The Parsifal of Richard Wagner was not only the last and loftiest work of his genius, but it is also one of the few great dramas of modern times,—a drama which unfolds striking and impressive spiritual teachings. Indeed, Parsifal may be called Richard Wagner’s great confession of faith. He takes the legend of the Holy Grail, and uses it to portray wonderfully and thrillingly the Christian truths of the beauty, the glory, and the inspiring power of the Lord’s Supper, and the infinite meaning of the redeeming love of the Cross. He reveals in this drama by poetry and music, and with a marvellous breadth and depth of spiritual conception, this theme (in his own words): “The founder of the Christian religion was not wise: He was divine. To believe in Him is to imitate Him and to seek union with Him.... In consequence of His atoning death, everything which lives and breathes may know itself redeemed.... Only love rooted in sympathy and expressed in action to the point of a complete destruction of self-will, is Christian love.” (Wagner’s Letters, 1880, pages 270, 365, 339.)
The criticism has sometimes been made that the basic religious idea of Parsifal is Buddhistic rather than Christian; that it is taken directly from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who was perhaps as nearly a Buddhist as was possible for an Occidental mind to be; that the dominating idea in Parsifal is compassion as the essence of sanctity, and that Wagner has merely clothed this fundamental Buddhistic idea with the externals of Christian form and symbolism. This criticism is ingenious. It may also suggest that all great religions in their essence have much which is akin. But no one who reads carefully Wagner’s own letters during the time that he was brooding over his Parsifal can doubt that he was trying in this drama to express in broadest and deepest way the essentials of Christian truth. Christianity has no need to go to Buddhism to find such a fundamental conception as that of an infinite compassion as a revelation of God.
The legend of the Grail, as Wagner uses it, has in it the usual accompaniments of mediaeval tradition,—something of paganism and magic. But these pagan elements are only contrasts to the purity and splendor of the simple Christian truth portrayed. The drama suggests the early miracle and mystery plays of the Christian Church; but more nearly, perhaps, it reminds one of those great religious dramas, scenic and musical, which were given at night at Eleusis, near Athens, in the temple of the Mysteries, before the initiated ones among the Greeks in the days of Pericles and Plato. Here at Bayreuth the mystic drama is given before its thousands of devout pilgrims and music-lovers who gather to the little town as to a sacred spot from all parts of the world,—from Russia, Italy, France, England, and America,—and who enter into the spirit of this noble drama and feast of music as if it were a religious festival in a temple of divine mysteries.