Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wagner's Parsifal

Many of the authors and philosophers we have studied in the last couple of weeks have been very interested in the work of Richard Wagner; Baudelaire greatly admired him, Nietzche did for part of his career, and T. S. Eliot refers to him several times in The Waste Land (snobbish comment: it's The Waste Land, not Waste Land or The Wasteland).   For the most part, they seem to be intrigued by his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art", meaning an archetypal legend expressed through multiple forms of art simultaneously acting to create a single impression.  Also, the generally heroic, sometimes neoclassical nature of his work appealed to their sense that society had drifted too far from its roots.

One opera that is particularly relevant to The Waste Land is Wagner's last, Parsifal.  The four-hour opera (the length is pretty typical of Wagner; his masterpiece Der Ring des Nibelungen, which I mentioned in a previous post, can last 16 hours) is, in terms of plot, a pretty straightforward and predictable rendition of the Grail legend.  I am ashamed to admit that I have not listened to the whole opera or a recording thereof (and nor do I plan to).  Wagner is all about the impression of the music itself, so without further ado here is a recording:

Unfortunately I could not find a video recording, so anybody who takes it upon themselves to listen to the whole thing will probably not be able to follow the plot.  However, just from listening to the overture (the ~12 minute long orchestral introduction), you can grasp the overall tone and point of the piece.  Wagner's supporters raved  (and still rave) about their adoration; others called it prosaic, predictable, and unoriginal.  Anyway, while he doesn't go into all of the fertility-cult stuff, Wagner is otherwise similar to Eliot in his portrayal of the grail legend, using it as the apotheosis of Christian ideals, chivalry, and traditional European values.

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