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Transformation Scenes in Parsifal

Installation: Time here becomes space
  1. Music and scenery
  2. A production problem
  3. How Humperdinck saved the day
  4. Act 1 Transformation Music

Music and Scenery

P arsifal contains a number of special effects, such as the suspension of the Spear in the second act and the scenes of transformation between the forest and the temple in the outer acts. For the latter in the first production of Parsifal, the composer decided that a backdrop on rollers, the Wandeldekoration, should move across the stage, producing the illusion that the figures on stage were moving. Apparently such devices were in use in Paris in the 1830s, where Wagner might have encountered one during his stay there from 1839 to 1842. The stage technician who was commissioned to produce the various effects and illusions was, as in 1876, Carl Brandt. Unfortunately, Brandt died a few months before the start of the festival, and the stage effects became the responsibility of his son Fritz.

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

open quotes This effect, engineered by Brandt, and found hugely effective by most who saw it, was not a wholly original invention. The Baroque theatre had used moving bands of painted cloth, often in a continuous loop, for fire and water effects, as did later pantomime and popular theatres. The earliest large-scale panorama mobile to appear in an opera house was probably that used at Covent Garden in 1826 for Weber's Oberon and it is more than likely that Wagner would have known about it. Carl Brandt's teacher Ignatz Dorn used the technique in 1836 to portray a hot-air balloon trip from Turkey to Darmstadt, while Brandt himself put it to use in 1863, also at the Darmstadt Theatre, for Aimé Maillart's comic opera Lara.close quotes

[Patrick Carnegy, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre, Yale 2006, page 111.]

The Wandeldekoration covered an area of more than 2500 square metres, weighed some 700 kilograms and cost 17,694 marks. The scenes were painted by the Brückner brothers following the set designs by Paul von Joukowsky. During rehearsals, it was discovered that the transformation music of the first and third acts did not last long enough to allow the Wandeldekoration to be fully revealed. This presented something of a problem and little time remained to find a solution.

Parsifal: a staging design for the Act I transformation scene by Alfred Roller, 1913. Above: a staging design for the Act I transformation scene of Parsifal. Alfred Roller, 1913. From the collection of the Theatermuseum Wien.

A Production Problem

open quotes Only on one point had we to make a tiresome compromise, on this occasion: by a still inexplicable misreckoning, the highly-gifted man to whom I owe the whole stage-mounting of Parsifal, as formerly of the Nibelung pieces — and who was torn from us by sudden death before the full completion of his work — had calculated the speed of the so-called Wandeldekoration (moving scenery) in the first and third acts at more than twice as fast as was dictated in the interest of the dramatic action. In this interest I had never meant the passing of a changing scene to act as a decorative effect, however artistically carried out; but, at the hand of the accompanying music, we were to be led quite imperceptibly, as if in dream, along the 'pathless' adits to the Gralsberg; whose legendary inaccessibility to the non-elect was thus, withal, to be brought within the bounds of dramatic portrayal. close quotes

open quotes When we discovered the mistake, it was too late to so alter the unusually complicated mechanism as to reduce the scenes to half their length; for this time I had to decide not only on repeating the orchestral interlude [Act I] in full, but also upon introducing tedious retardations in its tempo; the painful effect was felt by us all, yet the mounting itself was so admirably executed that the entranced spectator was compelled to shut one eye to criticism 1. For the third act, however — though the moving scene had been carried out by the artists in an almost more delightful and quite a different manner from the first — we all agreed that the danger of an ill effect must be obviated by complete omission ... close quotes

[Richard Wagner, Das Bühnenweihfestspiel in Bayreuth 1882, tr. Ashton Ellis as Parsifal at Bayreuth 1882 .]

Parsifal: a staging design for the Transformation scene in Act III. Alfred Roller, 1913. Above: a staging design for the Act III Transformation of Parsifal. Alfred Roller, 1913. From the collection of the Theatermuseum Wien.

How Humperdinck Saved the Day

The above account is not, of course, the entire story.

open quotes You now expect me to compose by the metre!", the Master exclaimed, horrified. Well, there was no other way round it, [Fritz] Brandt replied, the machine couldn't be operated any quicker, and the sets couldn't be altered — it would cost a kings' ransom, and in any case, there wasn't enough time. Wagner was beside himself and kept on swearing that he would have nothing more to do with the rehearsals and performances, and stormed out in high dudgeon. close quotes

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

Engelbert Humperdinck

open quotes Dismayed, we watched him go. What was to be done? It was simply not possible to risk the whole production, with all its attendant difficulties, merely because of a stupid miscalculation. And it wasn't as bad as all that, Levi thought; just as cuts can be made, so it was possible to repeat the odd phrase. I thought the matter over. To expect the already overburdened Master to undertake such a thoroughgoing revision at the eleventh hour was out of the question. I preferred to try my own solution. I ran home, quickly sketched out a few transitional bars, orchestrated them and incorporated them into the original score. Then, filled with anxious expectancy, I took the original to the Master. He look through the leaves, nodding affably, then said, 'Well, why not? It should work! Be off with you to the Chancellery and copy out the parts, so that we can get on.' No sooner said than done. The sets and music were now in glorious accord and no one in the audience had the least suspicion at any of the performances that the score had been patched together by a back street cobbler plying his modest trade. Of course, the sets were altered in time for the following year's performances; the interpolated passage, dignified by Levi with the conscientious note 'H. ipse fecit', was removed and the original music reinstated. close quotes

[Engelbert Humperdinck, first published in Die Zeit, 1907, tr. Stewart Spencer.]

Postscript: First Revision of the Act 1 Transformation Music

As it turns out, this is still not the entire story, for Wagner had expanded the transformation music once before. Already in March 1881, Wagner had to return to music that he had, or so he thought, completed in 1878. This was when he discovered that the scenic transition would take longer than expected. This led him to make a radical revision of the transformation music, which produced the version that we know today (when Humperdinck's repetitions in the third act, added as an emergency measure in 1882, are no longer needed). The first revision is mentioned by Cosima in her diary entries for 6th and 12th March 1881, although she does not specify which part of the score had to be expanded by 3 to 4 minutes. William Kinderman has provided details of this revision based on his recent studies of the sketches and drafts.

open quotes In the first version of the passage from 1877 ... the five-bar unit with the chromatically descending thirds was joined with an overlapping phrase of four bars based on the processional dotted rhythm of the march, and these eight measures were then repeated sequentially a tone higher. Gurnemanz's words to Parsifal beginning "Nun achte wohl" were superimposed on the last several bars employing the processional dotted rhythm. By contrast, in the final version, Wagner built up the passage into a complex series of interlocking sequences [beginning at bar 1127] culminating in two appearances of the head of the Communion theme [Grundthema] heard from behind stage, first in the trombones and then by trombones reinforced by trumpets. Following this second statement of the head of the Communion theme, the bells of the Grail Temple are heard... close quotes

Not only did this revision expand and enrich the transformation music, it also connected it to music heard earlier, at the end of the first act prelude, and to the music of the Grail Temple scene that would follow. As at the end of the prelude, Wagner again avoids a cadence in A flat by a diversion starting on an F flat. The second statement of the "Communion" theme looks ahead to the final cadence of act 3 but the rising phrase ends by falling a half tone to C, which is one of the fixed pitches of the Temple Bells (C-G-A-E). Kinderman again:

open quotes Wagner's insertion of the twofold statement of the head of the Communion theme into the transformation music thus contributes in far-reaching ways to the rich web of relations in Parsifal. Not only does it add to the motivic density of this dramatically important transition and foreshadow the imminent entry into the Temple and ritual music of the Grail; the passage also contributes to the narrative continuity of the whole work through its recall of the trombone passage from the outset of the act and its correspondence with the final cadence of the entire work. close quotes

"Wagner's Parsifal", William Kinderman, OUP 2013, pages 185-192.

Footnote 1: As is often the case with Wagner's writings, he is both inaccurate and unclear in his account of the events. In isolation this passage from his 1882 article gives the impression that the problem with the mismatch between the score and the moving scenery was discovered too late to do anything about it. But in Cosima's Diaries we can read about the problem emerging already in March 1881, when as described in the postscript Wagner had to expand the Act I Transformation Music to allow the time needed to unroll the scenery. Whether or not this pace was determined by the dramatic action. These changes were not, as this account suggests, a simple repetition but a significant rewriting and expansion of the music. It might be that Wagner has confused the problems and solutions of the first and third acts, and that his initial solution to the third act problem was a simple repetition. This was found to be unsatisfactory and at one point Wagner wanted to omit the effect entirely. Only then (at the eleventh hour) did Humperdinck make his alterations and presumably the scene was staged with the moving scenery. The machinery was modified in time for the next Festival when the musical insertion was removed.

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