Rhinegold A work of redemption: Parsifal at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo

Colin Clarke


2:27, 29th May 2020


Book Review:

Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption

by Roger Scruton

208 pages, Allen Lane

As one might expect from the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton (who sadly died on January 12, 2020, shortly after completing this book), the range of reference here is vast. Luminaries such as Kant and T S Eliot, whom Scruton had praised elsewhere, are perhaps inevitable guides. But this is Scruton’s own examination of ‘The Music of Redemption’, as the book’s subtitle calls it: ‘Wagner’s answer to a question that concerns us all … how to live in right relation with others, even if there is no God to help us’. The true meaning of Parsifal, he posits, is that we may be ‘redeemed from our faults’ via an unnamed ‘Redeemer’.

Compassion, says Scruton, is the ‘sole but sufficient answer to our suffering and the key to the meaning of our world’; his purpose in this book is to clarify that philosophy, first by tracing the Parsifal’s ‘ancient and respectable’ lineage from Eschenbach’s 13th-century narrative romance Parzifal; later, Joseph Campbell’s indispensable work on comparative myth and religion (and Frazer’s Golden Bough), Schopenhauer, Lucy Beckett and Ulrike Kienzle.

The structure of the book is such that the first four chapters may be read by those with only a ‘passing acquaintance’ to music notation. ‘The Quest’ introduces the story, putting it into its literary and religious perspective, as well as discussing its place in liberal individualism from Locke to John Rawls. We see Parsifal himself in liminal state (wishing to belong to the World but unsure of how) and trace the Grail legend. In ‘Wagner’s Treatment of the Story’, Scruton further examines the Grail history, including etymology and a long exegesis of the story – a summary not to be skimmed, as it is far more than this. Littered with insight, Scruton’s prose is magnificent (Amfortas’ motif ‘wobbles on its augmented triad as if every note were a jolt of pain’). Via a detailed deconstruction of the Prophesy (‘Durch Mitleid wissend …’), Scruton succinctly demonstrates how motifs shift meaning. He sees the three acts as three tableaux of a triptych, ‘…a holistic experience that is the life of religion in its entirety’.

With the third chapter, ‘Confronting the Enigma,’ Scruton examines staged attempts to wrestle with Parsifal, and includes a swipe at Regietheater: ‘staging, costumes, setting and even plot are rewritten according to the clever ideas of the producer, whose ego stands between the audience and the drama’. Both Stefan Herheim and Dmitri Tcherniakov come under this heading. Spanning all of this is the music itself: ‘The musical material fragments and re-forms in response to diverse emotions and then brings them together in an all-comprehending resolution that has been earned dramatically and musically.’

The fourth chapter, ‘Sin, Love and Redemption’, sees Parsifal’s compassion as a form of knowledge; redemption as compassion and an active confrontation with suffering. Very much with his Kantian goggles on, Scruton moves through a discussion of agape (as the highest form of love, outside of which Kundry lives) through Kierkegaard to Schopenhauer. Finally, Chapters 5 and 6, ‘The Music’ and ‘The Principal Leitmotifs’. ‘The Music’ refers to Wagner’s techniques: the importance of enharmonics to move from one consonance to another; themes weaving in and out of textures indicative of the dynamic between chronos and kairos (clock time and, simplified, ‘quality’ of time, or a supratemporal understanding of events). To this, and following Derrick Everett’s terminology, the opening ‘Grundthema’ stands ‘at the front of the work like the ceremonial entrance to a temple’. Scruton memorably refers to scenes washed in consonance ‘erasing any sense of tonal grammar’ and of a ‘super-saturated consonance’.

Scruton’s consideration of other commentators is never less than fascinating: Heinrich Schenker (‘not unlike the fascination exerted by Ptolomaic cosmology over medieval astronomers’); Carl Dahlhaus (long-term) versus Alfred Lorenz (short-term). But perhaps the final chapter’s Leitmotif list and commentary, taking into account von Wolzogen, Kufferath and Derrick Everett (www.monsalvat.no) is the most immediately useful part of the musical section, succinct, open in references, and clear in layout.

In his weaving of philosophy and musicology into an explication of redemption via the vehicle of compassion, this is an unparalleled, sadly posthumously published offering. It is at once required reading and a launch pad for an infinitude of musings. It is also, it should be clearly stated, magisterial.


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