Parsifal is Wagner’s last and greatest music drama. It is also his most mysterious work, a paradigm of ‘late period’ art to rank with Shakespeare’s late plays and Beethoven’s last quartets. In all of them there is a sense of urgency to convey some final vision, together with extreme difficulty for the listener or spectator in ascertaining even vaguely what that vision is. As soon as we try to put into words, to conceptualise, what Wagner, Shakespeare or Beethoven was doing, we lapse into banalities or boring mystifications. But such is the nature of sublimity that we feel impelled to go on trying to fathom it, because it would seem to give sense to the deep unease that we feel about the point of life and its inevitable termination.
Roger Scruton lived and wrote with these issues in mind. In the later books in his immense oeuvre he tackled them head on, with mainly ambiguous results. He found, as many of us do, that Wagner’s mature dramas are as demanding as anything in addressing these matters, and he wrote three books of penetrating commentary on them. The first, Death-Devoted Heart, is on Tristan und Isolde, and contains much that is enlightening, together with some preposterous claims about the relationship between passion and society. The second, The Ring of Truth, is devoted to the Ring cycle and is a masterpiece, all told the best book on Wagner I have ever read, partly because of its inconclusiveness in the face of Wagner’s most prodigious enterprise.
And now comes a book on Parsifal. Thanks to the large number of performances of this work, most of them – contrary to Wagner’s wishes and his descendants’ efforts – not in Bayreuth, and to the great quantity of audio and video recordings that have been made, we can listen