Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal
[Cosima's Diary, 26 September 1877]
First theme: "Love"
[Hartmut Haenchen on Parsifal, 2012]
he last of Wagner's music dramas, although it may not be immediately apparent to the listener, is constructed from very little raw material: many of the
themes (in particular, those associated with the Grail domain) can be derived from, or related to, elements of the first six bars of the entire work (1). This melody has been regarded as a
concatenation of three elements:
Figure 1. Opening melody of the Prelude to Act 1, which I have called Grundthema.
t is interesting to note how, already in the first bars of the work, uncertainty has been established, with the ambiguity between A flat major and c minor. This uncertainty is a characteristic of the domain of the Grail as the work begins. Note also that this melody ends on the mediant: one of the unusual features of Parsifal is the relative importance of mediant key relationships.
t is not difficult to find the traditional forms of opera beneath Wagner's music. This prelude was derived from the classical three-movement overture. The first movement is in two sections of 19 bars each, the second section being a developed restatement of the first one; it is followed by a broader movement of 39 bars; and the final movement begins at bar 78, lasting (apparently) for 36 bars.
he prelude differs from a classical overture in at least one important respect: instead of returning to the opening tonality of A flat
major, it ends on the dominant (unless the concert ending is played). Structurally, the end of the prelude is reached at the sixth bar of the first act, with Gurnemanz's words
he first section of the prelude presents the rich source theme described above, in the initial tonality of A flat major. Wagner blends the timbres of wind instruments (clarinet and bassoon, joined by cor anglais) with strings (violins and celli). The second section is essentially a repeat, with the key raised to the mediant, c minor, and only small changes in orchestration.
he second movement begins at bar 39 with a new idea, the ethereal motif of the Holy Grail (motif 2 in the Guide), in the original key of A flat, although we soon hear other keys (G flat major and D major). The theme of
Faith (motif 3 in the Guide) is revealed in a grand, wind chorale; the Grail theme returns, followed by an extended, sequential meditation on
the idea of Faith (1 below). Already it is clear that, in his orchestrational technique, Wagner has returned to the more blocked style of his earlier
1. Faith (motif 3),
2. Devotion (motif 27) and
3. Nature's Healing (motif 13)
ushed, tremolando strings introduce the final movement of the prelude at bar 78, which returns to the source theme. It is the third attempt to develop this theme; there seem to have been two failures in the first movement; perhaps this attempt will be successful? Parts of it are now developed, thematically and rhythmically, although the developments do not seem to lead anywhere. New ideas, later to be related to the pain and Agony (3A above, motif 22 in the Guide) of Amfortas, are subtly introduced into the fabric, suggesting that beneath the confident, sunlit surface, all is not well in the domain of the Grail.