The Bells of Monsalvat
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n Wagner's score, the transformations in Acts 1 and 3 are accompanied by an
ostinato theme on bells: C, G, A and E. Sometimes alone, sometimes in unison with the
The sun is at its zenith; the time for the sacred
meal approaches. Parz., supporting himself on the old man, asks where they are, for
the forest seems steadily to be disappearing as they enter stone corridors. It
looks as if they are on the right path, and the boy, he realises, is still
innocent, otherwise the way to the castle would not be opening up before them so
readily. They climb stairs and again find themselves in vaulted corridors. Parzival, hardly feeling that he is walking, follows in a
daze. He hears wonderful sounds. Trumpet notes, long-held and swelling, answered
from the far distance by gentle ringing, as of crystal bells. At
last they arrive in a mightly hall which, cathedral- like, loses itself in a high
dome. Light falls only from above: from the dome - an increasingly louder ringing
[1865 Prose Draft], editor's
Act I Transformation Music,
Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1951 (ogg format, mono, duration 4.5 minutes)
Parsifal solemnly takes up the spear and with Kundry follows
Gurnemanz [who is] slowly leading.
The scene changes very gradually, as in the first Act but [with the scenery moving] from
right to left. After remaining for a time visible, the three entirely disappear, while
the forest is gradually vanishing and in its place the rocks draw near... Through the
arched passages, the sound of bells swells ever louder.
[stage direction for the Act 3 transformation]
Act III Transformation Music,
Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1962 (ogg format, mono, duration 5 minutes)
agner thought that Chinese tamtams might supply a suitable sound:
I am now - for honour's sake - making preparations
for the production of Parsifal. Having fared so badly with our English
dragon, let us see if we cannot do any better with the Grail bells.
Following a discussion with experts on the best way of representing the necessary
sound, we agreed after all that it could best be imitated by means of Chinese
tamtams. In what market are these tamtams to be found in the greatest number
and best selection? It is thought to be in London. Good! - Who will be responsible
for selecting them? Dannreuther, of course. And so, my dearest friend, try to track
down 4 tamtams which will produce - at least an approximation of - the following
It should be noted that - in order to
produce a deep bell-like sound - these instruments must be struck only
gently near the rim, whereas if you hit them sharply in the middle
they produce a much brighter sound that is quite unusable. And so, see what
you can do!
Left: Metal canisters used to produce bell
at Bayreuth from the late 1880's to about 1929. ©Richard-
tamtams do not seem to have satisfied Wagner and so he had metal drums constructed to
make the appropriate pitches. Even these were not quite what he wanted.
afternoon another scenery rehearsal with piano accompaniment, the orchestra is
permitted to watch and breaks into hearty applause after the transformation scene,
which does R. good, though he has many difficulties to contend with: the bells are
not right ...[Cosima's diary entry for 5
July 1882. ] Wagner had an instrument built by Steingräber, an upright piano
frame with 24 strings but only four keys, each causing a hammer to strike six strings
tuned to the same pitch. This was placed in the orchestra pit. It sounded like six
upright pianos being played simultaneously.
ince Wagner's first production, conductors have tried to find better solutions
for the bell sounds. To use either church bells or tubular bells would be impractical
because of the necessary size. For many years, Bayreuth used the Mixtur-Trautonium,
the first synthesiser, invented in Berlin at the end of the 1920s by Sala and
Trautwein. It was similar to the thérémin, but played by depressing a steel wire on
to a steel bar, thus altering the resistance in the circuit. Timbres were changed by
changing the capacitors which controlled the upper harmonics. (Paul Hindemith wrote a
concerto for this instrument).
Right: a set of Parsifal bells at the Salzburg Festival.
Vienna opera used bronze-coated iron rods, struck with a hammer controlled by a relay
and then amplified. Knappertsbusch used a similar method at Munich from 1962 and it
was also used in Mannheim, where the leader of the orchestra controlled the relays
from a box on his desk. In 1973, Sawallisch returned to the four-string piano frame
solution, and the following year used difference tones generated by a Moog
synthesiser. Horst Stein adopted this solution in Bayreuth in 1975.
recently, electronic solutions have been favoured. In Hamburg, Ludwig and Liebermann
used a tape loop of piano sounds, recorded inside the instrument, mixed with bell
sounds. In 1976, Maronn and Hecht, of the Studio for Musical Communication in
Hamburg, produced a synthesised bell sound
based on the analysis of German cathedral bells. This is produced from an initial
recording of 14 superimposed sine waves, to which various different harmonics have
been added at different volumes to produce a bell-like sound. The mixture is then
passed through a magic box which forms a sound with an extremely short attack time
followed by a long exponential decay of 3-7 seconds. Pitch is controlled by adjusting
the speed of the tape. The results are in use at Bayreuth and major European opera
seems to have been missed, or forgotten, in the history of the Parsifal
bells is that Wagner did not intend these "crystal bells" to sound like church bells.
Although he did not know what oriental temple bells sounded like, it is clear he was
seeking a sound that would suggest temple bells and certainly nothing that resembles
the sound of church bells.
usical facts about the Bells motif can be found in the
Leitmotif Guide, see motif #28.