Composers Datebook®

Seeing things at Wagner's "Parsifal"

Composer's Datebook - July 26, 2023


On today’s date in 1882, the first performance of Richard Wagner’s new opera “Parsifal” took place at the Bayreuth Festival in Bavaria. In the audience was a 25-year old American named Gustav Kobbé, an ardent opera fan who would go on to write “Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book,” a standard reference work on the subject.

As Kobbé watched the opening scene of Parsifal, his gaze became fixed on one spot of the painted scenery, depicting a pile of rocks. Was that Wagner’s face painted on one of the rocks? Or was that Wagner himself, staring out at the singers on stage? During the intermission, Kobbé asked others if they had seen what he had, but they just looked at him as if the heat of the Bavarian summer had affected the young American’s brain.

But after the opera Kobbé asked one of the singers, who was surprised at his sharp eyesight, but confirmed what he saw. To ensure that singers followed his specific directions where to stand and when to move, Wagner had, in fact, been standing on stage amid the painted rocks. To all eyes but Kobbé’s, Wagner’s craggy, sun-tanned face had blended in perfectly with the painted scenery.

Music Played in Today's Program

Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) Act I excerpt, fr Parsifal Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; James Levine, conductor. DG 437 501

On This Day


  • 1782 - Irish composer and pianist John Field, in Dublin

  • 1791 - Austrian composer and pianist Franz Xaver Mozart in Vienna; He was the sixth child and youngest surviving son of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who died in December of 1791 when Franz Xaver was less than a year old); Franz Xaver studied with Hummel and Salieri, among others

  • 1856 - British dramatist and music critic George Bernard Shaw, in Dublin

  • 1874 - Russian-born American double-bass player, conductor and new music patron, Serge Koussevitzky, in Vishny-Volochok (Julian date: July 14) ; He was engaged as the permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony, a post he held for 25 years

  • 1876 - American composer, conductor and pianist Ernest Schelling, in Belvidere, N.J.

  • 1949 - South African-born Irish composer Kevin Volans, in Pietermaritsburg


  • 1882 - Wagner: opera "Parsifal," in Bayreuth at the Festpielhaus, Herrmann Levi conducting

  • 1940 - Henry Cowell: "Pastoral and Fiddler's Delight," by the All-American Youth Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting

  • 1985 - Elliott Carter: "Penthode" at London's Royal Albert Hall, with the Ensemble InterContemporain and the Paris Orchestral Ensemble conducted by Pierre Boulez

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®