Another random musical treat. The prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal.
When I was a child I had a book by Roger Lancelyn Green called ‘King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table’. It was one of several books that I read so often that it fell apart. Actually, looking back, some pretty weird ideas were smuggled into my mind by that book, as they were by the books of Green’s teacher and friend C.S.Lewis. (What exactly is a small boy to make of a scene, for instance, where some knights stop in the nick of time from getting off with some pretty and delightful women, and the women promptly turn into hellish fiends? It probably scarred me for life.) But it’s quite a story, and a great example of a story that itself has a story, travelling from Britain across Europe and back again, acquiring new themes, settings, characters and subplots as it went. Even as a child I enjoyed that idea, of the story itself having a story.
The roots of it all seem to lie in the period after the Romans abandoned Britain (in 410 CE), when the Romanised and Christianised Celtic population (linguistic forebears of the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons) were attempting to fight off invasion by the pagan Germanic peoples- Angles, Saxons and Jutes – who were to become the English. Hence the lost kingdom of Logres, which Arthur’s order of knights was formed to defend. (Travel out of Wales along the M4, and you will see on the bilingual sign, ‘Welcome to England. Croeso i Loegr’. It’s still Logres in Welsh, and the English are still Saxons*, though, in one of those shifts that occur with these organic stories over time, the English came to think of Arthur as a mythical king of England, rather than a king who tried to prevent England from coming into being.)
But this only forms one element even in the main narrative arc of the Arthurian story. Another introduces a kind of original sin: Arthur’s incestuous liaison with his sister, Morgan La Fey, which resulted in the birth of his son Mordred who was eventually to betray him. Another deals with a different sexual sin that tainted the honour of the Round Table and also ultimately played a key part in its destruction: the famous adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere (which is echoed by the similar story of Tristram and Iseult). Another is the quest for the Grail. And of course there are countless other stories within the main arc. There are layers and layers to be mined here.
Wagner’s Parsifal isn’t even set in Britain, and it doesn’t deal with King Arthur’s knights, but it is based (from a medieval German source) on one of the most well-known stories within the Arthurian cycle (also drawn upon by T.S.Eliot in The Wasteland), the story of the Fisher King, the maimed guardian of the Grail, who lives in perpetual agony as a result of a wound inflicted on him by the sacred spear which pierced Christ’s side on the cross, the Dolorous Stroke of Arthurian legend. Only a ‘pure fool, enlightened by pity’ – Parsifal himself – can heal it.
The same themes, uncomfortable to modern ears, of sexual guilt and sexual pollution, run as obsessively through the opera as they run through the Arthurian stories in general, and, at some 5 hours long, the opera itself is quite a challenge just to get through – ‘I’ll think I’ll scream if that king tells us one more time about how he longs to die’, my son observed in the interval of a recent performance – but it contains some really exquisite music, including this famous prelude, which apart from being one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, seems to me to distill the particular mood or gestalt that has given this particular cycle of stories such extraordinary longevity.
* Relics of this ancient struggle are to be found all over England. Outside Cambridge, a few miles from where I live, is Fleam Dyke, a massive earthwork built by an East Anglian king to defend his lands against Celtic British forces.