Good Friday Music

From Act 3 of Parsifal, Wagner’s rewriting of Christianity for Wagnerians, the Karfreitagzauber:

The concert piece is performed without the vocal line, but in the staging of the opera this is the music to which Parsifal is anointed by Gurnemanz, his feet are washed by Kundry, who then dries them with her hair, and Parsifal baptizes Kundry. Subtle Wagner was not. And in fact, chunks of the libretto of Parsifal, carefully excerpted, can even sound orthodox. Nietzsche, one of the more perceptive Wagner acolytes, famously broke with Wagner on account of the opera, writing that Wagner “apparently most triumphant, but in truth a decaying and despairing decadent, suddenly sank down, helpless and broken, before the Christian cross.”

That overstates the case. Considered as a whole, Parsifal is impossible to comfortably reconcile with Christian orthodoxy of any stripe. (Reconciliation with heresy comes much more naturally: similarities to Marcionism in Wagner’s writings are not hard to locate. Not coincidentally, both were appropriated by the Nazis.) To his own way of thinking, Wagner was creating a new redemptive mythology to replace the old. Neither pagan nor Christian, it sits somewhere between the two. As David Goldman writes in First Things:

Wagner’s native habitat is not Teutonic paganism so much as the murky medieval frontier through which the newly Christianized Germans passed during the High Middle Ages. His main sources are twelfth-to-fourteenth-century epics that blend Christian content and pagan legend: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s thirteenth-century Grail poem Parzifal , which provided the material for both Parsifal and Lohengrin ; the thirteenth-century Minnesinger Tannhäuser ; the twelfth-century legend (in several versions) of Tristan and Iseult; and the Nibelungenlied itself, a half-Christianized redaction in Middle High German of eighth-century pagan legends. If Wagner himself was not quite a premature Nazi, he remains a horrible affirmation of Franz Rosenzweig’s claim that Christianity, once severed from its Jewish roots, would revert rapidly to paganism.

The entire Goldman piece is highly recommended. Assuming that essays on music theory are the kind of thing you find interesting.

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