Motif 22: Agony

German names: Heilandsklage; Sündenqualmotiv; Karfreitagsmotiv

This motive is generally regarded as one of the most important musical ideas in the score. It has several forms and variants. It is associated both with the agony 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 generic 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 associated with suffering, 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.

Musical example: Motif 22a - Agony - First form
Above: the initial form of the Agony motif from the Act I Prelude.

Soundbytes Agony (ogg format)
Musical example: Motif 22b - Agony - Second form
Above: the second form of the Agony motif. This is the initial form of the variant that Wolzogen and Lorenz called the Karfreitagsmotiv. This variant does not include the turned figure #13a.

example C
Above: the extended form of the Agony motif as it appears in the Temple scene of the first act. It is always preceded by #1c (Spear).

Example D first part
Example D second part
Above: Parsifal, in the second act, in a trance hears the "Heilandsklage" from the desecrated sanctuary.

The first version of this motif is heard several times in connection with the pain (and in particular, I think, the mental distress) of Amfortas. In this "A" form, in which it is usually preceded by Suffering (as in von Wolzogen's example XIV) the motif is known as the Saviour's Complaint (Heilandsklage). Some commentators do not distinguish between these motives, treating Suffering as the first part of the Saviour's Complaint: e.g. Kufferath in his example XXVI. I prefer to make a distinction between #4 Suffering and #22 Agony.

After its first appearance in the Prelude (bars 99-100) Agony 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. This extended form is heard again in the second act when Parsifal, apparently in a trance, hears the "Heilandsklage" from the desecrated sanctuary (example D above). In both the initial "A" form and the extended form, the motif incorporates the "turned figure" #13a.

The Agony motif also appears in its "B" form, which on its first appearance (Act I bars 591-5) is preceded by the first few notes of the Grail motif. In this form and variants derived from it, the "turned figure" #13a is absent. In its "B" form the motif merges with the second part of the Grundthema (#1b), the so-called Schmerzensfigur that is associated both with the wound in the side of the Saviour and with the wound dealt by the same Spear in the side of Amfortas. The association with the Saviour is reinforced when a "B" variant is heard at Kundry's Ich - sah - ihn (example E below). At this point Wolzogen identified a new motif The Cross-bearing Saviour. This is a complex or composite motif that begins with #1a, followed by a variant of the "B" form of Agony. This latter part of The Cross-bearing Saviour he labelled as the Karfreitagsmotiv: this is the variant of Agony that appears at various points in the third act where there is a reference to the Saviour or to the Crucifixion or some other biblical reference. It accompanies Gurnemanz when he reveals that today is Good Friday.

To complicate matters, Robin Holloway in his article Experiencing Music and Imagery in 'Parsifal' calls this Karfreitagsmotiv a "pun", by which I think he means that it is a teasing figure. He notes that it appears both in Gurnemanz's account of the seduction of Amfortas and again when Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal. Gurnemanz's description of the fatal, far distant kiss casts a long look forward towards the kiss we will actually witness in Act Two, upon which the entire story and the music are centred. Both kisses are made with a powerful pun by which the upward semitone in Kundry's motif is dwelt upon, intensified and transformed into the motif from bars 2-3 of the opening melody, namely the Schmerzensfigur that is associated with the Wound. Here is the Karfreitagsmotiv as it appears to accompany Kundry's Ich - sah - ihn:

Example E: Wolzogen called this 'the appearance of the Cross-bearing Saviour' Above: Wolzogen (his example 18) called this complex "the appearance of the Cross-bearing Saviour". The first half is the familiar #1a Redemption. The second half (K) was labelled by Wolzogen as "the Good Friday motive" or Karfreitagsmotiv. In context this is followed by the Schmerzensfigur, not shown above.

In summary: in its "A" form the Agony motif is heard in connection with the pain and distress of Amfortas. Together with the extended form of the Suffering motif, commentators have referred to it as The Saviour's Complaint or Heilandsklage. But by the time we reach the actual reference to the "Heilandsklage", the connection between Suffering and Agony has been broken: the latter is now preceded by #1c, emphasising the connection between the agony of the wound and the spear that caused the wound. In its "B" form the Agony motif has merged with #1b, emphasising the wound. Finally there is a variant that Wolzogen called the Karfreitagsmotiv which is associated with the Saviour rather than with Amfortas.

Postscript 1

In her discussion of this motif in the context of the Act I Transformation Music, Ulrike Kienzle suggested that in the form with descending triplets (a characteristic of #5 and its derivatives) Agony is a variation on Amfortas. Although to the eye there might be a resemblence in the score, to the ear there is none to the descending triplets of #5 since (for example at bars 1123-1124) the first note of the triplet is held over from the same note preceding it, while the last note of the triplet is held over by a tie to the following note. So the rhythm is long-short-long. Further, the falling fifth (e-flat to a-flat) on the trombones is not sufficient to count as an appearance of the Wound motif (Schmerzensfigur).

Postscript 2

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), ex.18 (The Cross-bearing Saviour), Lorenz pages 15, 17 and 67-71, 153, 158, 160, Lavignac p.455, Kufferath ex.25, ex.26, Newman ex.7, ENO ex.8 and ex.50, page 30, Bauer p.58 and p.127, Kienzle (... daß wissend würde die Welt) pages 210-212.
See also:
Ulrike Kienzle, Parsifal and Religion: A Christian Music Drama?, in A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal ed. Kinderman and Syer. See in particular the sections headed "The 'Heilandsklage'" pp.116-121, and "The Lament of Amfortas and Parsifal's Enlightenment" pp.121-126.

© Derrick Everett 1996-2023. This page last updated (meta description) --- ---