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Sunday, November 22, 2015



Wagner's Sources for his "PERCIVALLE" (that opened in Bologna in 1914) are too complex to be true!

Wagner's Grail Studies inform it all!

During his Dresden years (1843-49), Riccardo Wagner found many ideas for stage works in medieval literature.

Some of those ideas Wagner would develop into "melodrammi" (such as Lohengrin, the Ring,  Die Meistersinger, Tristano, and "PERCIVALLE").

Other ideas remained no more than possible subjects for musical and dramatic treatment (such as Wieland der Schmied).

The starting point for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, as every Wagnerian surely knows, was a Middle High German epic, the Nibelungen Lied.

Wagner's studies for the Ring did not end there, however.

He proceeded to read other medieval sagas, studies of medieval literature by scholars such as the Grimm brothers and not least the Old Norse Eddas.

As far as scholars have been able to discover, Wagner's first contact with the myth of PERCIVALLE was the poem "Parzival."

This is by Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Wagner read the poem at Marienbad in 1845.

The first melodramma that resulted from his reading of Wolfram was "Lohengrin".

This was in outline based upon the last section of Wolfram's poem, seeing that Lohengrin is Percivalle's son.

More than a decade later, when Wagner returned to PERCIVALLE, he found (as he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk) the Wolfram's poem unsatisfactory.

More specifically, he found it unsatisfactory as the basis for a melodramma.

As with the Ring, Wagner began to explore other versions of the same legend.

Of the many versions of the Percevalian myth, at least three were available to him (in the 1860's and 1870's):

(a) Wolfram's PERCIVALLE (in various translations including that by Görres)

(b) Chrétien's PERCIVALLE (in the modern French translation by Potvin) -- and

(c)  the anonymous  "Peredur" (first in the French translation by de Villemarqué and later in a German translation by San-Marte).

Die heil'ge Quelle selbst... The Forest Well in Marienbad, drawn in 1840. Wagner came to this spa to
drink the mineral waters in 1845.

Wolfram's PERCIVALLE is based on the poem by Chrétien di Troyes, together with at least two other sources that have not survived.

There is some evidence, although, that only at third hand, had Wagner read Chrétien's "Perceval: The Story of the Grailand".

Wagner had also read its so-called continuations, in a modern French version, in 1872.

This is mentioned in Du Moulin Eckhart's biography of Cosim Wagner, in which he records that Wagner  had studied the Grail legend in Wolfram von Eschenbach and Chrétien de Troyes, and
now again the remarkable and unique book by Goerres -- the translator of Wolfram von Eschenbach --which is more invention than fact, and that this stimulated Wagner's creative process.

Chrétien had drawn upon a tradition of Celtic stories.

These included possibly an early version of "Peredur", son of Evrawc.

Alternatively, the tale of Peredur might have been based on an imperfect recollection of Chrétien's poem!

The story of PERCIVALLE and his father appeared in the Comte de Villemarqué's "Contes populaires des anciens Bretons" (Popular tales of the Ancient Britons).

This compilation Wagner read while in Paris in 1860.

Chrétien's "PERCIVALLE", strictly "Li Contes del Graal" or "Percivalle il gallo") roughly follows the story of Peredur (or the reverse) up to and including the meeting with the hermit on Good Friday.

Wagner's Bayreuth library also contains a volume by San-Marte of Tales from the Mabinogion (Die Arthur-Sage und die Märchen des rothen Buchs von Hergest).

The same Celtic stories inspired other writings in which the Holy Grail became a Christian symbol.

This variation was also adopted by some of the authors who attempted to complete Chrétien's unfinished "PERCIVALLE IL GALLO".

Wagner may have found this interpretation, which he claimed for his own, there, or possibly in a summary of another work: Robert de Boron's "Joseph d'Arimathie."

This poem by Boron tells the story of Joseph and his family, guardians of the Christian Grail.

Its first part is based on the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.

There are two sequels, the poem "Merlino" and the poem "Percivalle".

The second of these either is not written by de Boron or completed by another hand.

There is no evidence that Wagner had any direct knowledge of Robert de Boron, however.

Boron's writings were rediscovered in the early 19th century and first published in modern French in 1841.

But some indirect knowledge of de Boron's work cannot be ruled out.

Grail romances were by no means the only sources drawn upon by Wagner as he developed his libretto for "PERCIVALLE".

There are other works of literature (in various genres including poems, novels and scriptures) that beyond all reasonable doubt provided ideas for Wagner's libretto.

Three of them are:

--  the medieval romance "Roman d'Alexandre".

-- the religious poem "Barlaam und Josaphat" and

-- the 19th century novel, "Le juif errant".

Then there's the influence of the Buddhist literature of northern India on the text of "PERCIVALLE", with particular reference to two incidents in the opera that derive from these sources.

Wagner was reticent about his sources, even dismissive of the influence of Wolfram.

He told Cosima that Wolfram's text had nothing to do with PERCIVALLE.

When Wagner read the epic, he first said to himself that nothing could be done with it, but two things stuck in his mind:

a) the Good Friday,
b) the wild appearance of Condrie.

That is all it was.

In particular, he found the Question an unsatisfactory element of the plot.

But Wolfram was without doubt important as a stimulus for Wagner's thinking and further reading.

Wagner's Bayreuth library, as preserved at Haus Wahnfried, contains only one text of Chrétien's "Percivalle".

If it is the edition that Wagner studied in 1872.

Several interesting points can be noted.

The book is Ch. Potvin's "PERCIVALLE IL GALLO" and consists of 7 volumes, published between 1866 and 1871.

They contain the following:


Vol. i:  

Le roman en prose.

According to Sebastian Evans, in his Introduction, his translation of the anonymous "Perlesvaus" was made from the first volume of Potvin, published in 1866.

************************* CHRETIEN IN TWO VOLUMES ********************

Volumes ii and iii: 

"PERCIVALLE IL GALLO", believed to be entirely by Chrétien de Troyes. 1866.


Vol. iv: The First Continuation TO CHRETIEN.

This is an anonymous story about Gawain.

There are several versions of this continuation.

It is not present in the manuscript translated by Potvin,

Two of the manuscripts contain an interpolation that tells the same story as de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, although in much less detail. 1866.


Vol. v:  The Second Continuation TO CHRETIEN.

This is by one Gautier or Wauchier de Denain.

According to Jessie L. Weston, the First and Second Continuations are not so much a completion of Chrétien's PERCIVALLE IL GALLO.

They are a re-telling of a Grail story in which Gawain, and NOT PERCIVALLE IL GALLO, is the hero.

Weston believes the original of this story to have been composed by a Welsh poet, Bleheris, Blihis or Bréri.

The original ending was not included in the manuscript translated by Potvin.

It has survived in a single manuscript. 1868.


Vol. vi:   Gerbert de Montreuil's Continuation.

This continuation is incomplete.

The ending of this Continuation may have been discarded and lost.

It now forms a bridge between the extant Second and Third Continuations. 1870.

The original version was probably written in parallel with and independently of the third continuation.


Vol. vii:  The Third Continuation, by Manessier.

This is apparently derived in part from "Perlesvaus" and from the Quest of the Holy Grail. 1870.


The first point to note is that Lucy Beckett was wrong in her assertion that the continuations to Chretien's "PERCIVALLE IL GALLO" were not differentiated in the text Wagner would have read.

They were published in separate volumes.

The change in style from volume iii to volume iv (since the First Continuation has the character of an oral recitation) would have been fairly obvious.

It is the First Continuation that identifies the bleeding spear with that of Longino.

The Second continuation introduces the element that the holy Grail contains the blood of Christ.

This is important because neither of these features appear in "PERCIVALLE IL GALLO".

This interpretation of the Grail is also found in other versions of the story.

However, even in the early romances, there is considerable variation in the concept of the Grail.

According to Wolfram it is a stone that fell from heaven.

Much more importantly, Wagner's bookshelf contains volume i, "Perlesvaus".

This account of the Grail legend has many parallels with Wolfram's poem.

For example, in the emphasis on healing the Grail king -- the theme of the Waste Land is missing.

PERLESVAUS differs from the latter (and from Chrétien's PERCIVALLE) in two important respects.

First, the Grail king is not physically wounded, but has fallen into languishment, i.e. he is only SPIRITUALLY disabled.

Second, there is a unique emphasis on the failure of the Quester.

Both elements may be detected in Wagner's poem.

An interesting feature of Perlesvaus (also present in Peredur) is this.

The Grail-bearer and the Loathly Damsel (or High Messenger) are one and the same.

The last point to note was made by Jessie Weston in "From Ritual to Romance".

In the manuscript translated by Potvin, the First Continuation states that the Grail-bearer weeps piteously.

It is tempting to conclude that Wagner's version of the story was influenced by his reading of the first volume of Potvin.

Unfortunately, however, none of Potvin was published before 1866.

But we have Wagner's prose draft of 1865 which contains all of the elements mentioned above.

If Wagner was familiar with "Perlesvaus" in 1865, it must have been as a result of reading secondary sources such as San-Marte's Parzival-study (1861).

Wagner's Bayreuth library contains several books by San-Marte -- the pseudonym of Albert Schulz.

One of them contains extracts from "Der jüngere Titurel," once thought to have been written by Wolfram von Eschenbach, but now attributed to Albrecht von Scharfenberg.

"The younger Titurel" is a continuation of Wolfram's unfinished poem "Titurel" and it relates the love story of Sigûne (PERCIVALLE's cousin) and Schionatulander.

It might be useful to list the most significant sources of Parsifal.

A "definitive" list would be difficult to produce and is unlikely to be beyond criticism.

There is much that is relevant in the reading matter mentioned in the copious biographical documentation.

Much of it is recorded by Cosima Wagner, or by Richard Wagner himself.

It is likely that he read many other things that have not been recorded: books, articles in periodicals, journals or newspapers.

Nor do we always know what ideas he received second-hand, in conversation with Cosima -- like Wagner, Cosima was well-read, especially in the French classics -- or with one of his friends and acquaintances, or in correspondence.

So any list of sources must be to some extent speculative, concerning what Wagner read and when.

This is selective, since the relative importance of source material is subjective.

It depends upon what the commentator considers Wagner's drama to be about.

 For what it is worth, then, here is the checklist:


In the summer of 1845, Wagner reads Wolfram von Eschenbach's poem "PERCIVALLE" whilst on vacation.

At this stage it is no more than one among many possible subjects for dramatic treatment.

Wagner does not seem to have thought any more about "PERCIVALLE".

Then Wagner considered introducing him into the last act of "Tristano" -- but changed his mind.

Between 1842 and 1848, Wagner reads Rudolf von Ems' translation of "Barlaam und Josaphat."

This appears as item no. 8 in von Westernhagen's catalogue of Wagner's Dresden library.

Not earlier than 1850, Wagner reads the "Roman d'Alexandre".

In 1855, Wagner reads Arthur Schopenhauer's essay. The essay is entitled, "On the Basis of Morality."

Wagner learns that the only viable basis of morality is COMPASSION or empathy (mitlied).

The section of this essay concerning hunting is of direct relevance to the swan incident in PERCIVALLE.

In the Spring of 1856, following up a reference in Schopenhauer's On the Will in Nature, Wagner reads Eugène Burnouf''s "Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism".

Burnouf finds the idea of becoming wise through compassion (Mitleide)

Burnouf provides a story that becomes the scenario for a Buddhist drama, Die Sieger.

Between 1856 and 1857, in search of background for the further development of "Die Sieger", Wagner reads various accounts of the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Wagner notes the parallels between the early life of the Buddha and the sheltered youth of Wolfram's hero "PERCIVALLE".

In 1859, Wagner returns to Wolfram's "PERCIVALLE".

He writes to Mathilde saying that he can to nothing with this "thoroughly immature phenomenon".

In August 1860, in Paris, Wagner reads the tale of "Peredur", son of Evrawc, in French.

Not earlier than 1866, Wagner reads at least part of Robert Spence Hardy's "Manual of Buddhism."

This title first came to his attention when he read Schopenhauer's "On the Will in Nature" in 1855.

Iin the chapter headed, "Sinology", here is a reading list about Buddhism.

This book is item no. 24 on that list.

Wagner's interest in the book would have been stimulated on reading about it in the third edition of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation.

Between 1860 and 1877, Wagner reads more about Buddhism, at first in secondary sources.

Later the Sutras in the edition of Coomara Swamy.

Not earlier than 1866, Wagner reads Potvin's editions of "Perlesvaus" and (in 1872 if not before) of Chrétien's " PERCIVALLE IL GALLO".

Not earlier than 1868, Wagner reads Potvin's edition of the many continuations to Chretien's "PERCIVALLE IL GALLO".

In October 1872, Wagner reads the preface to Joseph Görres' edition of Lohengrin.

Here Wagner finds the hypothesis that the name "PERCIVALLE" derives from the Arabic, "fal parsi", supposedly meaning, "pure fool".

Between 1872 and 1877, Wagner reads diverse literature about the origins of Christianity, together with Church history.

In 1875,  in search of details (such as names for minor characters) for the poem of "PERCIVALLE", reads San-Marte's "PERCIVALLE" study but finds it of little help.

In April 1877, Wagner completes the libretto of Parsifal.

 In his autobiography Mein Leben (My Life) Wagner wrote:

I suddenly said to myself that this was Good Friday and recalled how meaningful this had seemed to me in Wolfram's "PERCIVALLE".

Ever since that stay in Marienbad, where I had conceived Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had not taken another look at that poem.

Now its ideality came to me in overwhelming form, and from the idea of Good Friday I quickly sketched out an entire drama in three acts..

So Wagner had not looked at "PERCIVALLE" since 1845, nor is there any evidence that he had read any other Grail romances during the intervening twelve years.

Wagner sketched out in the inspiration of a spring morning in 1857.

Wagner only returned to PERCIVALLE" two years later, after Mathilde Wesendonk had sent him a new edition of Wolfram's poem.

And the rest is musical history!

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