Motif 09: Prophecy

German name: Torenspruch

Musical example: Motif 9a - Prophecy as heard in Act I
Musical example: Motif 9b - Act III variant, diminution SoundbytesProphecy (Ludwig Weber; ogg format)

This has also been called the Promise or Fool motive.

We first hear a hint of the Prophecy motif in the first scene of the music-drama, when Gurnemanz despairs of herbs and potions (Toren wir, auf Lind'rung da zu hoffen ...). Then we hear part of the melody in Amfortas' partial statement of the prophecy (durch Mitleid wissend) and the entire motif as shown above first appears when the prophecy is recalled by Gurnemanz, just before the entry of the wild youth.

The motif is sung offstage during the first Grail scene and repeated by the Voice from Above at the very end of the first act. It appears in diminution (B) in the prelude to act III and during the following scene. Lorenz calls the diminutive variant B "Melodie des schwarzen Ritters" (Theme of the black knight), referring to the black armour that Parsifal is wearing when he arrives at the meadow.

Parsifal, Gurnemanz and the Swan - Franz Stassen

It might not be a coincidence that the three notes marked "Par-si-fal" in ex.A are the same three notes to which Parsifal speaks his own name for the first time, in the second act. As we have already seen, these notes can be derived from the middle fragment of the Grundthema (fragment 1G).

Roger North, in his analysis of Tristan und Isolde, has compared four melodies that contain rocking fifths and tritones:

  1. Young Sailor's Song (Tristan act I)
  2. Shepherd's Tune (Tristan act III)
  3. Prophecy (Parsifal act I)
  4. "Wo find ich dich, du heil'ger Gral"

The last of these is a sketch that Wagner wrote down in the spring or summer of 1858 (it was found with a letter (Golther 54a) written to Mathilde Wesendonk about that time) while he was considering the possibility of introducing the questing Parzival into the third act of Tristan und Isolde. It was intended that a melody associated with the wandering Parzival should sound in the ears of the mortally wounded Tristan, as it were the mysteriously faint receding answer to his life-destroying question about the "Why?" of existence. Out of this melody, it may be said, grew the stage-dedicatory festival-drama. [Hans von Wolzogen, 1886]

Manuscript fragment, Wo find ich dich, du heil'ger Gral
Parzival: "Wo find' ich dich, du heil'ger Gral, dich sucht voll Sehnsucht mein Herze"; [Text below:]"Du liebes irrendes Kind! Sieh, das wollte ich eben aufschreiben, als ich deine schönen, edlen Verse fand!"

The similarities between the last two of the listed melodies are actually superficial. Although the 1858 theme (above) does contain a falling perfect fifth, it lies between the end of the first phrase and the beginning of the second. Therefore it cannot be related to the falling fifths of the Prophecy motif, which lie within the phrases.

References: von Wolzogen ex.5, Kufferath p.244 ex.17, Lavignac p.449, ENO ex.54-55.
Lorenz (Das Geheimnis der Form vol. IV) pages 20-21, 56-57, 146.
North (Wagner's Most Subtle Art) page 447.
Newman (Wagner Nights) page 699, ex.10.

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