth, and Wagner’s Parsifal—stands as a monumental accomplishment in the field of music analysis and Wagner studies. In Scruton’s journey through Wagner, we find the journey of the human soul in its struggles, trials, and tribulations; we also find the journey of the human soul in its aspirations, desires, and hope.
The path to Parsifal was a long and arduous pilgrimage for Wagner. In his youth Wagner was an enthusiastic supporter of the socialist and nationalist revolutions that swept much of Europe in 1848 and 1849. Suspected as a revolutionary, Wagner fled to Switzerland. The composer-philosopher was also himself a Renaissance man who widely read the Greek classics and the contemporary currents of post-Hegelian German philosophy and theology. The youthful exuberance and decadence of Wagner is revealed in Tristan and Isolde and the opening portions of The Ring of Nibelung as Scruton has convincingly shown in his treatments of both works. Yet the erotic exuberance and decadent tragedy of death in Tristan and Isolde evolved, over time, into a more tragic but religious experience in The Ring and, finally, the triumph of human kindness and salvation in Parsifal, which is the most explicitly religious opera in Wagner’s canon.
The music and story of Parsifal remains a tough nut to crack as Scruton makes clear in his reflections on the Wagnerian quest. Is the opera essentially an ethicized song of Christianity? Is it tainted with Wagner’s anti-Semitism? Does Parsifal anticipate Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud? How much of the opera is a syncretistic composition of ethical Christianity and Buddhist metaphysics in accord with Wagner’s late-in-life philosophical influence Arthur Schopenhauer? These are all live questions we must ask when dealing with Parsifal, as Scruton makes clear, but to dwell on the technicalities of this debate misses the larger picture according to Scruton. Quoting Wagner’s seminal essay “Art and Religion,” Scruton informs us of Wagner’s personal quest that must always remain the central heart to Wagnerian interpretation: “[I]t is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehend in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.”
Scruton identifies two wells, two philosophical currents, that were rapidly churning in late nineteenth-century Germany and influenced the composition of Parsifal: ethicized Christianity and Far Eastern metaphysics. Yet Scruton chooses to focus on the ethically Christian heart of Wagner’s final opera. As Scruton writes, “Parsifal invites us to believe in the Redeemer.” With that statement, however, we must ask: Why do we need redemption and who is that Redeemer?
The religious heart of Parsifal, indeed the religious heart of our world, is the struggle to live in proper relations with one another. Our “Fall,” if you will, has ruptured our relationships with other humans, the world, and everything in between. This is, of course, the backdrop to Parsifal. The operatic world is not far removed from our own: The world is decadent yet fertile, lush yet dying. Men struggle for power and struggle against temptation—even falling into temptation and death.
Sin, then, is most visibly seen in Klingsor who seeks to wield the Spear of Destiny for self-serving purposes. In Augustinian language we recognize Klingsor as a man who lusts for domination. Klingsor also tempts the Grail Knights into the illusory fantasy of erotic fulfillment with his flower maidens. The Grail Knights, though noble in heritage, have forgotten the Redeemer and the Redeemer’s message. In this world of fallenness and temptation they wait for the “pure fool, knowing through compassion,” who will help redeem the world (Durch Mitleid Wissend, Der Reine Tor).
In this fallen world we meet subjects in need of redemption, principally Amfortas and Kundry. Yet our two subjects of redemption do not merely exist in a fallen world. Amfortas and Kundry are not passive subjects burdened by the realities of the fall and sin; they actively participated in the fall and sin—this mustn’t be forgotten especially in their relationship with Parsifal.
The hope that pervades Parsifal is not hope for life in the hereafter but hope in a life restored in the here and now. One might say Wagner literally believed in Sicut in caelo et in terra. Scruton says it best when examining the purpose of Wagner’s work: “[T]he religion in Monsalvat is not based in a promise of another world. It is an invitation to live different in this world.” Wagner may not have ever been an orthodox Christian, but he certainly believed in certain truths that existed deep in the Christian spirit with all the paradoxes that accompany religion, and he sought to express them in Parsifal as though as a final atonement and plea for his own past sins. As Scruton writes, “Wagner does not stand at a distance from the worldview of his characters. He does not look on the Christian faith with irony, or dismiss it as a posture that we can longer share. On the contrary, he looks in it for signs of what is deep in all of us, and for what might be revealed and hallowed through its artistic expression.”
Indeed, the very story of Parsifal’s entry, temptation, and salvation conveys the paradoxes of religion in the world. The Spear of Destiny and the Grail are meant to be sacramental instruments of salvation. Yet they need to be used by the “pure fool” who “knows through compassion.” Klingsor desires the Spear and Grail for his own lustful purposes for power. Klingsor, in this regard, is the religious charlatan who infects all religions and gives religion a bad name. Amfortas, like old religious sages and mystics, is like the priest and religious guardian lost in form and ritual and has forgotten the original message and needs to be healed by the very sacramental instruments he is tasked to guard. Kundry is the maiden lost to lust and mockery but who will be redeemed by a chaste love and lover. Enter Parsifal.
Parsifal rejects the erotic temptations of the flower maidens. He wields the Spear and Grail without knowledge of their darker potential. He remains chaste despite Kundry’s kiss. He takes pity on the wounded Amfortas and thus brings deliverance and reconciliation to the world.
In Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, Roger Scruton is at his best as he guides us—like Virgil—through the twisty cosmos of Wagner and leaves us at the gates of paradise. Those who desire a treatment of Wagner’s final opera without the pollution of ideological criticism will find a wonderful breath of fresh air in Scruton’s treatment of the work. Likewise, those who wish to dive deeper into the story and intellectual currents that formed the opera will find it through Scruton’s guiding hand. Lastly, those who seek to have a greater understanding of the musical aesthetic of the opera will find the Bard of the West at his peak form as he deconstructs and explains the music and leitmotifs that run through the opera.
Parsifal will not save your life. But it might just point you in the right direction, especially through the guiding hand of Scruton. In a world beset by hatred, rage, and resentment, a small act of compassion and kindness can go a long way in restoring this broken world to the right relations of love long lost. In his culminating chapter, “Sin, Love, and Redemption,” Scruton shows us how the ethic of agape permeates the opera and is the ultimate message that Wagner wishes to leave us with. As Scruton brilliantly says, the path of agape “is the path taken by Parsifal, and it is a path that is open to us all.” In a world burdened by the lust to dominate the stairway to love and redemption begins with agape; we would do wise to listen to that wisdom.
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