Parsifal – prelude

Wagner (1813-1883), in a letter to the Bavarian monarch Ludwig II, dated 28th September 1880, called his newest work Parsifal a “Bühnenweihspiel” (initiation ritual on the stage, misterium). He regarded the only appropriate theatre for staging it was at Bayreuth and indeed, rejected out of hand that is could be performed anywhere else in the future. He also was antipathetic to any concept of audiences viewing the opera as an evening's “entertainment.” So how might he have reacted to the introductory music to this opera being performed in a concert hall as an independent work? Given that Wagner died 120 years ago, it is a hypothetical question in the extreme, and clearly, posterity feels no obligation to take Wagner's pronouncements as law. It is characteristic however that on the thirtieth anniversary of Wagner's death, when according to the copyright laws of the time, his works became public domain, a vicious argument broke out between the owners of his estate and theatrical professionals whether it was permitted to perform Parisfal anywhere but at Beyreuth.


There is no doubt that Wagner's thoughts and writings always revolve around drama, which in his aesthetic, is created through the collaboration of music and theatrical spectacle. In his study of 1872 on Music Drama, he characterised his dramas as “musical deeds become visible” which reflects a point of view emphasising music as being one degree better. Aesthetically, this displacement of emphasis in the works is also valid. Wagner as the teller of the epic, appears in his own music dramas, the characters of the dramas do not become independent, and composer himself is really the principal player, as empathiser and commenting narrator, which he does primarily through the orchestra. This epic character is guaranteed through the leitmotif system, which according to Wagner's own words, enables the realisation of “a unified artistic form (…) the return of the melodic phrases extends not just to smaller individual parts of the drama but to the whole as a linking context.” The linking and variation of motifs, and their derivation from one another, reaches the highest level in Parisfal. Furthermore in this ritual drama, the opposing poles, good and evil are determined through the confrontation of the chromatic and the diatonic. Chromaticism represents the kingdom of Klingsor, the pain of Amfortas and the seduction of Kundry, while the Parsifal motif and the Grail themes are simple, ennobling diatonic.


In the Prelude we only hear the purified diatonic world as though Parsifal is a herald of a redeeming act. First we hear the syncopated rising melody of the Eucharist theme played by strings and woodwind, then the trumpets and oboes repeat the theme accompanies by the arpeggiated strings. Next, the trumpets and trombones play the celebratory, chordal Grail motif, which is followed by the tones of faith, which prevails ever more strongly and in broader sweeps. Finally, we again hear the gradually silhouetted Eucharist melody, as it closes the prelude. This music does not communicate dramatic tension but inspired an spirit rising over the mystery of redemption.

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