Opera by Richard Wagner
Parsifal (1882 retuschiert).jpg
Amalie Materna, Emil Scaria and Hermann Winkelmann in the first production of the Bühnenweihfestspiel at the Bayreuth Festival
Based onParzival
by Wolfram von Eschenbach
Premiere26 July 1882 (1882-07-26)
Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Parsifal (WWV 111) is an opera in three acts by German composer Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a 13th-century epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail (12th century).

Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but did not finish it until twenty-five years later. It was Wagner's last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular acoustics of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Parsifal was first produced at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The Bayreuth Festival maintained a monopoly on Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Wagner described Parsifal not as an opera, but as Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage").[1] At Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there be no applause after the first act of the opera.

Wagner's spelling of Parsifal instead of the Parzival he had used up to 1877 is informed by an erroneous etymology of the name Percival deriving it from a supposedly Persian origin, Fal Parsi meaning "pure fool".[2]


Wagner first read von Eschenbach's poem Parzival while taking the waters at Marienbad in 1845.[3] After encountering Arthur Schopenhauer's writings in 1854,[4] Wagner became interested in oriental philosophies, especially Buddhism. Out of this interest came Die Sieger (The Victors, 1856) a sketch Wagner wrote for an opera based on a story from the life of Buddha.[5] The themes which were later explored in Parsifal of self-renouncing, reincarnation, compassion, and even exclusive social groups (castes in Die Sieger, the Knights of the Grail in Parsifal) were first introduced in Die Sieger.[6]

According to his own account, recorded in his autobiography Mein Leben, Wagner conceived Parsifal on Good Friday morning, April 1857, in the Asyl (German: "Asylum"), the small cottage on Otto Wesendonck's estate in the Zürich suburb of Enge, which Wesendonck – a wealthy silk merchant and generous patron of the arts – had placed at Wagner's disposal, through the good offices of his wife Mathilde Wesendonck.[7] The composer and his wife Minna had moved into the cottage on 28 April:[8]

... on Good Friday I awoke to find the sun shining brightly for the first time in this house: the little garden was radiant with green, the birds sang, and at last I could sit on the roof and enjoy the long-yearned-for peace with its message of promise. Full of this sentiment, I suddenly remembered that the day was Good Friday, and I called to mind the significance this omen had already once assumed for me when I was reading Wolfram's Parzival. Since the sojourn in Marienbad [in the summer of 1845], where I had conceived Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had never occupied myself again with that poem; now its noble possibilities struck me with overwhelming force, and out of my thoughts about Good Friday I rapidly conceived a whole drama, of which I made a rough sketch with a few dashes of the pen, dividing the whole into three acts.

However, as his second wife Cosima Wagner later reported on 22 April 1879, this account had been colored by a certain amount of poetic licence:[9]

R[ichard] today recalled the impression which inspired his "Good Friday Music"; he laughs, saying he had thought to himself, "In fact it is all as far-fetched as my love affairs, for it was not a Good Friday at all – just a pleasant mood in Nature which made me think, 'This is how a Good Friday ought to be'".

The work may indeed have been conceived at Wesendonck's cottage in the last week of April 1857, but Good Friday that year fell on 10 April, when the Wagners were still living at Zeltweg 13 in Zürich.[10] If the prose sketch which Wagner mentions in Mein Leben was accurately dated (and most of Wagner's surviving papers are dated), it could settle the issue once and for all, but unfortunately it has not survived.

Wagner did not resume work on Parsifal for eight years, during which time he completed Tristan und Isolde and began Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Then, between 27 and 30 August 1865, he took up Parsifal again and made a prose draft of the work; this contains a fairly brief outline of the plot and a considerable amount of detailed commentary on the characters and themes of the drama.[11] But once again the work was dropped and set aside for another eleven and a half years. During this time most of Wagner's creative energy was devoted to the Ring cycle, which was finally completed in 1874 and given its first full performance at Bayreuth in August 1876. Only when this gargantuan task had been accomplished did Wagner find the time to concentrate on Parsifal. By 23 February 1877 he had completed a second and more extensive prose draft of the work, and by 19 April of the same year he had transformed this into a verse libretto (or "poem", as Wagner liked to call his libretti).[12]

In September 1877 he began the music by making two complete drafts of the score from beginning to end. The first of these (known in German as the Gesamtentwurf and in English as either the Preliminary Draft or the First Complete Draft) was made in pencil on three staves, one for the voices and two for the instruments. The second complete draft (Orchesterskizze, Orchestral Draft, Short Score or Particell) was made in ink and on at least three, but sometimes as many as five, staves. This draft was much more detailed than the first and contained a considerable degree of instrumental elaboration.[13]

The second draft was begun on 25 September 1877, just a few days after the first: at this point in his career Wagner liked to work on both drafts simultaneously, switching back and forth between the two so as not to allow too much time to elapse between his initial setting of the text and the final elaboration of the music. The Gesamtentwurf of act 3 was completed on 16 April 1879 and the Orchesterskizze on the 26th of the same month.[14]

The full score (Partiturerstschrift) was the final stage in the compositional process. It was made in ink and consisted of a fair copy of the entire opera, with all the voices and instruments properly notated according to standard practice. Wagner composed Parsifal one act at a time, completing the Gesamtentwurf and Orchesterskizze of each act before beginning the Gesamtentwurf of the next act; but because the Orchesterskizze already embodied all the compositional details of the full score, the actual drafting of the Partiturerstschrift was regarded by Wagner as little more than a routine task which could be done whenever he found the time. The prelude of act 1 was scored in August 1878. The rest of the opera was scored between August 1879 and 13 January 1882.[15]

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