The Most Desolate Music Ever Written
Prelude to Act 3
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I intend going straight on without a break to the
third act, which promises me a blessed harvest after the labours of the second act.
But I must first introduce it with an orchestral prelude to accompany Parsifal's
effortful wanderings up to the point where he rediscovers the realm of the Grail.
[Richard Wagner to King Ludwig II, 15 October 1878, tr. Spencer and
of the material used in the third act prelude is reminiscence of the first act (e.g.
the Prophecy, no. 6 in the Guide) and second act
(i.e. the music of Klingsor's domain). Furthermore, much of the music of the third
act can be derived from the music of Parsifal and Kundry respectively -- even though
she has only two words to sing, she is present in the music until her baptism, after
which she all but disappears from the score. The third act prelude is dominated by
the music of these two characters but, strangely, Amfortas seems to absent from this
Prelude to Act III (ogg format, mono, duration 5
minutes, conducted by Knappertsbusch in 1951)
Prelude to Act III (ogg format, mono, duration 6
minutes, conducted by Siegfried Wagner in 1927)
Left: Figure 1. One of Franz Stassen's illustrations for Act III of
, showing the opening bars of the third act prelude.
understand what is happening, let's put the third act prelude in its dramatic
the end of the second act, the newly enlightened hero has been
miraculously saved from destruction by the stolen spear cast at him by Klingsor.
Wielding the spear in the sign of the cross, Parsifal destroys Klingsor's power,
including his hold over Kundry, and his magic garden with its Magic Maidens. Between
the second and third acts, Parsifal, cursed by Kundry both to wander and denied paths
that lead away from her, wanders in search of the domain of the Grail. It is there that he will find the stricken Amfortas; whom the
hero now understands, having experienced his suffering himself. Kundry, however,
knows the way to the domain of the Grail, and during this
prelude she is sleeping, in the same spot where she fell asleep at the end of the
first act. I like to think of the prelude to act 3 as Kundry's Dream, in
which she recalls the events of the previous act and sees the wandering of Parsifal,
who is bringing healing in the form of the Spear. She knows
that Parsifal will find a way back to her and therefore to the domain of the Grail.
et us examine the prelude to the third act in detail. The second act
ended in the black key of b minor. The prelude
begins with a tension between B major and b flat minor.
Figure 2. Nature theme of the flower maidens (no. 16 in the Guide
), "Ich sah das Kind" and Serving or Desolation (no. 19 in
first four notes in the top line (3) I call the Serving motif (although it's
not the same as the notes to which Kundry sings her "dienen") and it ends with a
falling tritone, b flat - e, the characteristic interval associated with Kundry. This
falling tritone is a feature of the Laughter idea that was introduced in the
first act and associated with Kundry and her accursed laughter. This is followed by
six notes from the Nature music of the flower maidens (1) and also weakly
Ich sah das Kind (2).
Figure 3. Straying and Waking
bar 5 we come to a three-note idea that I call Waking (2), no.
20 in the Guide, which will be developed later in the
prelude. The music now has a flavour of Kundry's material, e.g. the rocking arpeggios
in the bass line in bars 11 to 13, perhaps, like Kundry's motif, suggesting
the eternal cycle of rebirth.
we hear the wandering Parsifal, in an idea that Newman called Straying (1).
This is developed by the insertion of more notes, we hear Kundry at bar 20
as the music slows down, and then the chromatic Straying, no. 32 in the
Guide, turning into the diatonic Dresden Amen (i.e.
Grail), proclaiming the domain of the Grail (bar 22). This is
easily transformed into the related motif of the Spear (with its three
emphasized, rising notes), at which Kundry laughs in her sleep (bar 24), in
a longer version of Kundry's Laughter over the Spear motif in the
"new" idea appears at bar 25, which on closer inspection turns out to be the
Prophecy motif in diminution, leading into the fully developed form of
Waking. As Kundry stirs in her sleep, these three themes are woven together
with that of the Spear and the rocking arpeggios (eternal cycle). The
Prophecy idea is developed into an insistent figure with a double-dotted
rhythm and shortened notes; the key is now e flat minor. As
Gurnemanz emerges from his hut, we hear the Serving motif and then the music
of the waking Kundry. The first scene begins at bar 49, in tonal ambiguity
around Gurnemanz's d minor.