It is fitting that the final book by Roger Scruton, who died in January, should be about Richard Wagner’s final opera. Scruton has already written books on the Ring Cycle and Tristan und Isolde, finding richness in both the philosophy and music of the great German composer. Sexual longing, sacrifice and the power of compassionate love—recurrent themes in Wagner—are distilled in Parsifal, which resembles a trance-like religious ceremony more than a conventional dramatic work.
For many this makes it a patience-testing work—its first act is as long as most operas. It is also a controversial one. Modern opera directors have seen its medieval knights not as heroes but precursors of blood-and-soil fascists, and the figure of Kundry, who wanders the earth after cursing Christ, as combining anti-semitism and misogyny.
Scruton is having none of that. Instead he links the character of Parsifal—a “pure fool”—to the ideas of self-sacrifice in René Girard and pollution in Mary Douglas. Wagner, he writes, “understood, as few before or after him have understood, that the sacred, the sacrificial and the sacramental are aspects of a world-changing endeavour.”
His retelling of the plot will be useful to anyone seeing the opera for the first time, though it is hard work on the page. In truth, Wagner’s stories are less interesting than the astonishing music he weaves from them. And here Scruton is a masterful guide: the leitmotifs, or repeated themes, that form and re-form throughout the piece, are broken down expertly. The “shimmering veil of orchestral sound,” as exemplified by the gleaming prelude, anticipates “the sound-world of Schoenberg” in the 20th century, as well as the techniques of film scoring.
If there is one overwhelming theme of Parsifal it is compassion for the weak—including animals. It is a delicious irony that Scruton, the arch supporter of hunting, here admires the gentler side of Wagner.
Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption by Roger Scruton (Allen Lane, £20)