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The Bells of Monsalvat

The transformations in Acts 1 and 3 are accompanied by an ostinato theme on bells: C, G, A and E. Sometimes alone, sometimes in unison with the bass instruments.

open quotes The sun is at its zenith; the time for the sacred meal approaches. Parz., supporting himself on the old man, asks where they are, for the forest seems steadily to be disappearing as they enter stone corridors. It looks as if they are on the right path, and the boy, he realises, is still innocent, otherwise the way to the castle would not be opening up before them so readily. They climb stairs and again find themselves in vaulted corridors. Parzival, hardly feeling that he is walking, follows in a daze. He hears wonderful sounds. Trumpet notes, long-held and swelling, answered from the far distance by gentle ringing, as of crystal bells. At last they arrive in a mightly hall which, cathedral- like, loses itself in a high dome. Light falls only from above: from the dome - an increasingly louder ringing of bells. close quotes

[1865 Prose Draft], editor's emphasis.

Soundbytes Act I Transformation Music, Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1951 (ogg format, mono, duration 4.5 minutes)

open quotesParsifal solemnly takes up the spear and with Kundry follows Gurnemanz [who is] slowly leading. The scene changes very gradually, as in the first Act but [with the scenery moving] from right to left. After remaining for a time visible, the three entirely disappear, while the forest is gradually vanishing and in its place the rocks draw near... Through the arched passages, the sound of bells swells ever louder.close quotes

[stage direction for the Act 3 transformation]

Soundbytes Act III Transformation Music, Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1962 (ogg format, mono, duration 5 minutes)

Wagner thought that Chinese tamtams might supply a suitable sound:

open quotes I am now - for honour's sake - making preparations for the production of Parsifal. Having fared so badly with our English dragon, let us see if we cannot do any better with the Grail bells. Following a discussion with experts on the best way of representing the necessary sound, we agreed after all that it could best be imitated by means of Chinese tamtams. In what market are these tamtams to be found in the greatest number and best selection? It is thought to be in London. Good! - Who will be responsible for selecting them? Dannreuther, of course. And so, my dearest friend, try to track down 4 tamtams which will produce - at least an approximation of - the following peal. close quotes

The bell motif: Bayreuth bells 1951

open quotes It should be noted that - in order to produce a deep bell-like sound - these instruments must be struck only gently near the rim, whereas if you hit them sharply in the middle they produce a much brighter sound that is quite unusable. And so, see what you can do! close quotes

[Letter from Wagner to Edward Dannreuther, 1 April 1881, tr. Spencer and Millington.]

Bayreuth drums ca.1900
Left and below: Metal canisters used to produce bell sounds at Bayreuth from the late 1880's to about 1929. ©Richard- Wagner-Gedenkstätte.
Bayreuth drums in the 1880's
Video: Steingraeber's Parsifal Bells for Richard Wagner

The tamtams did not satisfy Wagner, so he had metal drums constructed to make the appropriate pitches. Even these were not quite what he wanted. In the afternoon another scenery rehearsal with piano accompaniment, the orchestra is permitted to watch and breaks into hearty applause after the transformation scene, which does R. good, though he has many difficulties to contend with: the bells are not right ...[Cosima's diary entry for 5 July 1882. ]

Wagner also had an instrument built by Steingräber, an upright piano frame with 24 strings but only four keys, each causing a hammer to strike six strings tuned to the same pitch. This was placed in the orchestra pit. It sounded like six upright pianos being played simultaneously.

Since Wagner's first production, conductors have tried to find better solutions for the bell sounds. To use either church bells or tubular bells would be impractical because of the necessary size. For many years, Bayreuth used the Mixtur-Trautonium, the first synthesiser, invented in Berlin at the end of the 1920s by Sala and Trautwein. It was similar to the thérémin, but played by depressing a steel wire on to a steel bar, thus altering the resistance in the circuit. Timbres were changed by changing the capacitors which controlled the upper harmonics. (Paul Hindemith wrote a concerto for this instrument).

Parsifal bells at the Salzburg Festival
Right: a set of Parsifal bells at the Salzburg Festival.

The Vienna opera used bronze-coated iron rods, struck with a hammer controlled by a relay and then amplified. Knappertsbusch used a similar method at Munich from 1962 and it was also used in Mannheim, where the leader of the orchestra controlled the relays from a box on his desk. In 1973, Sawallisch returned to the four-string piano frame solution, and the following year used difference tones generated by a Moog synthesiser. Horst Stein adopted this solution in Bayreuth in 1975.

More recently, electronic solutions have been favoured. In Hamburg, Ludwig and Liebermann used a tape loop of piano sounds, recorded inside the instrument, mixed with bell sounds. In 1976, Maronn and Hecht, of the Studio for Musical Communication in Hamburg, produced a synthesised bell sound based on the analysis of German cathedral bells. This is produced from an initial recording of 14 superimposed sine waves, to which various different harmonics have been added at different volumes to produce a bell-like sound. The mixture is then passed through a magic box which forms a sound with an extremely short attack time followed by a long exponential decay of 3-7 seconds. Pitch is controlled by adjusting the speed of the tape. The results are in use at Bayreuth and major European opera houses.

What seems to have been missed, or forgotten, in the history of the Parsifal bells is that Wagner did not intend these "crystal bells" to sound like church bells. Although he did not know what oriental temple bells sounded like, it is clear he was seeking a sound that would suggest temple bells and certainly nothing that resembles the sound of church bells.

Musical facts about the Bells motif can be found in the Leitmotif Guide.