Parsifal

Motif 01: Grundthema

Including: Communion (Abendmahl), Wound (Schmerzensfigur) and Spear (Speermotiv)


This is the basic theme, which Wolzogen called, Love Feast Motive (Abendmahlthema or Liebesmahlspruch).Musical example: Motif 01 - Love Feast or Grundthema
A = Fellowship/ Redemption, B = Guilt/ Wound, C = Spear

Actually it is this part shown below, a variant of fragment D, that is the Communion hymn of the Grail Knights.

Musical example: Motif 1a - Last Supper or Communion SoundbytesGrundthema (ogg format)

Whilst it would be an oversimplification to say that all of the musical material of Parsifal was spun out of this opening melody, it is possible, with a little imagination, to relate to it almost every one of the motives that appear in this guide. Wagner said that the prelude contains all he needs and it all unfolds like a flower from its bud. This is as much as to say that the entire work has been woven as a web of related melodies and harmonies, like cloud-layers that keep separating and combining again. Note how the melody modulates from the tonic key to the mediant and back again. Tonic-mediant key relationships are prominent in Parsifal, as are key relationships of a tritone.

It is traditional to divide this melody into three main parts (A,B,C). Given the rich associations of each part, it is neither easy to name them, nor very important what labels are attached to these motives. Different elements are labelled A, B or C by different commentators and their meanings have been variously interpreted.

The first part (A) is sometimes called Fellowship, but I should prefer to call it Redemption, because it is the melody to which, at the end of the work, the chorus sing, Erlösung dem Erlöser. The melody begins with a rising tonic arpeggio, followed by the sixth. Various motives that develop later in the opera and start with rising phrases have been seen as derived from this part of the Grundthema. As Wagner later realised, the same phrase opens Liszt's work The Bells of Strassburg Cathedral (see the entry in CT for 28.12.1877). This chord is associated with Parsifal: it is the basis of his own motif #16. With a small modification, the rising phrase is used to represent the Grail Knights and, omitting the first note, Communion (D'). This part of the theme was one of Wagner's first musical ideas for the work.

Below: Bayreuth postcard showing the arrival of Gurnemanz and Parsifal at the hall of the Grail (act one).

Bayreuth postcard showing the arrival of Gurnemanz and Parsifal at the hall of the Grail. open quotes... finally, the revelation of "Nehmet hin mein Blut" -- R. tells me that he wrote it down shortly before my return, with his hat and coat on, just as he was about to go out to meet me. He has had to alter the words to fit it, he says; this scene of Holy Communion will be the main scene, the core of the whole work; with the "Prize Song" in Die Meistersinger, too, the melody came first, and he had adapted the words to it. He had already told me yesterday that one must beware of having to extend a melody for the sake of the words -- now today the chief passage ("Nehmet hin mein Blut um uns'rer Liebe willen, nehmet hin meinen Lieb und gedenket mein' ewiglich") is there complete, in all its mildness, suffering, simplicity and exaltation. "Amfortas' sufferings are contained in it", R. says to me.close quotes

Cosima's Diary entry for 11 August, 1877.



Wagner's 1877 sketch for 'Nehmet hin mein Blut' Above: The sketch that Wagner made in August 1877 for "Nehmet hin mein Blut um uns'rer Liebe willen ..." in Act I of Parsifal.



The second part (B) has been seen as representing the guilt of Amfortas. Towards the end of the prelude we can hear the development of its fragment G into a motive which becomes associated with the king's unhealed Wound (Wolzogen, Lorenz: Schmerzensfigur). Fragment C develops into the Spear motive in which the three accented rising notes are repeated a minor third higher. The falling semitone phrase marked (x) is the basic motif (Urmotiv) of Suffering #4.

Musical example: Motif 1b - Wound Above: Motif of the Wound (Schmerzensfigur), from fragment G.
Below: Spear motif (Speermotiv) developed from fragment C.
Musical example: Motif 1c - Holy Spear

The second phrase of the melody (B in the example above, Wolzogen's a), containing a characteristic falling fifth, is related to the Guilt of Amfortas. It is also associated with the Kiss (in particular developing from fragment E) and therefore lies at the centre of the work, just as it lies at the centre of the Grundthema. It is first heard in the Kiss variant immediately after the basic motif associated with Agony is heard towards the end of the prelude to the first act. The rising semitone is repeated, teasingly, falls, and leads into (G). But in Gurnemanz's narrative, at der Speer is ihm entsunken, we hear the teasing semitone and the (B) form again on the wind instruments. This is both a recollection of the seduction of Amfortas, and a presentiment of the attempted seduction of Parsifal, at which the Kiss motif is heard again. Within this phrase we have a falling fifth and (with passing note) a rising third, which might suggest the notes (transposed down a semitone to B minor) with which Kundry calls the hero by his forgotten name.

The third phrase (C in the example above, Wolzogen's b) is the motif of the Spear. It begins with the first three notes of a rising major scale, an inversion of the falling triplet that will be associated with Amfortas. In its longer form Wolzogen called this theme the elegaic figure and Lorenz called it compassion (Mitleidsmotiv).

The melody can be further divided into even smaller fragments. Beyond a certain point, the importance of finding a fragment within one of the other motives becomes subjective. The fragments that are, in my view, of significance, are marked in the figure above (D-G). Fragment (D) is the melody of the Communion, shown in example (D'). The seemingly trivial fragment (E) can be related to several motives including the Kiss and Agony, in particular to the teasing variant that accompanies Kundry's "Ich sah Ihn" (act II bars 1177-1182).

References: von Wolzogen ex.1 p.24, Lorenz pp.13-14, p.26, Kufferath ex.1 p.224, Lavignac p.443, Newman ex.1, ENO ex.1, Whittall ex.1, Millington ex.46, Bauer p.16.

© Derrick Everett 1996-2020. This page last updated (revised meta tags, inserted an image, added some explanatory text to the examples) --- 2020-02-26 14:35 CET ---