In the Footsteps of Wagner: Writing 'Parsifal' in Italy

Tuesday, October 04, 2016 - 03:34 PM

Entrance to Villa Rufolo in Ravello (Fred Plotkin)

RAVELLO, Italy—Richard Wagner spent a great amount of time in Italy and, like so many other composers, found great inspiration here and reveled in its many pleasures. Perhaps I will one day write a book about how this beautiful nation influenced many of the greatest composers, including Berlioz, Elgar, Grieg, Handel, Mahler, Mozart, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner.

It was in La Spezia on the Italian Riviera that Wagner first heard the famous E-flat chord that he developed into becoming the beginning of Das Rheingold and, by extension, all of the Ring Cycle. He made many journeys to Italy throughout his life and, in fact, died in Venice in February 1883.

As was the case with most of his works, his final opera, Parsifal, had a very long gestation. In “Mein Leben,” his memoir, he claimed that he had the idea to compose an opera based on this story when he read it on the morning of Good Friday in 1857 while staying at the home of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck in Zurich, who were his patrons until Wagner became romantically attached to Mathilde.

Wagner’s second wife, Cosima, said his recollection was fanciful. The character Parsifal was already mentioned in 1850, when the title character of Lohengrin says he is Parsifal’s son. Chances are that Wagner read the story even earlier because it was written by the real-life Wolfram von Eschenbach, a 13th Century minstrel who is the friend of Tannhäuser in the opera of that name, which had its first version performed in 1845. In that same year he read the story of Parsifal (called “Parzival”) while staying at the Marienbad spa. We know that Wagner began work on the libretto for Parsifal in 1865 but put it aside several times to work on other projects, especially Der Ring des Nibelungen. The libretto was completed in 1877.

Italy was fundamental in the composition of Parsifal. As was often the case, Wagner was short of money but not of hubris. He had no shame in living off the kindness and largesse of others. In this case, it was the hospitality of the Lanza family, titled nobility in Sicily who held vast amounts of land (including the estate that still produces the excellent Regaleali Tasca-Almerita wines).

The Lanzas had a palace in Mondello, a beautiful seaside town just west of Palermo. Wagner and his wife Cosima stayed there while he composed the music to the first act of Parsifal. A number of years ago I visited the family’s wine estate and met one of the daughters, Costanza, who is the keeper of the Wagnerian flame among the Lanzas (although one of the brothers was actively involved too as the head of the Italian Cultural Institute in New York). Costanza proudly showed me a score of Parsifal in the composer’s hand.

When I am in Mondello, there is something in the softly undulating waves that make me hear music from the first act of the opera (which, in fact, Wagner did not call an opera but ein Bühnenweihfestspiel—a stage-consecrating work intended to inaugurate the Festspeielhaus on the famous Green Hill in Bayreuth). Parsifal had its premiere on July 26, 1882.

Apparently Wagner struggled to find the inspiration for Klingsor’s magic garden where the Flower Maidens and Kundry attempt to seduce Parsifal. This is all for naught as the confused young man holds fast against their wooing. It was only when Wagner arrived in Ravello, perched above the Amalfi Coast, that he decided that the gardens of the Villa Rufolo here resembled what his imagination told him Klingsor’s garden looked like.

 Wagner stayed at the villa to write the second act of his opera. Even now the town is relatively quiet, with just a discreet amount of tourism. It must have been a tranquil paradise in the late 1870s when he was here. Wagner would have feasted on excellent mozzarella and tomatoes one can still savor today. Ravello produces a deliciously earthy wine in both white and red. No doubt Wagner fell under “the influence of the wine cup” as Henrik Ibsen described Ravello’s effect on him as he wrote “Peer Gynt” there and Amalfi.

 Ravello is just enough removed from the touristic hubbub of the Amalfi Coast that one can find the necessary requirements for peace. The writer Gore Vidal lived here for decades and wrote most of his books here. The sensorial gratification that Ravello brings must have had a powerful effect on Wagner’s creative juices.

The final act of Parsifal was composed in Venice. That city has its own special acoustics but must have come as a shock to Wagner in terms of sound of the place, especially after that silences of Mondello and Ravello. In Venice, even in the busiest areas, one can hear the echoes of voices and of sounds of human life. The lapping of water against the walls of the canals. It is not so much that Venice is silent as that it is inevitable that one hears everything that would be lost in the din of a noisier city. Wagner would have had to tune out so much to achieve the otherworldly and deeply mystical music of Parsifal.

When it comes to any creative person, but especially Wagner, it is not easy to assess where he may have derived inspiration. But traveling in his footsteps and listening to the rustle of trees, the splash of water on beaches and eating the same food he would have known, results in experiencing a sense of place as he might have known them and wondering anew at how genius works.

Listen to the entire opera and come to your own conclusions.


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Comments [4]

Howard from Florida

Re Mendelssohn's melody: Yes, the theme taken (or borrowed, say what you wish) from Mendelssohn is called the "Dresden Amen".

Oct. 08 2016 06:32 AM
Brian McNally from USA, NY

Excellent article, however perhaps mention should be made about the theme of "Parsifal". Wagner who continually attended lectures etc. by Mendelssohn and later on basically badmouthed him, lifted Parsifal's theme from Mendelssohn's 5th Symphony. Don't believe, go listen to Mendelssohn's 5th. Where Mendelssohn resolves the theme ala classical style, Wagner chromatized it continuing into other keys as was his style and a very new idea at the time. One musician stands on the shoulders of what went before.

Oct. 06 2016 12:38 PM
Alan J. Stein, MD from Brooklyn, NY

Great article. It is interesting to recognize the relationship of one's environment to creativity and productivity. Maybe we should all travel to Italy to find our muse. :)

Oct. 05 2016 02:30 PM

What a fine article. Thanks.

Oct. 05 2016 12:58 PM

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