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Parsifal, Act III

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Richard Wagner
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Celebrating Wagner at 200: Act III of Parsifal, in concert Oct. 10 - 12, 2013
© Peter Laki


The scene is a forest near the castle where the Holy Grail is preserved. The saintly old hermit Gurnemanz hears someone groaning and discovers Kundry-the mysterious female figure who is a healer, a seer, a seductress and a cursed soul. Kundry's one word spoken during this act (dienen, to serve) shows that she now wants only to submit herself to a higher power. 

Parsifal, the innocent fool who was driven away from the Grail because of his insensitivity in Act I and was enlightened by Kundry's kiss in Act II, reappears as a penitent pilgrim after many years of solitary wandering. He bears the holy spear of the Grail, which Grail King Amfortas had once lost to Klingsor and which Parsifal has won back from that evil magician. It is Good Friday. Amfortas's father, the old King Titurel, has just died, and Amfortas, suffering from a wound that never heals, is refusing to perform the holy rites (doing so would only prolong his life which he desperately wishes to end). Parsifal has recognized that he has been chosen to save the Holy Grail. Kundry washes and anoints Parsifal's feet, and Gurnemanz, after blessing him with holy water, proclaims him the new King of the Grail. Parsifal gives Kundry the sacrament of baptism and, as they all behold the miraculous transformation of nature ("Good Friday Spell"), they proceed to the castle where they witness Titurel's funeral and are confronted with Amfortas's undying pain. Parsifal touches Amfortas's wound with the  same spear that had caused it, and the wound instantly heals. As the new King, Parsifal performs the holy rite, thereby saving the entire Grail community.


Parsifal is a drama about healing and compassion. As Wagner's last work, it is in many ways his artistic testament-a summation of many of the ideas that run through the 40 years of his creative career.

The opera was not completed until 1882, but the topic had been at the back of Wagner's mind since the mid-1840s, when he first read the medieval epic Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, who is one of the main characters in Tannhäuser (1845). The protagonist of Lohengrin (1848) is none other than Parsifal's son, and Parsifal (Wagner changed the spelling of the name) is mentioned explicitly at the end of Lohengrin's Gralserzählung ("Narrative of the Grail").

Returning to the Grail theme armed with the experience of the revolutionary music dramas The Ring of the Nibelung and Tristan and Isolde, Wagner could avail himself of a new musical language enriched by advanced chromatic harmonies, a highly developed system of leitmotivs, and a deeper philosophical understanding of ancient myths. Parsifal's journey toward self-discovery is set against the mystery of Good Friday and Easter-renewal in nature and liberation from suffering.

Act III opens with a tension-laden, slow orchestral prelude: a musical image of the turmoil from which the world needs to be saved.  In each of the act's two scenes, Parsifal-having himself undergone a redeeming transformation-brings redemption to two flawed characters: first to Kundry, in a private act, and then to Amfortas, in front of the entire Grail community. Musically, each of these healing acts is accompanied by a definite brightening of the musical idiom: the tortured harmonic ambivalence gives way to more clearly defined tonalities as suffering is alleviated and spiritual peace restored. Between the two redemptions, while the scene changes from the forest hut to the temple, we hear the magnificent music of the "Good Friday Spell," often performed as a separate orchestral excerpt. In this deeply moving paean to the beauty of nature and the eternal renewal of springtime, the rejuvenation of the visible world is seen as the external reflection of the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Day.

According to a recent commentator, Parsifal cannot be just "performed"; it must be celebrated. This sacral quality becomes evident in the final portion of the opera, which begins with the funeral march of the knights and continues with Amfortas's final, painful outcry. Parsifal's appearance with the healing spear leads directly into the concluding chorus and the protagonist's apotheosis.