Wagner's Parsifal, or the Cult of Liturgical Æstheticism

Edward Martyn
1913 The Irish Review (Dublin)  
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more » ... ut of keeping with those contradictions of our time, which prevail everywhere, and more especially in our own land of manifold contrariness, that if a lover of liturgical music wishes to hear something to his taste he must go for it rather to the theatre than to the church. This may at first seem enigmatical to readers who are accustomed to hear the secular art of the theatre made responsible nowadays for the deplorable decadence of church music. But if closer examined, it will be found that while the theatre is to blame in one sense, my contention is true in another sense. For instance, take a notorious example. We all know that Gounod has written much church music so called: but in reality it will be seen he has written very little; and that little is to be found in the church scene in Faust. The remainder of his so-called church music is hardly distinguishable from his customary operatic outflow. He saw that his only chance of selling his wares was to supply a vast vulgar demand. And he did sell them well, and must have made a fortune by debasing liturgical music. Where, however, he found it necessary to give the sensation of a church in Faust, that is to differentiate it in music from the music of the rest (which with the exception of the beautiful waltz and ballet music in the second act is the original well of treacle from which nearly all his subsequent compositions flowed), he was driven perforce to write some truly religious strains which he would not have dared to introduce into any of his so-called liturgical productions. Thus operatic music has arrived at such perfection among us that we will tolerate in it the fitting expression of any phase of drama--even that of liturgical feeling which we dislike so much in its proper place, the church. And there are in other operas instances of a similar kind; but as I am about to consider the most renowned and greatest, they need not be enumerated. They contribute to show that a certain definite character impossible to mistake is in all liturgical music; and the attraction which this has for certain intelligences is so great as to reduce all other forms of the art to a lesser grade in their estimation. Parsifal is the work of modern times which gives the grandest expression to this peculiar aestheticism. Indeed in its unspeakably beautiful music Wagner has written liturgical pieces which may be entitled to take their places beside Capella of the golden age, the 535 This content downloaded from on Sun,
doi:10.2307/30062978 fatcat:zhcmv4ywijg6bhd3xa5iluc3me