Guide to the Thematic Material of Parsifal
This guide to the thematic (or leitmotif) material of Parsifal is intended to help the listener to recognize the key thematic elements (melodies, harmonies, rhythms) of the music and to relate them to each other, and to the action of the music-drama. Wolzogen called these Wagnerian elements Leitmotive but the composer preferred to call them Grundthemen.
In Parsifal, his last work for the stage, Richard Wagner further refined the compositional techniques he had developed for earlier works. In his use of thematic material, we find a style and techniques quite different from those of the Ring of the Nibelung. The nearest comparable work in this respect is Tristan und Isolde: it could be said that Parsifal is written in the "Tristan style". Harmonically it is a further development of the style that Wagner had established in Tristan und Isolde. For orchestral details see a separate article.
At the end of the Guide (see menu to the left) there is a list of reference material — entire books or chapters in books — for further reading about the music of this opera.
In the Ring cycle, many of the musical ideas are associated with single characters (such as Wotan or Loge) or objects (such as the Rhinegold, the Ring, the Magic Fire or the Tarnhelm), or with groups of characters (such as the Gods, the Giants or the Nibelungs). In only a few cases are the musical ideas primarily associated with states of existence (such as Sleep) or with abstract concepts (such as Love, Power, World Redemption or Inheritance of the World) and even then, there is also an association with a character or object that can be seen on stage (as the Flight motif is associated with Freia, or the Treaty motif with Wotan's spear).
Wagner's compositional technique, including his use of musical motives, was constantly evolving. In his earlier operas Wagner had employed the already established motif of reminiscence or Erinneringsmotiv that he knew from the music of his operatic predecessors. The Swan motif from Lohengrin is one such: when we hear the motif, we know that the swan approaches. When we hear the same motif in Parsifal it reminds us of the earlier opera. Then in his first major theoretical work Opera and Drama Wagner floated the idea of a different kind of motif of reminiscence, one that always would appear first in the vocal line, so that the particular verse of its first occurrence would be recalled when the motif was heard again. Wagner quickly abandoned this idea, soon after he started composing Das Rheingold, in which about half of the principal motives are motives of reminiscence, and where many of the motives originate in the orchestra rather than in the vocal parts. However, there are still people writing about Wagner who persist in the notion that the Leitmotive are bound to text, or that they have some kind of semantic significance that can be expressed in words. If Wagner had wanted to limit himself to what can be expressed in words, then he would not have written operas. This is not to say that his musical motives cannot have meanings, or at least associations, of which I have given examples above, but we should not assume that every single motive (and not even the genuine leading motives) carries some kind of semantic message. Many of them, I believe, are primarily musical rather than dramatic, although during the course of an opera each of them acquires a "trace" of associations. Not all of these associations are directly related: see my notes on the so-called Riding motif #10. The primarily musical motives might be more accurately called motives of development or Entwicklungsmotive. In Opera and Drama Wagner also floated the idea of motives of presentiment: this concept was not well developed and, frankly, always rather fuzzy. What Wagner seems to have intended was a motive that described an emotion or a feeling without being, on first appearance, associated with any person, object or event.
In Parsifal the unambiguous identification of a musical idea with a person, object or event is the exception rather than the rule. Even those musical motives that are traditionally named after the characters (such as Amfortas or Kundry) or objects (such as Spear or Holy Grail) at whose presence on stage, or at the mention of which, the motive is heard in the orchestra, are much more than simple "calling- cards" for those referred to in the name. Therefore, as indeed when considering the Ring or Tristan und Isolde too, the reader is advised not to pay too much attention to the name of the musical motif, which is really no more than a convenient and easily memorable label. The semantic content of the label should not be allowed to obscure the musical and symbolic role that the motif plays in a specific context.
Right: Cartoon by Gill, from L'Eclipse, 18 April 1869.
A striking characteristic of the score of Parsifal is the economy of musical material. On close examination and analysis, the entire score is found to have been constructed out of variations on a small set of melodic ideas, most of which appear in the first six bars of the prelude to the first act (the music of Kundry and Klingsor, and a few other key elements, excepted) and an equally limited but original set of harmonic ideas. This may be seen as an extreme refinement of Wagner's approach in Das Rheingold and Tristan und Isolde. Whereas in his earlier works the thematic material was clear cut, so that for example Wotan's material was contrasted to that of Fricka, in Parsifal the characters seem to blur into each other, so that it is almost impossible to find a boundary at which the music of Kundry stops and the music of Klingsor begins. Fragments of Kundry's music occur in Amfortas' long monologues. The musical material seems to be used more to tie characters together than to delineate them as individuals, i.e. to describe relationships rather than those related. The music of Amfortas and Kundry has more to tell about the common ground between these two characters than about them separately.
Right: Cartoon of "Wagner composing", from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 9 June 1877.
A few principles or patterns in Wagner's use of musical motives can be identified. First, each musical idea (with one exception) appears first in the orchestra, and is only later (and sometimes only much later) heard in the vocal line. Typically, new (or derived) ideas are presented in one of the three preludes or in the two interludes known as the Transformation Music. Secondly, the significance of a musical motive becomes defined when it is first heard in association with something that is seen on, or heard from, the stage. Thirdly, the complete or extended form of a motif is usually much more than the fragment(s) we hear at first. In particular, the musical motives of Agony, Prophecy and Klingsor's Magic emerge gradually, at first appearing as the tiniest fragment of two or three notes, that eventually grows into a melodic and harmonic complex several bars in length.
Although it has been said that much of the material grows out of the first six bars of the prelude, it must be admitted that not all of the musical ideas are firmly rooted in what is sometimes called the Love Feast melody, but which I have simply called Grundthema. The main exceptions are the motives of Prophecy and Riding: these motives are neither derived from the Grundthema nor are they directly related to it. Many of the ideas that appear later are related to the Grundthema only to the extent that they contain or develop a melodic cell that appears in the melody, such as a rising and falling semitone, or a fragment of arpeggio or scale. In some cases, it may be that the musical motif is characterised by an interval that appears in the Grundthema (such as a falling perfect fifth), or that the motif also modulates from tonic key to mediant key or the reverse, or (in the case of the Holy Grail motif as related to the first part of the Grundthema) that the motif consists of an incomplete ascending scale from tonic to octave. The reader should decide for his or herself how much credence to give to these suggested relationships. It is certainly not worth trying to relate everything that appears later to the Grundthema, although there may be those who will try to do so.
The diagram below shows some of the relationships between the principal motives in the score of Parsifal. I have omitted a few motives that have no obvious relation to others. I have grouped the remaining motives following Bauer (1978), using colours to show group membership. Labels in blue represent "symbolic motives of the Grail domain" such as Grundthema, Holy Grail and Faith: I have omitted Funeral Procession because it has no obvious relations. Labels in green represent "nature motives of the Grail domain". Labels in magenta represent "personal motives of the Grail domain". Labels in red represent "symbolic motives of the magic realm", that is, of Klingsor's domain. Labels in orange represent "personal motives of the magic realm" (although it could be argued that Kundry belongs to both domains, her music is more like that of the chromatic, magic realm). Labels in cyan represent "motives of the Flowermaidens". Motives that, in my view, are universal and so belong to no single group have black labels. Non-horizontal solid lines represent (possible) derivation. Solid horizontal lines represent shared elements (where two motives have a figure in common). Broken lines indicate similarities between motives.
It is the discovery and elucidation of relationships between the musical material and the dramatic action that makes the exercise worthwhile. Otherwise it is reduced to a sterile activity of labelling musical motives, like butterflies in a museum, so that they may be listed in a handbook such as those that have been sold at Bayreuth for over a century. The quest for musical relationships is a rewarding one, and the discoveries to be made provide insights not only into the process of composition but also into the ideas beneath the surface of the music-drama.
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