Motif 22: Agony

German name: Heilandsklage

This motive is generally regarded as one of the most important musical ideas in the score. It is associated both with the suffering of Amfortas and with the agony of Christ (who in this opera is only referred to as "the Saviour" or "the Redeemer") on the Cross. These suffering individuals are most obviously linked by the spear, which dealt a wound to each of them. While Christ was regarded by Wagner as "the sinless sufferer", Amfortas is a sinner aware of his own sin. Therefore the agony of Amfortas is as much, if not more, mental than physical. This appears to be the significance of the musical motive.

The Agony motif develops from the Grundthema together with a little fragment or germ cell, the turned figure that first appears towards the end of the prelude to the first act (bar 99) and on the violins during the Transformation (bar 1131); it also forms part of the motif of Nature's Healing. At the heart of this motif is the descending chromatic scale of the Suffering motif, blending into the Ethical Question motif in fragment #13A. But the essence of the Agony motif is its short form, marked in the examples below as (x). On comparison with the Grundthema, we see that this originates in #1G. Occurrences of Agony are usually preceded by a reminiscence of the Spear, represented by the opening notes of motive #1C (or the end of fragment #1F).

Musical example: Motif 22a - Agony - First extended form Soundbytes Agony (ogg format)
Musical example: Motif 22b - The Saviour's Complaint (Heilandsklage)

example C

Example D first part
Example D second part

The first version of this motif is heard several times in connection with the pain of Amfortas. After its first appearance in the Prelude (bars 99-100) it evolves through the first act, to be heard in an extended form at bars 1473-1477 (example C above). In this form it is always preceded by the Spear motif, or at least the first four notes of it, reminding the listener that Amfortas' (physical) pain was caused by a spear wound.

In its final extended form, known as the Saviour's Complaint (Heilandsklage), the Agony motif is blended with the second part of the Grundthema (#1B). This final extended form can be heard in the second act when Parsifal, apparently in a trance, hears the "Heilandsklage" from the desecrated sanctuary. The association with the Saviour is reinforced when this motif is heard at Kundry's Ich - sah - ihn and when, in Act 3, it accompanies Gurnemanz when he reveals that today is Good Friday.

In his Das Geheimnis der Form bei Richard Wagner, volume IV, Alfred Lorenz reported that, according to Dr. Otto Strobel, the fragment 13A did not appear in the version of the prelude that was performed at Haus Wahnfried on 25 December 1878. In that version those bars contained the variant of the Spear motif (1C), ending with a rising semitone, that Lorenz called the Compassion motif, Mitleidsmotiv. According to Wagner's biographer Glasenapp, Wagner thought the passage in the first version was too sentimental. Therefore the presentiment of Agony in the first act prelude (bars 99 to 100) was an afterthought. Since the publication of Cosima's Diaries we know that Wagner made this change to the first act prelude on 10th September 1879, in order to better bring a theme into relief.

References: von Wolzogen ex.14 (the Saviour's Complaint), Lorenz pages 15, 17 and 67-71, Lavignac p.455, Kufferath ex.25, Newman ex.7, ENO ex.8 and 50, Bauer p.58.

© Derrick Everett 1996-2020. This page last updated (revised meta tags, more examples, re-ordered paragraphs, corrected and improved text) --- 2020-02-25 18:22 CET ---