The Most Desolate Music Ever Written - Prelude to Act 3 of Parsifal

open quotes I intend going straight on without a break to the third act, which promises me a blessed harvest after the labours of the second act. But I must first introduce it with an orchestral prelude to accompany Parsifal's effortful wanderings up to the point where he rediscovers the realm of the Grail. close quotes

[Richard Wagner to King Ludwig II, 15 October 1878, tr. Spencer and Millington]

Opening of the prelude to Act 3 of Parsifal.


Most of the material used in the third act prelude is reminiscence of the first act (e.g. the Prophecy, #9 in the Guide) and second act (i.e. the music of Klingsor's domain). Furthermore, much of the music of the third act can be derived from the music of Parsifal and Kundry respectively — even though she has only two words to sing, she is present in the music until her baptism, after which she all but disappears from the score. The third act prelude is dominated by the music of these two characters but, strangely, Amfortas seems to absent from this prelude.


Franz Stassen: Parsifal in Quest of the Holy Grail
Left: Figure 1. One of Franz Stassen's illustrations for Act III of Parsifal, showing the opening bars of the third act prelude.

To understand what is happening, let's put the third act prelude in its dramatic context.

At the end of the second act, the newly enlightened hero has been miraculously saved from destruction by the stolen spear cast at him by Klingsor. Wielding the spear in the sign of the cross, Parsifal destroys Klingsor's power, including his hold over Kundry, and his magic garden with its Magic Maidens. Between the second and third acts, Parsifal, cursed by Kundry both to wander and denied paths that lead away from her, wanders in search of the domain of the Grail. It is there that he will find the stricken Amfortas; whom the hero now understands, having experienced his suffering himself. Kundry, however, knows the way to the domain of the Grail, and during this prelude she is sleeping, in the same spot where she fell asleep at the end of the first act. I like to think of the prelude to act 3 as Kundry's Dream, in which she recalls the events of the previous act and sees the wandering of Parsifal, who is bringing healing in the form of the Spear. She knows that Parsifal will find a way back to her and therefore to the domain of the Grail.


Let us examine the prelude to the third act in detail. The second act ended in the black key of b minor. The prelude begins with a tension between B major and b flat minor.

Musical examples
Figure 2. Nature theme of the flower maidens (no.25 in the Guide), "Ich sah das Kind" (no.28 in the Guide) and Desolation (no.32 in the Guide): Kinderman calls this the "theme of Titurel's burial".

The first four notes in the top line (3) I call the Serving motif (although it's not the same as the notes to which Kundry sings her "dienen") and it ends with a falling tritone, b flat - e, the characteristic interval associated with Kundry. This falling tritone is a feature of the Laughter idea that was introduced in the first act and associated with Kundry and her accursed laughter. This is followed by six notes from the Nature music of the flower maidens (1) and also weakly reminiscent of Ich sah das Kind (2).

More musical examples Figure 3. Straying (no.33) and Waking (no.23)

At  bar 5 we come to a three-note idea that I call Waking (2), no. 23 in the Guide, which will be developed later in the prelude. The music now has a flavour of Kundry's material, e.g. the rocking arpeggios in the bass line in bars 11 to 13, perhaps, like Kundry's motif, suggesting the eternal cycle of rebirth.

Then we hear the wandering Parsifal, in an idea that Newman called Straying (1). This is developed by the insertion of more notes, we hear Kundry at bar 20 as the music slows down, and then the chromatic Straying, no. 33 in the Guide, turning into the diatonic Dresden Amen (i.e. Grail), proclaiming the domain of the Grail (bar 22). This is easily transformed into the related motif of the Spear (with its three rising notes, here with longer note values than in most earlier appearances of the motive, and falling away chromatically at the end: Cosima described this appearance of the motif as "restrained", CT 22.X.1878); at which Kundry laughs in her sleep (bar 24), in a longer version of Kundry's Laughter over the Spear motif in the bass.

A "new" idea appears at bar 25, which on closer inspection turns out to be the Prophecy motif in diminution, leading into the fully developed form of Waking. As Kundry stirs in her sleep, these three themes are woven together with that of the Spear and the rocking arpeggios (eternal cycle). The Prophecy idea is developed into an insistent figure with a double-dotted rhythm and shortened notes; the key is now e flat minor. As Gurnemanz emerges from his hut, we hear the Serving motif and then the music of the waking Kundry. The first scene begins at bar 49, in tonal ambiguity around Gurnemanz's d minor.

For an analysis and discussion of the Act III Prelude based on a study of Wagner's sketches, see The Third-Act Prelude of Wagner's 'Parsifal': Genesis, Form and Dramatic Meaning by William Kinderman: 19th-Century Music, Vol.29, No.2, 2005, pp.161-184.

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