The Bells of Monsalvat
he 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.
[1865 Prose Draft], editor's emphasis.
Act I Transformation Music, Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1951 (ogg format, mono, duration 4.5 minutes)
[stage direction for the Act 3 transformation]
Act III Transformation Music, Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1962 (ogg format, mono, duration 5 minutes)
Wagner thought that Chinese tamtams might supply a suitable sound:
Edward Dannreuther, 1 April 1881, tr. Spencer and Millington.]
Left and below: Metal canisters used to produce bell sounds at Bayreuth from the late 1880's to about 1929. ©Richard- Wagner-Gedenkstätte.
Video: Steingraeber's Parsifal Bells for Richard Wagner
he tamtams did not satisfy Wagner, so he had metal drums constructed to make the appropriate pitches. Even these were not quite what he wanted.
agner 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.
ince 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).
Right: a set of Parsifal bells at the Salzburg Festival.
he 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.
ore 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.
hat 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.
usical facts about the Bells motif can be found in the Leitmotif Guide.