Parsing Parsifal: Wagner’s Erotic Kunstreligion*


  • Rafael Echevarria


Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, is an enigmatic work that resists simple understanding both as an independent work and as a work within Wagner’s oeuvre. In particular, the themes of religion and sexuality are often addressed independently, resulting in vastly different interpretations. Religious readings focus on the redemption of the Knights and its theological significance, while sexual perspectives have focused on the overcoming of sexual desire. However, these partial perspectives lack sufficient explanatory power for the opera’s overall message. Evidently, a full understanding of Wagner’s ideas requires an integrated account of both religion and sexuality, one which Roger Scruton’s philosophy provides. His post- Kantian philosophy extracts key ideas surrounding the role of erotic love, redemption, and the sacred for human existence and interaction. This article analyses Parsifa by utilising Scruton’s framework to explore the opera’s plot, characters, and music. Simultaneously addressing Wagner’s treatment of erotic love and religion elucidates previously unexamined aspects of Parsifal and re-evaluates key elements of the work. Specifically, the interplay of érōs and agape prove to be the central dynamic of the work, which paves the way for its unique form of redemption. This sacred, yet fully human, redemption is evinced through Wagner’s music and overall structure. Notably, this holistic interpretation also provides important links to Wagner’s previous works, establishing a continuity that coherently positions Parsifal within Wagner’s oeuvre. This new exegesis reveals a renewed Parsifal that concluded Wagner’s development and completed the multiple threads he spent his whole life weaving.

Author Biography

Rafael Echevarria

Rafael Echevarria is an aspiring musicologist with an eclectic range of interests—musicology, philosophy, education, to name a few. Through the generous support of the University of Sydney’s Honours Scholarship, he recently completed a BMusStudies (Honours) in Musicology under the supervision of Dr David Larkin. Rafael’s research investigates the intersection between music theory and the philosophy of music, with a particular focus on harmony and nineteenth-century music. Alongside these academic pursuits, he is an active accompanist with a particular passion for music education. Following his undergraduate degree, Rafael plans to nurture his musicological interests by pursuing postgraduate studies. This article originated from an essay written for Dr David Larkin’s New Germans: Wagner and Liszt 1848-76 subject. Its substantial development is greatly indebted to the insightful guidance of Dr Christopher Coady and the perceptive comments from a variety of reviewers and editors. The article’s final form has been infinitely improved through their feedback, and any remaining errors are wholly my own.