Motif 04: Suffering
German names: Wehelaute, Heilesbussemotiv; Urmotiv des Leidens
Lorenz remarked that many of the smaller elements of Wagner's music, although they had not been singled out as "leading motives" (Leitmotive) by von Wolzogen or others,
were deserving of attention because of their structural importance. The Suffering motif was, in fact, noticed by von Wolzogen, who labelled it as
the sounds of woe. It would be easy to avoid labelling something as simple as a descending three (or sometimes four or even five) notes of chromatic scale as a
motif, were it not so ubiquitous. Following Kurt May, Lorenz referred to this "basic motive" as
das Urmotiv des Leidens oder Vergehens. It first appears as
three descending notes in the Spear motif as a modification of #1C.
Robin Holloway, writing in the ENO/ROH Guide to the work, considers the harmonic complex associated with this motif so important that he describes it as
central, sonorous image. As well as the three-note Suffering motif, this complex also includes the kernel or short form of the Agony motive: marked with '22' in the example above.
It may even be a conscious reference to part of the
central, sonorous image of Tristan und Isolde, since the three-note motif is a beheaded version of the
first basic motif of that work, another motif associated with suffering. In his analysis of Tristan und Isolde, Roger North has observed that these three
notes, differently harmonised, appear in a scene that Wagner laid aside in order to work on Tristan: in Mime's Starling Song, which is
also about suffering.
In what might be considered as its definite form, the Suffering motif is harmonized in thirds, as shown in examples A and B. In Lorenz's view, it develops from the last part of the Grundthema (fragment G). It first becomes prominent during the 1st act transformation music: starting at bar 1123 on a C major chord, then repeated in sequences a semitone higher a few bars later and finally a third higher. This is another instance of Wagner increasing tension in his music by progressively raising the pitch of an important voice within it. As he will do again in the final scene of the 2nd act, where both the harmonised and unharmonised forms of the motif are prominent. In example C the 3-note fragment is repeated before the phrase ends with a falling fifth.
Above: four-note form (or is it five?) as it appears in the second act (bars 1151-1153), recalling the sounds of woe heard earlier in the transformation music.
Above: three-note form as it appears in the second act (bars 1380-1382) and variant 4d, which ends in a rising minor third.
The basic motif of Suffering usually appears as three notes, sometimes extended to four, and sometimes followed by a rising minor third. The latter variant Woe is associated with the suffering of the flowers, appearing with them in the second act and returning at appropriate points in the third act, where it develops into a decorated figuration as Lamentations #24. Especially in its four-note variants Suffering is closely related to the Agony motif and by inversion to the Yearning motif, which may also be regarded as a basic motif. See for example the counterpoint in bars 194-213 of the second act.
Other analyses of the themes that appear in Parsifal have applied the label "suffering" elsewhere. There are several themes related to pain and suffering; to which of them we apply this label is unimportant. In applying it to this motif the author is following Carl Dahlhaus.
References: Hans von Wolzogen, Guide Through the Music of Wagner's Parsifal, first part of ex.14, p.44.
Alfred Lorenz, Das Geheimnis der Form, vol. IV, page 20, pages 70-71.
Maurice Kufferath, Wagner's Parsifal, ex.26, page 253.
Albert Lavignac, The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner, page 455.
Carl Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, page 154.
Robin Holloway, Experiencing Music and Imagery in Parsifal, ENO/ROH Guide, page 32.
Roger North, Wagner's Most Subtle Art, page 11.
Newman Wagner Nights ex.26; ENO/ROH Opera Guide to Parsifal, ex. 41-42, 44.