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After accepting Ludwig's ring and portrait, Wagner soon enjoyed the royal patronage of the king. "My only one! My godlike friend!" wrote the monarch to Wagner.

Wagner could hardly believe his good fortune and responded in kind: "O my King! You are divine!"

Because of Ludwig's homosexuality, the passionate letters exchanged between these two have led to some speculation that there was a homosexual relationship between the king and composer. But Ludwig was attracted to Wagner's artistic visions and accomplishments rather than to Wagner the man. (Wagner's physical appearance was undoubtedly a disappointment to the beauty-worshipping king.)

Still, Wagner knew how to manipulate Ludwig on his own terms and was not above encouraging the monarch's fantasies (and generosity). Thus, he responded to Ludwig's purple prose in kind. Thanks to the royal coffers, Wagner was able to mount productions of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger while finishing the score of the Ring cycle.

But not everyone among Ludwig's cabinet was as enamored of Wagner as the king. Because of Wagner's drain on the treasury, his participation in the Dresden uprising in 1849 (an act of treason), and his liaison with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of Wagner's own concert-master, Ludwig's aides urged the king to sever his relationship with the composer.

Reluctantly, Ludwig sent word to Wagner that he would have to leave Munich. But he continued to help Wagner financially throughout the rest of his life and it is probably not an exaggeration to say that without King Ludwig II's great admiration and financial support, there would not be as many complete Wagner operas as now exist and certainly not the Festival house at Bayreuth for their performances.

Parsifal: The Restoration of Male Society

Wagner's last music drama, Parsifal, was admired by the Symbolists especially because of its themes of sin and redemption. Many Symbolists viewed Christianity as a mystical inward quest and displayed a morbid fascination with the suffering of Christ. While Parsifal is Wagner's clearest Christian opera, it also turns out to be the opera with the most homosexual overtones.

Parsifal is an "innocent fool" whose task is to restore the sacred male society that is in charge of protecting the Holy Grail. The Brotherhood has fallen into decline because of the loss of the spear that pierced Christ's side and the illness that the Grail King Amfortas suffers as a result. It was while engaging in sexual relations with the witch Kundry that Amfortas lost the spear that had been his charge.

A reading of Parsifal notes that the masculine order of the Grail considers intercourse with a woman a sin, a fall from grace, or a crime against the knights. The chaste Parsifal refuses the temptations of the flower maidens and upon Kundry's attempted kiss, pulls away from her and shouts "Amfortas!"--thereby declaring his loyalty to the male order.

By refusing Kundry's seduction, Parsifal regains the sacred spear that will heal Amfortas. In a gesture that suggests both physical and spiritual union, Parsifal touches Amfortas' wound with the spear and the king is healed and redeemed. At the end of the opera, Kundry, the lone female character in the opera, is dead and the Grail Brotherhood is restored.

These aspects of Parsifal were not lost on the poet Paul Verlaine, who struggled with his own religious and sexual conflicts; in 1886, he composed a poem of the same name.

An interpretation of the opera in keeping with this reading is a 1983 film version by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Emphasizing Parsifal's , it has the young boy become a woman at the point of Kundry's kiss in Act II. In a nod to Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal, Syberberg portrays the flower maidens as deformed and ugly, suggesting that any sort of union with these women will result in sickness and death.

It is to Wagner's credit as a composer that the complex themes and interpretations of Parsifal are realized by some of the most beautiful music he ever wrote.

Robin Imhof

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Hanson, Ellis. "The Dialectic of Shame and Grace: Perfect Wagnerites." Decadence and Catholicism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. 27-43.

King, Greg. The Mad King: The Life and Times of Ludwig II of Bavaria. Secaucus, N. J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1996.

Large, David C., and William Weber, eds. Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Millington, Barry. Wagner. London: Dent, 1984.

Magee, Bryan. Aspects of Wagner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Walter Kaufmann, trans. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Panizza, Oskar. "Bayreuth and Homosexuality." Wagner 9. 2 (1988): 71-75.

Peyre, Henri, ed. Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1962.


    Citation Information
    Author: Imhof, Robin  
    Entry Title: Wagnerism  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 6, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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